The stage is set for the USGA’s experiment of hosting both the men’s and women’s U.S. Opens on the same golf course, Pinehurst No. 2, in back-to-back weeks, with, the men, of course, playing their championship first.
On Monday the USGA held its traditional media day to preview the upcoming majors, which will happen during the second and third weeks in June. A couple of intriguing issues were addressed regarding the restoration project, along with the challenges of hosting both Opens.
First, let’s take a look at what Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw have done in their four-month architectural restoration of Pinehurst — bringing it back to the way it was supposed to be played and not like the way it looked when Payne Stewart won it in 1999 or when Michael Campbell did in 2005.
There will be no rough at this year’s U.S. Opens. That’s right. No ROUGH at the U.S. Open for the first time in history — the major championship infamous for its thick, heavy grass guarding the fairways. Instead, Coore and Crenshaw set out to restore the course to the intent Donald Ross had when he designed it in the early 1900s.
“There are really three design criteria from our standpoint. We wanted to make it more authentic,” said USGA Executive Director and U.S. Open set-up man Mike Davis. “I think we lost a little bit of that specialness. We looked too much like everybody else in the game of golf. It was wall-to-wall green. It was really monochromatic out there. I think it had become really part of the homogenization of the game of golf.
“We lost the uniqueness of being this beautiful, 30-mile-wide, 80 miles long, sandhills of North Carolina. We wanted to restore that and restore some of the character of the course.
“We also felt like because of the change and the evolution of the course and the roughs, the way they had been grown, we lost some of the strategy off the tee.
“So by going back to the early broken turf, the broken ground that Ross intended and, I think, really through the wisdom of Ben and Bill and Mike’s involvement, I think we really are able to capture the strategy of the holes from off the tee, to be on the right side of the fairways, based on where the holes are on the greens as well.
“First, it was to become more authentic. Secondly, be more strategic. And the third was really – and I think this is really about the future of golf – is to be more sustainable, certainly ecologically.”
The lush grass covering the course in previous U.S. Opens has been replaced “sandy wiry grass areas,” sand and pine straw. 40 acres of turf were also removed, along with 700 sprinkler heads.
“What they’re going to encounter is sometimes they’re going to be on sandy hardpan,” said Davis. “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 some of the vegetation, the natural vegetation that’s just come up in these areas, sometimes it will be on pine needles or up against a pine cone. But it’s going to give these players who miss a fairway just a different type of challenge.
Will it make the test easier? Perhaps for the pros (but probably not for your standard weekend hack).
“Probably a little bit easier, but there is an element, I guess there’s, I suppose, an element of luck involved, if you get on hard pan, which for a good player is kind of green light,” said Davis. “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.”
The fairways have been widened, as well.
“It’s, from a golf course maintenance standpoint, it’s really a wonderful thing, saying you got two mow heights and that’s it,” said Davis. “Same heights for tee as fairways as closely mown surrounds and then you got the putting greens as I mentioned.
“The extra width, it’s interesting, because if we look back to ’99 and 2005, where we may have had a fairway let’s say at 27 yards, well that generally speaking was a very consistent 27 yards. Even if there was a dogleg to it.
“This time around through the great work of Bill and Ben, you’re getting different widths at different lengths off the tee. So that right there, in and of itself, is going to give the players on many holes options.”
This will impact strategy.
“You take the first hole, right off the bat, the player’s got an option,” added Davis. “Do I want to take a driver, 3wood and try to chase it way down so I got a wedge or sand wedge into a much narrower fairway; or do I want to lay back and almost assuredly hit the fairway. Well, they’re going to encounter that time and time again where it’s not automatic. You may see three players in a group all use different clubs because they have a different strategy. So that’s certainly a neat thing.”
Another change is the added distance. The par-70 course will be stretched to 7,562 yards for the men, while the women will play it about 900 yards shorter. It will play about 300-350 yards longer than it did in 2005.
“We won’t play that whole length at any given time,” said Davis.
“What this really does is, No. 1, on some of the holes it’s putting some architectural features maybe back into play that we think should be in play. But also it’s giving us flexibility from day-to-day on how we set the golf course up.”
New tee boxes were built, too. Some were to lengthen the course, but others were put more forward for days where the USGA might set up a hole as a drivable par-4 for both the men and women.
