The farmers are smiling in their fields again in these previously parched parts, but the men responsible for growing and mowing at Pinehurst No. 2 are grumbling about two days of rain with more on the way. It could negate their hard work in preparing a classic golf course for one of the more widely anticipated U.S. Opens in recent years.
The last thing U.S. Golf Association officials wanted was a water-logged venue, even if they insist that a unique vacuum system will keep the greens fast and firm enough to induce the sort of hair-raising golf this national championship almost always produces.
"Unfortunately, we can't control what falls out of the sky," said Trey Holland, chairman of the USGA's Championship Committee. "But we have something here that will be very helpful in that regard. They have the ability to literally suck the moisture out of the putting greens with an underground system, and that's going to be very, very helpful as we enter the latter part of the week."
The skies are supposed to clear by Friday, and Holland said that when a national network television audience tunes in this weekend, they'll see a mostly dry Donald Ross-designed course in all of its glory.
This site in the Carolina sandhills doesn't come close to resembling many Open courses in the past, particularly in the rough. It's been cut to a modest three inches all around and will stay that way throughout the four days of the tournament.
"Of all the U.S. Opens I've played in, this is by far the best, by tenfold," Greg Norman said. "They've done a phenomenal job in the setup."
The USGA essentially is daring players to try to hold the undulating greens and get close to pins placed in precarious places, often at the top of a contoured crown. Miss short and the ball may roll back past your feet. Give it a gorilla swipe and the ball could roll off the putting surface into dicey collection areas way down below, offering a challenging chip.
"Fans here, fans watching on TV, the media watching us perform this week are going to get to see us in a totally different light than you're used to seeing in a U.S. Open," said Payne Stewart, the 1992 Open champion and runner-up to Lee Janzen at Olympic in San Francisco last year.
"You're going to see us play a number of different type of golf shots. It's not a golf course where if you drive it out of the fairway, you just immediately grab your wedge or sand wedge and chip it back out to the fairway and proceed from there. You can get playable lies out of the rough, but that's what the golf course wants you to think -- `Oh boy . . . I'm going to whip this right on the green,' and that's where the excitement begins."
Stewart said he has used nine clubs -- from a 2-iron to a lob wedge -- to experiment with chip shot selection on the shaved surfaces around the greens and in collection areas behind the putting surfaces. Tiger Woods may even occasionally use his 3 and 5 woods to chip and putt. Davis Love III said a putter will always be his best friend from off the green.
"This year's championship presents an entirely different setup than a traditional U.S. Open setup . . . so the nuances of Pinehurst architecture can shine through," Holland said. "The crowned greens that are here with the large runoff areas simply won't be of any real utility if the players are having to hack their ball out of six-inch rough and then carry on. We find ourselves in a situation where the players may be tempted to hit a long shot toward the green [from the rough] and have little or no control over the ball. Where it ends up is going to be anyone's guess."
So is picking a winner, though the odds are against the European contingent, including Masters champion Jose Maria Olazabal of Spain, the only man in the field with a shot at the improbable grand slam, and two-time runner-up Colin Montgomerie of Scotland.
"I think this is my most favorite tournament of the year," Montgomerie said, adding that he'd dearly love to be the first European since Tony Jacklin in 1970 to win this championship. "I think it's motivation for every British golfer and every European golfer to try to emulate that feat. It's a matter of being patient and trying to walk through when the door is half ajar. It's the point of walking through it and not finishing second."
Tom Lehman also would like to burst through that door after playing in the final group in each of the last four Opens, with only a tie for second, two thirds and a tie for fifth to show for it. Lehman finished tied for second in Memphis Monday, but has been fighting a flu bug for a week.
Much of the focus will be on David Duval and Woods, Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, in the world rankings. Duval played another practice round with tape around his tender right thumb and forefinger, singed when he picked up a hot tea kettle Friday, and said again he foresees no problems. Woods has been burning up the course in his two most recent appearances, with back-to-back victories in Germany on the European Tour and the Memorial two weeks ago. He's brimming with confidence and eager to start play.
"I like [Pinehurst] a lot," he said. "The golf course is playing a little more friendly than I thought it would. I thought the rough would be higher, the fairways would be narrower. But I think the USGA recognized the fact that they made a mistake [at Olympic] with the fairways being so narrow, and they've rectified it."
With a little help from the rain.
When: Today through Sunday.
Course: Pinehurst Resort and Country Club (7,175 yards, par 70), Pinehurst, N.C.
Purse: $3.5 million (winner's share $625,000).
TV: WRC-4, WBAL-11 (today-Friday, 3-5 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday, 12:30-6:30 p.m.) and ESPN (today-Friday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5-6:30 p.m.).
Defending champion: Lee Janzen.