PINEHURST, N.C. – Visiting Pinehurst makes you feel good about the game. If you already felt good about it, it makes you feel better.
Opening day of the 114th U.S. Open began when the GolfChannel.com team left its palatial rental abode before 7 a.m. and made the 3-mile drive to the championship. Driving down Highway 5 – the practice range of the No. 2 course on the right – the No. 1 and 5 courses on the immediate left, both already had plenty of players taking swats at a furious pace.
After our arrival, Rickie Fowler was the first person seen on the driving range and he was wearing plus-fours as a tribute to Payne Stewart, the 1999 Open champion who was Fowler’s early golfing hero although sadly the two never met. Classy move.
Rory McIlroy teed off the first hole at 7:40, Phil Mickelson went off the 10th hole at 7:51 and it felt like the official start of this major. Ninety minutes later, when Mickelson hit his approach to 2 feet on the par-4 14th hole for a kick-in birdie, Pinehurst delivered its first big roar.
After the morning wave was complete, it was time to take a stroll through the village, which is four blocks from the Pinehurst clubhouse. The walk straight up Carolina Vista Drive is a beautiful one as it looks directly at the stately Carolina Hotel, which was founded in 1901. If four blocks is too far in the steamy Carolina heat, the Raleigh Rickshaw Co. is planted all over the place with dudes looking to lug you to your destination for only a gratuity. I opted to hoof it. Yay me.
This Thursday afternoon in the village was rather sleepy. Sure, there were plenty of reminders that the Open is in town – a huge tent outside the historic Pine Crest Inn prepping for a block party, an open-air park with a schedule of events for each night – but there wasn’t an overabundance of foot traffic. Thirty or so people were watching television coverage of the event from the bar at the Pine Crest Inn and several locals were shopping as if it were a normal weekday.
The Old Sport & Gallery in the Harvard Building on Market Square is anything but normal, and is a golf historian’s dream. If you’ve ever wanted a vintage golf book, golf club or piece of memorabilia, owner Tom Stewart likely has it. Seriously, the man has the amateur contestants gift (a white ceramic plate) from the 1967 Crosby Clambake at Pebble Beach.
“I like my chances with 50,000 golf fans in town,” Stewart said on this day when asked if business is booming with the Open in town.
Back over to the reason for the visit, the afternoon wave was finishing. Martin Kaymer ended the day on top of the studly leaderboard, turning in an impressive 5-under performance to best the field by three.
Sure, what happened on the course was more important than what happened surrounding the course. Still, this day as a whole was a reminder of why this town and this game truly are special.