Hawk's Nest: The problem with Pinehurst No. 2


Forget the scrub, the so-called vegetation, the waste areas, the environmentally conscious regions brought back to Pinehurst No. 2 by course architects Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore. They were fine. There were few complaints about those no-fly zones from the men who competed in the 114th U.S. Open, and for the most part, that is a triumph in itself.

Nine under won in a rout. Three guys finished the tournament under par. From a scoring perspective, things were very U.S. Open-like, especially when you consider the utter lack of breeze – a factor that can impart more havoc on a scorecard than any other.

Donald Trump has a problem with the new No. 2, however, and hopped on Twitter to voice those objections over the weekend. Trump decried the “horrible look” of the wasteland, as if to confuse a major championship with one of his beauty pageants, and used the opportunity to declare several of his courses better, all while luring a few golf Tweetists into a catfight.

Blather + Intent = Marketing mechanism. Nobody works the math with less grace than the Trumpster.

Amid the Donald’s transparent motive, everyone seemed to miss the real issue. Pinehurst’s domed greens are too severe for today’s well-into-the-teens green speeds. Too many well-struck iron shots landed harmlessly on a putting surface but wound up in punitive spots, victimized by the severe runoff that sent some balls beyond the vast “chipping areas.”

Hit it thin? You deserve what you get. Common sense must prevail, however, and the fact of the matter is, original designer Donald Ross never woke up one morning to find his precious babies rolling at 15 on the Stimp, or even 11. Crenshaw and Coore were reluctant to mess with Ross’ fabled greens, a decision that proved long on respect and short on logic.

“Yes, the speeds are too much for the contours,” confirms course-architect maestro Geoff Shackelford. “They need to be lowered and deflated in some cases. Resort wants no part of that. Shame.”

Sure, the ball runs off at Augusta National, but 20-footers become 50-footers, not full-blown sand blasts from 40 yards. There are some clearly defined false fronts at the home of the Masters, at Shinnecock Hills and other major sites, for that matter, but those are strategic components with a rational purpose.

I have never seen more good shots end up in bad places than I did last week. Did it harm the competitive element? Not really, but it certainly could have. It’s hard to measure fairness, especially at a U.S. Open, where the line between tough and silly becomes unintelligible. In effect, that probably becomes a much bigger story than it should.

As for the waste areas, Martin Kaymer’s ability to hit highly functional approaches from the stuff was a huge key to his, uh, runaway victory – and a ringing endorsement for the Crenshaw/Coore restoration. The return of the recovery shot became a lovable upside to this U.S. Open. Pot luck on the lies? Obviously, but poor tee balls that miss ample fairways deserve no better.

The 6-iron that landed in the center of the green and ended up in downtown Rockingham – that’s what bothered me. It will be very interesting to see how many concessions are made to the setup when the U.S. Women’s Open moves onto the grounds this week.

AS WEIRD A year as this has been, a nice little Player of the Year race is shaping up between the season’s first two major champions. Kaymer, with his Players/U.S. Open double, is obviously a lead candidate, but Masters champ Bubba Watson also won at Riviera and, from head to toe (or hip, given that it’s June), has produced the more consistent 2014 overall.

We’ve got a zillion holes of golf left, of course, but here are some vitals on how Kaymer and Watson stack up to this point:

  Martin Kaymer Bubba Watson
Starts 12 12
Wins 2 2
Additional top-5s 0 4
Additional top-10s 1 2
Missed cuts 2 1
Average finish 25th 11th
Earnings per start $328,217 $414,890
World ranking climb 39th to 11th 28th to third

I don’t think Kaymer’s going wire to wire at both The Players and U.S. Open will have any value when his PGA Tour brethren vote on the POY this fall. The margin of his victory at Pinehurst (eight strokes) might pack a little bit of punch, but not much. Hey, the guy was ranked 61st in the world heading into The Players, meaning he was barely Match Play material, so to speak.

The German also finished T-12 at the European Tour’s PGA Championship two weeks ago, but that does nothing to aid his POY cause in America. Advantage: Watson, for now. Bubba finished poorly at the Memorial and talked himself into missing the cut at Pinehurst, but T-2s at Phoenix and Doral (a WGC), plus the solo third at Jack’s House, are the difference in their bodies of work.

BLOWOUTS ARE A funny thing. From 1971-99, the largest margin of victory at a U.S. Open was three strokes, and it happened just twice – Nicklaus in 1972; David Graham in 1981. In the 15 U.S. Opens since, we’ve had two margins of eight shots (Kaymer and Rory McIlroy in 2011) and Tiger Woods by 15 in 2000.

