PINEHURST, N.C. — In major tournament golf, a player’s view of the course he is confronting, his state of mind toward everything that meets his eye, can be the difference between whining and winning.
When Germany’s Martin Kaymer came to the first tee at Pinehurst No. 2 on Thursday in the first round of the U.S. Open, he understood the difficulties of the classic course and the high stakes in play. But instead of doubts, he felt the calm of familiarity even though he had never played here before.
“This plays a little bit like a course in Australia that I remember. I like to play those kinds of courses,” he said of what he thought before shooting a six-birdie 65, 5 under par, which gave him a three-shot lead.
Golf is full of mysteries of confidence and comfort. What place feels familiar and welcoming, which seems hostile or even deeply contrary to your temperament or style of play? Which shot seems like the proper one, but also the possible one?
In contrast to Kaymer, who arrived here soaring after his win two weeks ago at the Players Championship, Bubba Watson, the winner of the Masters in April, had a very different first impression of Pinehurst No. 2. His doubts were representative of other moans and misapprehensions about a radical redesign here. All the rough has been removed. Just gone. In its place, nature has simply returned in her random disconcerting way, much as architect Donald Ross originally conceived this course, with spotty scrub growth or just homely dirt.
“Never been here before,” Watson said. “You can’t define where the fairways are so I guess this week I can hit a lot of fairways because we can’t define if it’s on the fairway or not. So that pretty good for me . . .
“I don’t know what they call it: rough, dirt, sand . . . Where I grew up we call that weeds.”
Halt thy tongue, of Bubba. No pro golfer has ever won a major championship on a course he hated. Or disliked. Or bad-mouthed. Or about which he had even ambiguous feelings or complex strategic reservations.
If a player says, “This place is hard,” but does not immediately follow it with the words, “but fair,” simply cross his name off the tee sheet, skip his interviews and never ever follow him. If rough is called “cabbage” or the hard greens are compared to “bowling alleys,” you’ve identified a golfer who’s halfway to switching his flight out of town from Monday morning to Saturday. He’s already beaten.
In fact, Watson was 5-over after just 10 holes and finished with a 76, one of the worst scores in the field.
To win a major, you have to love the joint and want to take home a pot of sacred soil just to sniff the hallowed earth. If you take back some bark to chew to cure indigestion, that’s even better. For example, Kaymer won his only major title in the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits in ’10. After this round, he was asked if he could compare Pinehurst No. 2 to his PGA win.
“With all due respect,” Kaymer said, “it’s not as pretty as Whistling Straits.”
Loved it when he saw it. Won on it. Will love it forever. A mere iconic symbol of U.S. golf like the No. 2? Please, don’t compare it.
Jack Nicklaus adored Muirfield in Scotland, where he won his first British Open, so much that he named his home course in Ohio, “Muirfield Village.”
It’s not just players who, by rite of golf ritual, form an opinion about the courses on which majors are played. Every person, down to standard bearers, has opinions about its beauty or its qualification as a suitable test for a U.S. Open. Only the players must torque themselves into a state of mind that lets them play in harmony with the course. For the rest of us, it’s easy. For example, I think Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore did an excellent redesign of No. 2. They sold off the 35 acres of sod that once was rough to anyone who wanted it, including locals for their front lawns. Then they did . . . nothing.
They let this big track go back to nature, back to its Carolina sandhills look. Places such as Pinehurst, the great Pine Valley Golf Club outside Philadelphia, as well as Shinnecock Hills and fine links courses in the British Isles are located where they are because the soil isn’t much good for anything else. But the land is perfect for golf courses that love porous soil and easy drainage. In fact, Pinehurst No. 2 might be the only legendary course where you could let the course go back to its roots and have no roots.
So, who loves it here? Who puts himself to sleep each night murmuring, “This is my kind of course.”
Phil Mickelson, who spent 23 seasons turning “the U.S. Open hates me” into “I love the Open and I will win it,” has spent several days here turning logic on its head — to everyone’s delight. He hasn’t played well since he won last year’s British Open. His putting is so un-Phil that he’s gone to a claw grip this week. But, after an opening 70, he says No. 2 now gives him “room to miss, similar to Augusta.” When they compare Augusta National to Pinehurst No. 2, you know a squadron of hypnotists is close by.
For those who know the U.S. Open’s knack for “identifying” Orville Moody or Webb Simpson, the appearance of Kevin Na, tied for second and singing Pinehurst’s praises, seems eerie. He’s been excoriated and heckled for slow play. (Sometimes, he freezes and just can’t take the club back.) He once took a 16 on a par 4, a PGA Tour record, and missed most of ’13 because of a bulging disc.
But Na has been hot and got into the Open when he lost a playoff at the Memorial.
“All last year, my caddie kept telling me, ‘We have to get back [on Tour.] The Open at Pinehurst — we’re going to have a chance there,’” said Na, whose high greens-in-regulation, plus dazzling pitching and chipping if he misses make him a Pinehurst par machine. “I was so far down in the world rankings. But here I am. This place really suits me.”
By Sunday night, this U.S. Open will have said, “Good-bye” to 155 golfers. But the man who remains as champion, whether it is Kaymer, Na or someone else, will feel just as they do. Whether it’s a bill of goods they’ve sold themselves or simple golf reality, they will love the place and believe it loves them back. Perhaps, amid all the psychological torments of four days at such places, nothing less will do.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.