PINEHURST, N.C. – The USGA’s return to Pinehurst No. 2 feels like an expedition this year.
Golf’s governing body is preparing to take the game to places previously unexplored in this year’s U.S. Open and U.S. Women’s Open.
Based on Monday’s presentation to the media, the championships this June promise to unfold like nothing the game has ever witnessed.
It isn’t just the fact that the men and women will play in back-to-back weeks at the same venue for the first time in major championship history. It’s the nature of the venue itself. With Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore dramatically restoring Pinehurst No. 2 to the original form Donald Ross intended, these championships are going to have a time-warp feel, circa 1907.
If the U.S. Open goes to a Monday playoff, you’re going to see the men and women on the course at the same time. You’re going to see women teeing it up at Pinehurst No. 2 for their U.S. Women’s Open practice rounds before and after the men’s playoff.
Even if the U.S. Open doesn’t go to a playoff, you’re going to see men and women crossing paths at Pinehurst on their way to practice the weekend of the men’s championship. You’re even going to see them sharing locker-room space.
You’re also going to see them playing a shot-making test unlike any other U.S. Open or U.S. Women’s Open. With Crenshaw and Coore tearing out the lush, wall-to-wall green grass look of Pinehurst No. 2, this championship will be played without rough – or at least without rough as we’ve come to know it.
The fairways will spill through the natural, rugged terrain of the sand hills of this region. Balls that stray from the fairway will no longer sink into Bermuda rough. They’ll run into sand and pine straw dotted with wire-grass sprigs.
The nature of missing fairways now adds the same element of intrigue that Donald Ross’ turtle-back greens offer. In most PGA Tour events, the excitement often stops when the ball hits the green, skips and screeches to a halt. On Ross’ design, the fun is just beginning when the ball hits the green. There’s a sense of wonder in waiting and watching to see what happens to the ball as it catches a slope, swale or hollow and races away.
That same sense of wonder will now carry over to shots that miss the fairway.
"I think from a shot value standpoint, it's going to give the best players in the world some shots that they simply haven't had to make in past U.S. Opens. So, it's exciting," USGA executive director Mike Davis said of the restoration.
Shots that stray from the fairway will be subject to the whim and fancy of Mother Nature now.
“Sometimes, they're going to be on sandy, hard pan,” Davis said. “Sometimes, they're going to be on soft, foot-printed loose sand. Sometimes, they're going to be up against, or underneath, wire grass. Sometimes, its natural vegetation, that just comes up in these areas. Sometimes, the ball will be on pine needles, or up against a pine cone. It's going to give these players who miss a fairway just a different type of challenge.”
The fairways will also be wider than we’re used to seeing.
“All things being equal, will it be easier?” Davis said. “Probably a little bit easier, but, I suppose, there’s an element of luck involved. If you get on hard pan, for a good player, it’s kind of a green light. Or do you get up against a clump of wire grass? You could have two balls 6 inches apart and one can go for the green and one can't. That's kind of the nature of the game we play. It wasn't meant to be equal all the time, or necessarily fair.”
Coore believes shots played from the wild, natural terrain will add to the excitement of the U.S. Open and U.S. Women’s Open.
“The uncertainty of shots that are going to be played from the natural rough, we think that is going to be one of the most interesting stories of the week,” Coore said. “We think you’re going to see some of the most spectacular recovery shots in U.S. Open history.”
While some of the best women in the world have expressed concerns over conditions they’ll be left with after the men are done, Davis is excited by the possibilities.
“Listen, we went into this knowing there would be risks,” Davis said. “But we went into it knowing there would be a lot more upside. It’s a two-week celebration of the best men and women, and there’s just so much more upside.”
The men could play Pinehurst No. 2 from 7,562 yards as a par 70, though Davis said it will likely never play that long. The women will play it from 6,649 yards, also as a par 70.
Davis said the idea is to see the women play using the same irons into greens with similar hole locations. Back in 2010, Davis set up Oakmont for the U.S. Open in 2007 and for the U.S. Women’s Open there in 2010.
The par-5 fourth hole at Pinehurst No. 2
“I just remember hearing so many comments, questions of: How are the women going to handle Oakmont?” Davis said. “I always felt that those were really unfair questions, because it just showed almost a lack of appreciation of how good the women play the game.
“I think that while that was a three-year’s difference, we really did try to set up Oakmont the same way. We had greens 14 ½ to 15 [on the Stimpmeter] for both weeks. The women handled it beautifully. Same fairway widths, same relative length on the distance.
“So, given the fact that these are back to back this year, it's going to showcase, I think, just how good the females can play the game.”
LPGA pros have publicly shared their concerns about going the second week, after the course and practice areas have been beaten up by the men. Some are on record saying they know the men wouldn’t have tolerated going second. Davis reiterated that agronomics was the primary factor in having the women go second. It’s easier, he explained, to take the greens from firm to slightly less firm than the other way around. Also, having the men go first, with more viewers and spectators, better sets the stage for audiences to tune in and compare how the women handle the challenges.
Vicki Geotze-Ackerman, the LPGA’s president, won the U.S. Women’s Amateur at Pinehurst No. 2 in 1989. She’s the only woman to win a USGA title at Pinehurst No. 2.
“From the LPGA players’ perspective, we can already see how this Women's Open is the most talked about and anticipated Women's Open yet,” Goetze-Ackerman said. “The increase in awareness and exposure for the event and women’s golf is a significant positive for the LPGA tour, as well as the game of golf. We feel that bringing the women's and men's games together is not only innovative and open minded, but a great opportunity to showcase the best of the best in the game of golf, for both genders. Personally, I think this is the coolest thing ever.”
LPGA commissioner Mike Whan understands his players’ concerns, but he also sees an opportunity playing after the men at Pinehurst.
“I say this to our players a lot, that you can’t dream big and be afraid of making mistakes,” Whan told GolfChannel.com earlier this year. “They are not mutually exclusive.
“We’ve talked about how to make the most out of this unique opportunity, in terms of exposure for the women worldwide. I think we have an opportunity to have more people watch the U.S. Women’s Open than have ever watched it before. I’m really looking forward to seeing how many people we can carry over into Week 2.”
Yes, the women will have challenges in the wake of the men. There will be divots to contend with, but Davis said that’s part of the game. He said when he told that to LPGA pros in a players’ meeting at the Founders Cup in Phoenix, half the players scowled at him and half laughed. He said fears that Pinehurst No. 2’s many collections areas around the greens will get beat up is unfounded.
“We saw very, very, very little divoting the last two Opens,” Davis said of collection areas around greens. “Most of the players who do decide to pitch it are more just clipping it. They're not really playing a type of flop shot that creates a divot.”
Between the divots and unlucky lies against wire-grass sprigs, this championship will ratchet up the ability of players to endure bad breaks.
While the USGA will soften the greens slightly for women, the aim is offer similar green speeds.
There looms a question about the health of the greens over two weeks. If the greens are pushed to the edge for the men, is there a danger they’ll be pushed over the edge, negatively impacting the women?
“The notion that these greens are going to be dead afterwards is simply not the case,” Davis said. “We feel extremely comfortable and we really have very little concerns about the health of the greens for a two-week period of time.”
A two-week period unlike anything golf has ever witnessed.