PINEHURST, N.C. — Picking the winner of the U.S. Open is a futile endeavor even in the most mundane conditions. There is always a vast 156-player field, weather that can’t be pinned down, the reaction of a specific player to the pressure of a major — all tied together by the vagaries of golf.
With the 114th U.S. Open set to begin Thursday morning, even the quantifiable constants have been removed. In a 20-major span from 2004 through 2008, only 11 different players took titles, a familiarity fostered by Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Padraig Harrington, who combined for 12. Neither Woods nor Harrington will be here this week, putting further emphasis on the fact that the most recent 21 majors have produced 18 champions.
Here’s a dart and a blindfold. Choose your winner.
Oh, and by the way, have you seen the course?
“I don’t know what they call it,” Masters champ Bubba Watson said.
What they have long called Pinehurst No. 2 is a classic, and it, more than any course recently, will play the lead role in determining the champion. Designed by the late and legendary Donald Ross, inspired by the best Scotland has to offer, it has been acknowledged as a gem for generations, a reputation the U.S. Golf Association enhanced when it brought the Open here for the first time in 1999, then returned it in short order in 2005. With the precious-as-a-china-doll village of Pinehurst just steps away from the first tee, it seems to be drawn from the past.
That, too, is what the viewer might think when the television is flipped on. Put aside the thoughts of what American golf became long ago — green, lush and opulent — and begin thinking about what golf will become. Could it be — gulp — spare?
“People could look at this on television and go, ‘Oh my God,’ ” architect Bill Coore said. “ ‘Pinehurst quit maintaining the course.’ ”
Pinehurst No. 2 is brown. There’s no getting away from it. In the age of televised golf, there has been nothing like this on a Father’s Day weekend. The U.S. Open has forever been about beautifully maintained fairways and diabolically thick rough that swallows errant shots whole, as penal as Alcatraz. This is different — by design. But even those responsible for it understand the aesthetics of what they’re offering will be jarring.
“I think they’re going to turn it on and say, ‘Did I tune into a British Open?’ ” USGA executive director Mike Davis said. “‘What is this I’m looking at?’”
What they’re looking at might well be the future of golf in some parts of the country. Since Pinehurst No. 2 last hosted the U.S. Open in 2005, Coore and his partner in course architecture, two-time Masters champ Ben Crenshaw, have pushed the resort into an era that might seem from the 1930s or ’40s but is simultaneously forward-thinking. Here, at least, brown is the new green. Rough? So 2011. Let’s start talking about “native areas.”
The rough here is gone. Not mowed down. Gone. Thirty-five acres of it. What’s left to the sides of the fairways is a combination of sand — the area where Pinehurst sits is called the “Sandhills” for a reason — and more than 200,000 wiregrass plants and other native grasses and weeds, giving it a look that’s natural and gnarly. This changes the challenges when you miss the fairways.
“Rough? Dirt? Sand?” Watson said. “It’s going to be iffy. You don’t know what kind of lies you’re going to get. . . . We don’t call it natural area. We call it not very good conditions where I grew up.”
Sure, it’s strange. But old-school U.S. Open rough penalized players equally. The lies were all terrible, and there was just one option: Hack it out, then try to save par by getting up-and-down from 100 yards or more. Pinehurst now brings thought and creativity following the errant drive.
“The hack-it-out rough requires no recoverability,” said Mickelson, a five-time major champion. “I think the most exciting shot in golf is the ability to recover, the recovery shot. This is going to provide some exciting recovery shots.”
The sand to the sides of the fairway isn’t to be confused with the bunkers, most of which now have natural grass on the edges, completely different from the manicured hazards that have become easy to play for most PGA Tour players. “You’ve got bunkers that can go days without maintaining them,” Davis said.
Perhaps most striking about the new No. 2, though, is something that would seem rather trivial to players who didn’t grow up on the saturated fairways of the United States. Crenshaw and Coore removed 650 sprinkler heads, and they now have a more streamlined irrigation system that runs down the center of the fairways.
This would seem to be a technical change, but it is also significant to play. Balls that rest on the center of the fairway will do so on normal, green grass. Balls that run to the side will end up on the thinner, brown stuff that’s out of reach of the sprinklers. It all feels, as 2011 Open champ Rory McIlroy said, rather “linksy.” Certainly not American. Adam Scott, the world’s top-ranked player, likened it to the Sandbelt of Australia, where he grew up.
Why could this be, in certain regions of the country, the wave of the future? With these changes, Pinehurst No. 2 has gone from using 55 million gallons of water annually to 15 million, Davis said.
“We happen to think that, long term, water is going to be the biggest obstacle in the game of golf,” the USGA’s Davis said. “. . . It’s not going to be a question of cost. It’s a question of: Will you be able to get it?”
So factor all that in when picking a potential winner. Who will look at the course and embrace the changes? Who will consider the new Pinehurst and say, “This is how golf should be played?”