Thursday 14 December 2017

Taking the rough with smooth

Revamped Pinehurst will provide a very different test to other US Open venues, says Dermot Gilleece

The fourth at Pinehurst No 2: ‘There will be none of the murderous rough which has characterised US Opens for over 120 years’
The fourth at Pinehurst No 2: ‘There will be none of the murderous rough which has characterised US Opens for over 120 years’

Dermot Gilleece

Back in February 1898, the weekly newspaper of a charming little village in North Carolina carried a story which began: "A nine-hole golf course has been laid out after the famous St Andrews, near Edinburgh, Scotland." This was sleepy Pinehurst, where a local ordinance banned the owning of a rooster, for fear the natives would be woken too early.

Even with such grandiose pretentions, golf was to endure a long awakening there, in that it took 101 years for the US Open to reach Pinehurst. But the 1999 staging was so successful that the event returned to the esteemed No 2 course in 2005 and is back again this week, to be followed by the US Women's Open in an historic double-header.

It is one of four courses designed at Pinehurst by the remarkably prolific Scotsman, Donald Ross, who lived there and managed the resort until his death in 1948. Since then, locals will swear that they've seen his ghost standing at a window of his house overlooking the third green and chuckling at the approach shots of modest mortals while caddies whisper, "Donald Ross got 'em."

Except that now, they would have to add the names of Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore, the American design duo who have completed a significant upgrading of No 2 since Michael Campbell's triumph in 2005. And their removal of 700 sprinklers gives some indication of the fiery surfaces competitors may anticipate.

Ireland will have four challengers, headed by recent Wentworth winner, Rory McIlroy, who captured this title by eight strokes at Congressional in 2011. Graeme McDowell, the 2010 champion at Pebble Beach, finished 80th on his US Open debut at Pinehurst in 2005 while Darren Clarke, an absentee that year because of his wife's illness, was tied tenth behind Payne Stewart in 1999. McIlroy and Shane Lowry will both be experiencing the venue for the first time.

After sharply contrasting scoring at Muirfield Village, McIlroy practised at Pinehurst last Monday morning and Tuesday afternoon and attempted without success to replicate Stewart's title-winning 15-foot putt on the 72nd green.

"There are no health issues; I feel 100 per cent fit," he said, removing about doubts about a troublesome left knee. "I'm really excited about playing there. It is a beautiful place, different from the normal US Open course. The rough is certainly different with probably a 50-50 chance of having a shot to the green. I expect to be hitting a lot of long irons into the par fours and the nature of the greens means they play to only about a third of their size."

McDowell was also there, despite an earlier visit, and he, too, clearly likes the place. "The golf course sets up nicely for me," he said. "Yes, it's long but it will be firm, fast and linksy around the greens, which I like. You've got to pace-putt well, which I also like, and you've got to be accurate off the tee."

Lowry flies to the US this morning with his coach, Neil Manchip, who was also present for his US Open debut at Congressional three years ago. "I haven't been to Pinehurst but from what I've been learning about the course it will be really tough around the greens," said Manchip. "That should suit Shane."

By way of emphasising this point, the coach referred to the fact that a holed bunker shot for an eagle three in the Nordea Masters last weekend was his ninth such effort so far this year. "Shane averages 17 to 18 chip-ins per season, which is quite high, even by professional standards," he said. "He clearly likes having a wedge in his hand."

Manchip clearly knows his man. "I rely on my short game a good bit," said Lowry yesterday. "From what I've heard about Pinehurst, the greens will be firm, which will be right up my street when I get used to them. I wouldn't be noted for hitting a lot of greens, but given the right circumstances for chipping, I feel as if I can do anything with the ball."

As a qualifier from Sunningdale, Lowry can also take heart from the fact that Campbell negotiated a similar route in 2005. Which makes the New Zealander's absence on this occasion especially sad. On learning that the player felt his game wasn't up to the challenge in the wake of a recent marriage break-up, Pádraig Harrington was clearly shocked. One could also imagine him seeing bitter irony in the fact that Campbell had turned down an exemption, while he himself had failed in a last-ditch attempt at securing one.

"He is exempted and he's not playing – wow!" said the Dubliner, who has been involved of late in promoting his own golf apparel collection in Dunnes Stores.

"Michael's win had a massive effect on me because I knew his game and that it wasn't all that different from mine. It shows there's a lot more to golf than people think. This is amazing, but he'll always be a US Open champion." Then, as if speaking for himself, Harrington added: "Life goes on."