Red Shirt also won comfortably (by three) in 2002; Jim Furyk finished with the same cushion a year later. You could attribute these wider margins to a simple law of averages, figuring that at some point, more separation had to occur, but I think there’s more to it.

Woods was the most dominant player of all-time. His giant margins became statements – an attempt to sap all potential predators of their competitive spirit. He played crazy-hard all the way in at the 1997 Masters, and he did the same at the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach in ’00. No letup. Even if you heard the last few neckbones cracking Saturday afternoon.

McIlroy certainly has the most complete, high-level skill set of any player since Woods, and when he’s on, he can be way better than everyone else – his two major titles by eight apiece are proof. Which takes us to Kaymer, a talented player who has gotten a lot done before his 30th birthday despite a couple of dry spells and an ill-fated stint as the game’s top-ranked player.

“It’s nearly more impressive than what I did at Congressional,” McIlmarvel said Sunday.

I’ll be the first to admit that ranking blowouts is kind of silly – it’s kind of like ranking Beatles songs – but that won’t prevent me from doing it. Kaymer’s eight-shot waltz was “clearly more impressive” than McIlroy’s three years earlier, for one very distinct reason.

He did it on a much harder course, with danger lurking around every corner. You surely recall that McIlroy won on a spongy Congressional compromised greatly by rain – it played a lot more like a Tour event than a major championship. Not that McIlrampage’s triumph was chopped liver, but mentally, it’s a much easier to protect a lead on soft and slow than first and fast.

It’s interesting to note than both occurred without Woods in the field – a knee injury sidelined him in ’11, a back ailment this time. A more relevant similarity between the Irish Lad and the German? Neither did a very good job of holding onto the top spot in the world ranking.

KAYMER REACHED NUMERO uno after losing to Luke Donald in the finals of the WGC-Match Play in February 2011. He would arrive at the Masters six weeks later seemingly spooked by his brief, ineffective history at the tournament – three missed cuts in three starts – which some found odd. Not many high-ball hitters with dependable putters show up at Augusta National thinking they have no chance.

At that point, Kaymer basically disappeared from the American radar for the better part of three years. Despite winning the 2010 PGA at Whistling Straits, he remained loyal to the European Tour, where he played most of the time in ’11 and ’12. Still, he wasn’t nearly the player he’d been in 2008-09.

Like a lot of guys, Kaymer took on swing changes in an attempt to work the ball both ways, which further cluttered an already crowded mind. There were whispers that he didn’t even want to participate in the 2012 Ryder Cup – captain Jose Maria Olazabal wound up playing Kaymer in just one of the four partnered sessions.

So he holes the clinching putt in his singles match against Steve Stricker, then decides to play full-time in the United States in 2013, then manages three top-10s and finishes 103rd in the FedEx Cup standings. And for the first four months of 2014, it was much of the same.

Too talented to be awful, not tough enough to be really good. The book on Kaymer was short and not so sweet.

“I knew I would struggle a little bit for a while,” he said of the mechanical alterations. “But the combination of both – you’re getting so much attention [for being No. 1] and you’re not winning. Why is that? So why do you change? You don’t want to answer those questions all the time. You answer them once or twice, and that should be enough, but people keep going and I keep answering and answering.”

Watching Kaymer’s post-victory interview from Pinehurst, I couldn’t help but see and hear a guy conflicted by it all. Earlier in the Q&A session, he’d deflected an inquiry regarding his swing changes. Ten minutes later, he was offering a full confessional on why he struggled. We’re talking about a nice guy, very introspective and a bit more sensitive than most of the alpha males he’s been beating lately.

It adds up to a man trying to stay out of his own way. Mickelson could miss eight straight cuts and show up at a Ryder Cup thinking he was going to win five points.

“I don’t want to be rude to people,” Kaymer added, “so that’s why I kept answering.”

I’ve told this story before and I’ll tell it again, given its relevance. Woods had just finished his pre-tournament news conference in Dallas one year and was on the putting green. I approached him and made a rather daring comment – one that might have gotten stuffed down my throat at another time.

“Man, you just spent 45 minutes in there with the media and you said absolutely nothing,” I said with a smile. “You’re better at giving us nothing than you are at playing golf.”

Tiger chuckled. It was rather clear he was pleased with himself over my observation. That dude has 14 majors, this one has two. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.