U.S. Open: For this hacker, Pinehurst was overwhelming
Pinehurst, N.C. • I didn't hit many memorable, quality golf shots on that cold, blustery early spring day in the sandhills region of North Carolina, but this particular one was so pure, at least by my low standards, that I will never forget it.
My timing could not have been much better, either, because my well-struck 7-iron from 145 yards out soared majestically toward the famed 18th green at one of the most famous golf courses in the country, if not the world, Pinehurst No. 2.
If there is a green in the country into which you want to hit a decent shot, it is this one on the layout ranked 40th among Golf Digest's list of America's 100 greatest.
After all, it is the same green on which the late Payne Stewart rolled in a 15-footer for par to win the 1999 U.S. Open by a shot over Phil Mickelson. A bronze statue of Payne's Pose left foot on the green, right foot high off the ground and right arm extended skyward, fist clenched stands nearby, erected to commemorate the win and memorialize the three-time major winner widely known for wearing flat caps and plus fours, Scottish style.
Photographers and television cameras captured Stewart holding Lefty's face in his hands and consoling the first-time father-to-be on Father's Day on that green. Stewart would die tragically four months later in a plane crash.
We are sure to see Stewart's statue, a statue of course designer Donald Ross and plenty of footage from 1999 this week as NBC, ESPN and ESPN2 broadcast the national championship. The tournament returns to Pinehurst No. 2, beginning Thursday, for the first time since New Zealander Michael Campbell won in 2005.
The U.S. Women's Open will be held on the same course the following week as the USGA goes back-to-back with its marquee events for the first time at the same venue. No question, Pinehurst No. 2 will be in the national spotlight for almost half of the month.
Trust someone who was fortunate to have played Pinehurst No. 2 in a four-man scramble charity tournament nearly three months ago when I say that all those photos and television shots over the course of the next two weeks won't do justice to the revered course's most notable characteristic: diabolical, humped greens.
They are shaped like the tops of giant mushrooms. Or the roof of a Volkswagen Beetle. And they make it almost impossible to get it close for hackers like me.
I learned that time and again in late March, as some of our shots landed reasonably close to the flagsticks, only to roll off the crowned bent grass surfaces into bunkers below, or back into the fairway. Suffice it to say we finished closer to last place than first.
But back to my memory my approach on No. 18. It landed about 10 feet from the pin, but rolled off the back and dangerously close to the veranda at the back of the palatial clubhouse. Thankfully, one of my teammates rolled his approach to within 20 feet, executing a shot like Ross intended, and we were able to partially re-enact Stewart's scene.
Remember John Daly's much-publicized meltdown at the U.S. Open? That came in 1999 on Pinehurst's par-4 8th hole, where Daly, in frustration, whacked a ball that was rolling back to him on the hilly green, incurring a two-shot penalty and eventually taking an 11. I felt Big John's pain several times, even if the aprons weren't shaved nearly as tightly as they were then or will be this week.
I've been lucky enough to have played Pebble Beach several times the past decade, in addition to every golf course in Utah, as I described in The Salt Lake Tribune last summer. Pinehurst No. 2 is easily the most difficult course I have ever played.
It can play at 7,565 yards when tipped out, and will play between 7,200 and 7,500 for the men and 6,400 and 6,600 for the women this month. At sea level and with temperatures in the high 30s and low 40s back in March, we were hitting 5-woods and hybrids into the par-4s most of the time. A clubhouse attendant told me we would have paid $410 apiece for the honor of getting crushed by Pinehurst, along with an $80-100 tip for a mandatory caddy, if we hadn't been in a tournament benefitting the National Kidney Foundation that Saturday,
The course was restored in 2010 by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, which means they removed the Bermuda rough (imagine, a U.S. Open course without rough) that was prevalent in the 2005 Open. In its place is sand packed hard in places but soft enough in others to show footprints and tufts of this stuff that we became quite familiar with known as wiregrass.
It will be fun this week to watch how the pros, including former BYU golfer Zac Blair, who qualified last week, play some of the shots they will be faced with amid the native vegetation.
Truth be told, we played three of the resort's eight championship courses in March, and I actually enjoyed No. 8, opened in 1996 and designed by Tom Fazio, far more than No. 2. Certainly, it had more distinct, memorable holes.
But No. 2 is Ross' finest work according to most golf historians, and he tinkered with it from its opening in 1907 to his death in 1948. It is much like the links of Scotland, with hollows and undulations around the greens and lots and lots of sand. Everywhere you look, there's sand, including along the No. 3 fairway and close to a home where Ross once resided.
The place itself, the quaint little village in central North Carolina, is easily the most charming golf-centric locale I've ever visited. From the statue of a young boy putting, which is Pinehurst's logo now, to The Carolina hotel, with its hallways lined with memorabilia from past tournaments, Pinehurst is all about golf.
That can't be a bad thing, even if its most famous golf course at times can make you wonder why you love the game.
P First round, Thursday
TV • 7 a.m., ESPN;1 p.m., Ch. 5; 4 p.m., ESPN