PINEHURST, N.C. – Bubba Watson compared the new and improved No. 2 course at Pinehurst to the rough-around-edges layout he grew up playing in Florida’s Panhandle. Chris Kirk figured the nip/tucked Donald Ross gem more resembled a linksland layout.
“Except around the greens,” Kirk hedged.
To be fair, most players walked off Pinehurst on Tuesday not exactly sure what that was.
The layout’s makeover is all at once sweeping and subtle.
From the tee, players at this week’s U.S. Open will be greeted with vastly different visuals since the last time the national championship was played here in North Carolina’s sandhills.
Ubiquitous native areas dotted with love grass have replaced the acres of thick rough that ringed the fairways in 2005 and 1999, and a particularly hot and dry spring has resulted in hard, firm fairways baked to a golden brown.
It is one of the most unique Open venues in modern history, which was exactly what Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore hoped to create when they were tasked with restoring the storied layout to Ross’ original condition in 2010.
Crenshaw, Coore and those pulling the strings at Pinehurst say Ross would be pleased with the result.
As for the 156 players tasked with solving the Scot’s refurbished riddle, the jury is still out.
“Native areas – it's funny, me, Boo Weekley, Heath Slocum, we grew up at a golf course called Tanglewood in Milton, Fla.,” Watson said on Tuesday. “Looks like the same golf course I grew up on – a lot of pine trees, sand everywhere – we don't call it ‘natural area’ we call it … not very good conditions where I grew up. So I'm used to hitting out of sand and hardpan with, again, we call it weeds where I grew up.”
Whether the changes translate to a memorable Open remains to be seen, but the new-look layout has certainly left a mark on many in this week’s championship.
“I thought it was really cool how unique it was,” Kirk said. “They found a way to make it look completely different than any other course we play. Now, ask me again in six days and see if I still think it’s cool.”
Whatever one’s perspective – be it weeds or love grass, native areas or scrub, unique or overcooked – the essence and exam of Pinehurst remains the same. The turtlebacked greens remained virtually unchanged during the makeover and are still No. 2’s primary defense.
Those swales and hollows have been magnified by the dry conditions so far this week, but that could change with the forecast which calls for an increased chance for showers on Thursday.
But for two practice days it has been the perfect storm for the USGA and Pinehurst.
“It’s glassy and that’s what Pinehurst should be. It makes it that much more interesting and elusive,” Crenshaw said. “The international players really like it because I think it reminds them of maybe Australia a little bit, some of the British (Open) courses. It’s kind of a neat mix.”
But then one man’s pristine can easily turn into another’s punishment when the line is as thin as it will be this week, particularly with next week’s U.S. Women’s Open looming.
“Firm and dry,” one caddie said when asked about the course conditions. When pressed if he thought the layout was fair he figured, “So far . . . yes.”
It’s been some time since the USGA overcooked an Open venue, although some will contend last year’s championship at Merion was dangerously close.
But if player reaction is any indication the USGA won’t have to color too close to the lines to be sure Pinehurst maintains its tough-but-fair history (the combined winning score at the last two U.S. Opens played on No. 2 is 1 under par).
For Crenshaw, the Pinehurst project went well beyond the need for shock value. Ross’ original intent was to be unique, maybe even a little surprising if early player feedback is any indication. By comparison, reverting to the original plan was as easy as following directions.
That, however, doesn’t make this week any less stressful.
Late Tuesday afternoon Crenshaw was making his way down the practice tee under a sweltering sun when he was asked if he felt any apprehension coming into this week.
“Always,” he smiled. “You hope they find it interesting and it’s a good test for them and it’s something different than what they find on a regular basis. That’s what Pinehurst is anyway.”
So far it’s certainly proven to be a different U.S. Open venue.