On the Saturday prior to Pinehurst '99, Stewart walked the course with a putter and wedge, hitting different types of shots to get a feel of the place. The strength of his subsequent wedge play was reflected in a level-par final round of 70, despite having hit only seven greens in regulation.

That same day, the USGA threatened John Daly with a lifetime ban from the event, arising from his behaviour in a closing 83. While running up an 11 at the par-four eighth, Daly incurred a two-stroke penalty for striking a moving ball. This brought a sharp response from David Fay, the USGA's executive director, who said: "If he (Daly) does that again, we will have to ask him to take a seat on the sidelines." As it happened, the perennial penitent was back in the fold at Bethpage Black in 2002.

Noting how its small, convex greens resembled upturned saucers, Tom Watson once referred to Pinehurst as "rejection architecture". And while retaining this distinctive feature, the work of Crenshaw and Coore has been praised for greatly enhancing the overall impact of a highly regarded test.

"I've had the luxury of seeing a fair number of restorations over the years and I honestly have never seen one as good as what's happened here," said Fay's successor, Mike Davis. "What they did was to really take Pinehurst back to the roots of Donald Ross and the unique aspects of the sandhills of North Carolina."

He went on to highlight their bunker rendering among some wonderful features they have restored. "It's hard to believe you could make Pinehurst No 2 better, but they've actually made it quite a good bit better," added Davis. "It's going to give the best players in the world some shots that they simply haven't had to make in past US Opens. So, it's exciting. What we really want our national championship to be is an incredibly challenging test, and Pinehurst No 2 is all of that."

The greens will be running at between 11.5 and 12 on the Stimpmeter, similar to Augusta National. Meanwhile, the depth of grass in the run-off areas has been increased from 0.25 to 0.3 inches to offer greater recovery options.

At 40 yards deep, the first green is the biggest, with most of the others ranging between 32 and 37 paces. And as Davis pointed out: "When they get firmer, it's tougher to hold a ball on the green. And when they get faster, all of a sudden some of those slopes, whether it's a false front, a false back or a false side, shrink the putting area."

He continued: "One of the unique things about the challenge is how to get yourself up there if you miss those greens. Here, players can bump it or pitch it." Or, as we've seen in the past, they can putt it.

Another significant change is that there will be none of the murderous rough which has characterised US Opens for over 120 years. Miss the fairway and you could be on trodden sand or pine needles or up against a wiry tuft or other natural vegetation. Which, as McIlroy indicated, means there could be two balls only six inches apart, with the green reachable for one but not the other.

And fairway widths will vary, depending on length off the tee, giving players the choice of a more productive angle for their drives. Then, apart from a beefed-up overall length of 7,562 yards through new tees, the par at the fourth and fifth holes has been switched, with the fourth changing from a five to a four and the reverse at the fifth "because they play better than way."

Club committees may like to note that as part of the restoration work, maintenance costs have been significantly reduced. For instance, over-seeding is no longer done on No 2, so eliminating a considerable extra cost in water and fertilizer. In fact, the overall use of water has been reduced by between 40 and 50 percent. And with the golf course area becoming a much more natural environment, the cost of tending lush rough is gone.

Meanwhile, it would be difficult to imagine a course more suited to the special talents of Phil Mickelson, especially given its additional latitude off the tee. Runner-up at Pinehurst in 1999, he was tied 33rd in 2005, largely due to a dispiriting second round of 77. But the quest for the missing Major in his career Grand Slam aspirations is bound to be affected by an FBI investigation over alleged insider trading.

Pinehurst has also highlighted the professional's ability to overcome potentially destructive ailments. As in the discovery that Stewart had been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) in 1995, so making him an improbable challenger for the ultimate test of precision play. So why not reigning Masters champion, Bubba Watson, who admits to the same complaint?

From an Irish perspective, a combination of talents would almost certainly produce the winner, as in McIlroy's driving, McDowell's precise iron play and Lowry's magical short game. Mind you, two of them are already US Open champions in their own right and are drawn together with the 2012 winner, Webb Simpson, in the opening two rounds.

Ultimately, success at this level demands an additional X-factor and a famous non-golfer got the requirement just about right. "You must do the thing you think you cannot do," said Eleanor Roosevelt. And nine years ago at Pinehurst, Michael Campbell discovered exactly what she meant.

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