The USGA threw an intriguing question at the golf world in the U.S. Open at Merion: could a classic course from once-upon-a-time withstand the onslaught of the sluggers who dominate the men’s game today?
Now that the answer has been decided, golf will have even more daunting challenges looming on the horizon. To wit: what in the name of Bobby Jones are the USGA bigwigs thinking by staging the men’s and women’s Opens on back-to-back weeks on the same course, and who came up with this crazy idea anyway?
Actually, these answers are no deep, dark secret. David Fay, former executive director of the organization that oversees the game’s rules in this country, proposed the back-to-back concept with the idea of discovering how the best in the men’s game and the best in the women’s game would fare on the same course in virtually the same conditions.
Mike Davis, who succeeded Fay at the organization’s helm, remembers his first response to the idea: “Have you completely lost it?”
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Besides, he wondered, where could this flight of fancy come to fruition?
Ideally, both men and women would face the same challenges off the tee and hit the same clubs into the greens. But the rough would torpedo the idea at the typical Open course — a Merion or Olympic Club or Winged Foot. The thick, gnarly grasses needed to challenge the men’s wayward shots would be too tough for the women, and conditions for the women’s championship would be too easy for the men.
No way, he thought.
Then ... a light-bulb moment: Pinehurst No. 2!
The course designed by Donald Ross has been retrofitted to yesterday, to the days when rough played no role in the architect’s pride and joy. Nature — sand, pine straw and cones, weeds and wire grass — provided the obstacles for wayward shots.
After the work by Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore, the old-style “look” commanded attention and offered the perfect solution to Fay’s brainstorm.
Davis believes Crenshaw and Coore “hit an absolute grand slam.” And for the next year, the golf world will wait and wonder if the USGA did the same.
History is everywhere
“For us, 2014 is our opportunity to make history,” U.S. Open championship director Reg Jones said recently, “and what better place than Pinehurst?”
There’s no question the USGA loves Pinehurst and the sandhills of North Carolina. This will be the third men’s Open at No. 2 since 1999, and the women’s Open has been a frequent visitor to nearby Pine Needles, another Ross design. Throw in the 2008 U.S. Amateur, a Ryder Cup and more than a century of North-South amateur competitions, and history is everywhere.
“Pinehurst is an incredibly historic place,” Davis said. “1999 (Payne Stewart’s Open victory in a final four that included Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods and Vijay Singh) is a great, great time in golf. And it’s the golf course itself. It’s an architectural treat. It grows on you; it gets better every time you see it.
“It’s this intrigue we have to compare the best male golfers in the world with the best female golfers in the world. I don’t think the women get credit for how good they are.”
Davis took over U.S. Open setup duties in 2006 and maintained the tradition of making the tournament golf’s most difficult, but he moved from overly penal conditions to those that reward creativity and ball-striking.
The men’s tournament will be first and the course will be stretched to 7,500 yards. The women will play at 6,800 the following week. Both will face a par of 70, and both will putt on greens rolling between 11½ and 12 — the maximum for Pinehurst’s contours — on the stimpmeter.
“The only difference is the greens will be slightly softer for the women” to accommodate lower ball flight, Davis said. He quickly added, “Don’t read into that they’re going to be soft.”
And don’t worry about how the women will handle the challenging greens. He said women putted on greens rolling 14 to 15 in the 2010 Women’s Open, won by Paula Creamer, “and they did just fine.”
The rough-less Open might sound like heresy, especially since the fairways have been expanded in the restoration. There will be two cuts of grass — one for fairways, one for greens.
Fear not, Davis said.
“In this (2014) U.S. Open, when you miss a fairway, you can have all kinds of different lies,” he said. “You may get on hardpan, you may get on pine needles, you may get loose sand with footprints in it. (The top pros) don’t see that on a week-to-week basis and there’s going to be a level of creativity.
“The course is all about these wonderful, dome-shaped greens, which will be firm. You have to control your ball and hit it crisply. The greens play much smaller than they are, and I believe the course will hold its own. It doesn’t need rough; it has all the challenges you would ever want.”
Players will receive a drivable par-4, a Davis staple, on either No. 3 or No. 13 — or perhaps both. They will find par on the fourth and fifth holes reversed with No. 4 becoming a 520-yard par-4 and No. 5 a short par-5.
“Either way, it’s par-9 on those holes,” he said. “We feel architecturally, it works better. By playing No. 4 as a long par-4, we feel it’s a much better drive zone. Ross designed (No. 5) as a par-5. It has the toughest green complex on Pinehurst No. 2 and we feel like it will be a great short par-5.”
The sandy areas that lead into bunkers could present problems — remember Dustin Johnson in the PGA? — but a rules official will walk with every group. And if a player finds a bunker that is not immaculate, Davis isn’t listening.
“In one ear and out the other,” he said. “It’s a hazard.”
The back-to-back undertaking is not without risks. Weather delays and/or a playoff that push the men’s tournament into the second week are not challenges the USGA wants to tackle.
“We’re bullish about this concept,” Davis said.
And fans seem to be, too.
Hospitality sales are booming, Jones, the championship director, said. All 6,500 volunteer positions have been filled with most people opting to work both tournaments.
If the 1999 Open centered on Stewart, the 2005 championship — won by Michael Campbell by two shots over Woods — “was about the people,” Jones said. “We had 325,000 for the week, about 100,000 more than at the Olympic Club in 2012. If Mother Nature cooperates, we would have more than 400,000 for the two championships.”
The answer about Merion has been decided. For Pinehurst and the back-to-back concept, the verdict is more than a year away and the debate will rage: What kind of history will the USGA make — a grand slam or not?