PINEHURST, N.C. – For the first time this week, players saw Pinehurt No. 2.
Martin Kaymer rapped his 50-footer up the hill on the sixth hole Saturday, but the ball took a peek at the cup and sped by, down the slope, ultimately finishing 15 feet off the green. The fans by the green responded accordingly – Woahhhh-OHH-ohhh! – as if they were riding a roller coaster on a terrifying downhill plunge, hands held high.
A day earlier, Kaymer wondered aloud how the USGA would set up the course for the third round here at the U.S. Open. Leading by six, with only one bogey through 36 holes, he hoped for the most difficult conditions possible – that way, he said, it’d be harder for his pursuers to play catch-up.
Well, he said with a smile Saturday night, “The USGA listened, unfortunately.”
With a birdie on the last, Kaymer posted a 2-over 72 – nearly two shots better than the field average (73.82) – on a day in which the penal setup drew the ire of some players.
There were only two rounds in the 60s Saturday. There were four rounds in the 80s, including an 88. There also was a 79, posted by Brendon Todd, who was playing in the final group.
Fourteen holes yielded single-digit birdies. The field of 67 could muster one only birdie on both Nos. 2 and 6, par-4 holes that played in excess of 500 yards and featured back hole locations, on the top of a slope, mere paces from hell. Todd putted off the green on 2. Kaymer, of course, did the same on 6.
Todd, who took 36 putts, described the hole locations as “very aggressively set.”
“It was a little bit of a revenge day,” he said.
Kenny Perry, who shot 74 Saturday and is playing in his 13th Open, took it a step further: “It was a golf course of 18 of the toughest pins I’ve ever seen.”
The unsettling part is that players expect those hole locations because, well, it’s the U.S. Open and apparently that’s what’s supposed to happen. Holes teetering on the edge of unfair is just part of the gig. Over the years the Open has become as much a physical examination as a mental one, to stay in it, to not get rattled.
The irony, of course, is that Pinehurst doesn’t need to be tricked up, with its domed, turtleback greens – already running at 12 1/2 on the Stimpmeter – as menacing as anything you’ll ever see.
But on Saturday, “I think they used the hardest pins they could possibly use on almost every hole,” Jordan Spieth (72) said.
Said Matt Kuchar (71): “In practice rounds you guess where you think the pins will be and you kind of say, ‘Well, that’s too severe; they won’t put them there.’ And sure enough, that’s where the pin is. It seems to be year after year, and you should know better by now.”
So maybe Kevin Na should have known better too, but he was cruising along, only four shots back, when he hit what he thought was a brilliant shot into the par-4 14th. Heck, he even twirled his club. His ball landed short of the flag and skipped to about 15 feet right of the cup, seemingly an ideal birdie position, but then it kept going, and going, and going … and eventually it was 20 yards off the green.
“No WAY!” he yelled from the middle of the fairway.
Naturally, it only got worse up by the green. Attempting to drive his chip into the bank between him and the hole, Na instead caught the ball a little too cleanly and skulled it over the other side of the green. His next shot? Flubbed.
“Oh, Kevin,” he groaned, and the ensuing double bogey led to a closing 39 and, now, an eight-shot deficit.
Which makes you wonder what type of setup we’ll see for the final round Sunday, with Kaymer leading by five shots and no rain in the forecast.
“I think they’ve got to know that we’re teetering on the edge,” Kuchar said, “and they don’t want to have another Shinnecock (in 2004) all over again. It’s close. I think the guys understand that, and I think it could easily become that again.”
As for the leader? Oh, he wants it tough, as tough as possible. Again.
“It would be nice if they made it difficult, because then it’s all about ball-striking,” Kaymer said. “I enjoy playing those courses a lot more than just a putting competition.”
And then he smiled, knowing what a baked-out, on-the-edge setup would potentially mean.
“But it’d also be nice to have some kind of a chance every once in a while,” he said.