Finally, the last change from 2005 is the 4th and 5th holes. The USGA has flipped the pars on those, where no. 4 used to be a par-5 and is now a par-4 and no. 5 was turned from a par-4 to a par-5. Why did they do this?
“To be honest, in looking at it, it just felt like those holes, from an architectural standpoint, played better,” said Davis.
“The fourth hole, it got the original angle of the Donald Ross tee back. The fourth hole also is one of the more generous greens in terms of receives a shot coming in. The bunker is in play better.
“On the fifth hole we changed that to a short risk/reward par 5, which, by the way, Donald Ross designed it as a par 5 years ago, it was played that way in the PGA Championship back in the ’30s. We just felt like No. 5 was not only the hardest green on the course, it is by far the toughest green on the course. And it just felt right, when you missed the green, it can be extremely penal. We just felt that that – it also brought the drive-zone features in on the fifth hole a little bit more.”
Now, for the double-header aspect of both U.S. Opens played on the same course, which has received some raised eyebrows, but naturally, the USGA is celebrating this groundbreaking experiment.
“That’s exciting as we embark on what will be historic back-to-back U.S. Opens in just a few short weeks,” said USGA President Tom O’Toole.
Added Vicki Goetze-Ackerman, president of the LPGA player directors: “Personally I think this is the coolest thing ever.”
There are some issues that the women are already concerned about, particularly with the divots in landing areas in the fairways and in collection areas around the greens, along with the conditions of the bent-grass greens.
“We heard it from the players, what about divots,” said Davis. “I mentioned at the LPGA players meeting a few weeks ago I said, ‘Well, divots are just part of the game.’
“I think half the players scowled at me and half of them laughed. So I’m not sure.”
As for the greens, well, part of that is up to Mother Nature, but the USGA is going to do everything they can to keep them healthy for the women during the second week.
“With respect to greens for the men and women, what we are concerned about is if we get some hot, humid weather, both weeks, doesn’t matter whether we’re having championships or not, that, at that point in the year, the ground staff, particularly with bent grass greens, is going to have to be mindful of keeping the greens healthy,” said Davis.
“To that vein, we’re going to try, not only Week 1, but Week 2, to say, the only people we want on the putting greens are the players and caddies. Along with the grounds staff maintaining it or people setting the golf course up.
“So don’t expect, like you typically do practice rounds in U.S. Opens and Women’s Opens, to see the swing coach, the psychiatrist, the dietician, the fitness, I mean all the team that’s part of that. We’re not going to have 15 people up with each group on each green trying to keep them healthy.”
And what’s the challenge of pushing the greens for the men without over-baking them for the women?
“I think that one of when we talk, when there’s internal meetings with Pinehurst and the USGA, one of the focuses is let’s make sure that the greens are really healthy and stay healthy for the whole two weeks,” said Davis.
“So part of what stresses a green out is weather. So some of it we can’t necessarily control. If we get two straight weeks of 95 degree weather and it’s just oppressive, listen, it doesn’t matter whether it’s resort play, the greens are going to stress a little bit.
“But we feel very, very good coming into this and the notion that these greens are going to be dead afterwards is simply not the case. We feel extremely comfortable, and you can speak to Bob about that, that we really have very little concerns about the health of the greens for a two-week period of time.”
What’s interesting will be the pin locations — the USGA plans to use similar ones for both the men and women, or at least keep them in the same quadrants of the famous Ross turtleback greens.
“Certainly Mike and I, we want it to play the same from one week to the next and think that it’s important that providing the same test from Week 1 to Week 2,” said Ben Kimball, the U.S. Women’s Open championship director.
“The challenging thing for me and trying to pick out hole locations, I almost have to wait and see what we’re going to decide and use for the U.S. Open and then we’ll have to adjust accordingly.
“Keeping them in the same quadrants, absolutely. But as conditions change, as Mother Nature changes things on the putting surfaces, for us in U.S. Open week, Mike may have to make some slight manipulation to the hole locations he selects, which then in turn may cause me to have to make some adjustments on my own. But we want to give them the same look from Week 1 to Week 2.”
Well, I’m certainly quite intrigued with Pinehurst’s facelift, along with the staging of both the men’s and women’s Opens in back-to-back weeks, and I’m definitely looking forward to covering both in about seven weeks.