THE world’s greatest golfers are all in North Carolina this week. Well, almost all of them. But, despite the sterling efforts of Martin Kaymer, the real star in the 114th US Open has not been any of the 156-strong field.
Living up to its pre-championship billing, Pinehurst No.2 has stolen the show by highlighting just how great golf can be when the venue allows the very best to display their range of talents to their fullest.
In sharp contrast to the so-often one-dimensional fare we are “treated” to almost every week on the world’s tours, the original Donald Ross design – so faithfully recreated by architects Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw – has been a revelation. And, hopefully, an eye-opener to those who think a course has to be covered in long grass in order to sufficiently challenge the most skilful.
Here’s how much of a hazard short grass can be when employed properly. Last Tuesday morning, your faithful and, ahem, hard-working correspondent came across former Open champion Darren Clarke as he guddled about working on his short game behind No.2’s 18th green. “Come and see this,” he said.
Clarke was chipping from below the level of the putting surface, to a pin that was placed toward the rear right portion of the green, maybe 20 feet from the back fringe.
“OK, smartass [he loves me really], what do you think the perfect line is for this shot,” continued Clarke.
“I would say maybe nine inches left of the cup,” was my considered response.
“That’s about right,” said the now not-so burly Ulsterman. “But watch what happens if I chip on a line say two feet right of where you just indicated.”
Which is what he did. The ball popped up, landed and rolled slowly towards the hole. As it passed the hole, it kept rolling. And rolling. And rolling. Eventually, it pulled to a belated halt something like 50-feet from the cup.
“Now I’m going to chip another ball no more than six inches left of perfect,” said Clarke.
So he did. This time the ball didn’t stop until it was actually off the green on the far side. Laughing, Clarke then flipped up a third ball, this time on the ideal line. It stopped within four feet of the hole.
“That’s how small the margin for error is around here,” concluded Clarke. “These greens have so much potential to make even a really great chipper look silly.”
And so it has proved to be. Amidst the many wonderfully inventive and imaginative short shots we have seen over the last few days, there has been the odd bout of carnage. Which is what golf should be like, but hardly ever is outside of the major championships.
IN another pre-championship chat, top coach Pete Cowen had this to say about Pinehurst No.2’s second green: “In my view, the second green is impossible to hit. Impossible. It doesn’t matter if you are going in with an 8-iron or a 4-iron. You can’t hit that green.”
Judging by what went on over the first two rounds, Cowen wasn’t completely accurate in his hyperbolic assessment. But his point was well made. There were 312 attempts made to find the second green in regulation over the opening 36 holes and on average only one member of each three-ball was successful. Pete knows his golf.
THE climax (weather permitting) to the US Open this evening is, of course, only the halfway point in a fortnight of golfing fun here in North Carolina. Seven days from now – courtesy of a unique USGA initiative – the new US Women’s Open champion will also be crowned at Pinehurst No.2.
Exciting as that prospect clearly is, however, this is an experiment riddled with risk.
Will, for example, the course be in any kind of shape to host a second major event so soon after the first? Will the ladies be able to handle the extreme green speeds, never mind the variety of chips and pitches (an area of the game where they are markedly inferior to their male counterparts)? And can the course be set up in such a way that direct and relevant comparisons are possible?
“Based on what I have been told, the set-up of the golf course is going to be pretty much the same as it has been for the men,” says two-times major champion Dottie Pepper, pictured, an on-course commentator for ESPN these past few days. “Yes, the greens might be a little softer and slower, but I’m not sure that is really important. The ladies can handle really fast putting surfaces, as they showed when their US Open was played at Oakmont a few years ago. They made their fair share [of putts] that week.
“I’m more concerned with the approach shots than the putting, to be honest. The men hit the ball higher and with more spin than the girls. Which is a huge factor when you have greens like you have here at Pinehurst. A combination of a flatter trajectory and less spin means that balls will release after they land. In contrast, the shots hit by male professionals bounce a couple of times then grip.
“So if the greens are the same speed they have been this week, the women are going to be hitting a lot of balls through the greens. They are just not going to stop quickly enough. I think that’s the biggest danger I see if you want to compare this week with next. In my opinion, the greens need to be maybe a foot slower.”
As for the overall condition of the course on Thursday morning, there shouldn’t be much of a problem. With the dryness of the turf (the only sprinklers run right down the centre of the fairways), the men have been blowing up dust clouds rather than digging up monster divots. So the more accurate ladies (who hit on average 13 per cent more fairways) likely won’t have to hack out of big holes after hitting great drives.
“I’m really not convinced by the argument that the course is going to be overly ‘beat up’ before the women get here,” says Pepper. “If they had come along without the men going first, there would have been resort play right up until the weekend before. To my mind, all those amateurs would have damaged the course more than 156 professionals.”
Still, the six-time Solheim Cup player does have a couple of concerns.
“I do worry that we are going to be able to compare directly between the men and the women,” she says. “There are holes out there – the fourth for example – where I have a hard time seeing any woman hitting an 8-iron to the green, as I did the men on the opening day. Strength is a hard thing to legislate for.
“Plus, the USGA will have to be a little more careful with the pin positions. I don’t want to see our best players putting off greens. I see no point in making them look foolish, even if they are, in general, less creative and aggressive than the men. They do play more conservatively, which is another reason they don’t spin their shots as much.”