ONE of the many depressing aspects of your average US Open is that the “action” is all so very, very predictable.
The rough will be long and thick. The greens will be hard and fast. The holes will be stretched to within an inch of the boundary fences. And something around 280 will be the winning score, as the blue-blooded blazers of the United States Golf Association cynically manipulate the conditions in order to protect their great God, par.
Notably absent from much of the above is any semblance of imagination, flair or subtlety. The chip-and-run, exciting and risky shots from trouble and golf’s most stimulating hazard, short grass, are all nowhere to be seen. So tedium rules, on-course tactical decisions pre-determined by a faceless committee rather than – heaven forbid – golf’s most talented practitioners.
Standing on almost every tee, the game’s best are traditionally allocated but one option. “Kick it between the goal posts,” they are effectively told. “Don’t dare come up with alternate routes from tee to green. Stop thinking and just do what everyone else does.”
Beyond this obsessive and fanatical desire to reward that mythical being, the error-free competitor, the USGA forgets golf can never be a game of black-and-white results. Think about it. If all mistakes are treated the same, a player’s responses can only ever be equally indistinguishable. No grey areas between success and failure, yes and no, hit and miss, only leads to golf devoid of nuance. A shot that is mediocre rather than awful should leave open the possibility of ambitious and dramatic recovery if the player is skilled enough and brave enough to have a go.
But no, virtuosity has long been frowned upon in America’s national championship. Thus, it is 72 holes of pitching out and laying up, an event reduced to little more than an endless test of swing technique. Which must, of course, be part of the ultimate examination, but surely not the only component.
“Golf courses that present but one approach to any given shot offer the easiest of all challenges to the most technically skilled and powerful players,” contends renowned course architect, Bill Coore. “The process becomes one of pure mechanical execution, a skill today’s best players take for granted.”
OK, rant over. Happily, things are going to be different this week, when the US Open makes a third visit to glorious Pinehurst No.2 in the sand hills of North Carolina. Courtesy of a caring and informed renovation by Coore and his design partner, two-times Masters champion Ben Crenshaw, the storied course will pose the fascinating and diverse range of questions originally devised by Dornoch-born Donald Ross back in the 1930s (so devoted was he to his abiding masterpiece, Ross lived for decades by the third fairway until his death in 1948). “It didn’t take long to conclude the course that established Pinehurst’s enduring reputation was the one in place right after Ross re-did his original design in 1935,” says Coore. “That was the course we wanted to restore. Which is what we have done.”
Indeed, this will, for the first time in living memory, be a US Open in which cloying, insidious rough plays no part. Instead, the fairways will be wide, inviting the players to create their own angles into the famous “up-turned saucers” that are the Pinehurst greens. The endlessly creative Seve Ballesteros, the only man to win significant events on golf’s three most strategic venues – the Old Course at St Andrews, Royal Melbourne and Augusta National – would have loved such a multifarious challenge. So should six-times US Open runner-up Phil Mickelson, whose short game prowess is, on paper at least, well suited to the revamped course. More prosaic, “join up the dots” performers such as former US Open champions Jim Furyk, Tom Kite, Hale Irwin and Webb Simpson? Not so much.
“It is going to be interesting to see how the pros play the course,” continues Coore. “My sense is that they will be more aggressive from the tee. They will take more chances. But, when they do miss a fairway, they could be pitching out laterally, if the ball finishes in a bit of wiregrass. On the other hand, they might have a clean, hardpan lie from where they can hit pretty much any shot. You might as well give them a tee. And those two extremes could be as little as a yard apart.
“The best part is that I think we will see a huge variety of approaches. Guys will have opportunities to try the most spectacular shots. And, best of all, if the ball is lying on soft sand or pine needles, those attempts could go anywhere. People watching are going to be asking: ‘What the heck was that?’ My feeling is we will see a mixture of spectacularly successful and spectacularly unsuccessful recoveries.”
Coore’s obvious sense of anticipation will be shared with those appalled by what went on during Pinehurst’s previous US Opens, in 1999 and 2005. In both, the fairways were artificially narrowed, then bordered by three inches of thick Bermuda rough.
“The worst part was not being able to play the course as it had so obviously been designed by Ross,” says Geoff Ogilvy, pictured left, who memorably won the US Open at Winged Foot in 2006. “Plus, endlessly being told where to hit my drives got old pretty quickly.”
Still, as Coore points out, Ross’s vision has been fully and exactly restored, courtesy of a lucky break during the planning process.
“Out of the blue, a Pinehurst member by the name of Craig Disher called us and told us he might have access to aerial pictures of each hole from the time period we were looking for,” reveals Coore. “Two weeks later he called again and told us he had the pictures.
“He had aerial shots of all 18 holes. It was unbelievable. We never did find out where Mr Disher got the photographs. He works for the US government and wasn’t about to tell us. But he did reveal they were taken on Christmas Day 1943. He could even tell us how deep the bunkers were. He had the exact time each picture was taken. Not to the year, month, day, or hour but to the minute. From that information he could tell the angle of the sun and shadows and so the depth of the bunkers. We didn’t quite need that much detail. But, all of sudden, we went from guessing to knowing. We had all the proof we needed to move forward.”
Perhaps the only asterisk is that the USGA, in its finite wisdom, may attempt to keep the scores up by inventing daft pin positions. Then again, maybe not. While the putting surfaces on No.2 are physically large, they play much smaller due to the severely sloping run-offs on all sides. So the number of available spots for flagsticks is limited. But it remains a safe bet that low scoring early in the piece will be met with some severe “hole locations” (whatever they are) and silly-fast green speeds over the weekend. According to the USGA’s narrow, one-dimensional view of golf, par must be defended at any cost.
There will also be one other important innovation this year. Even more intriguing than the prospect of watching leading professionals tackle the “real” Pinehurst No.2 is that the Women’s US Open will be played over the same terrain next week. “People have stereotypes,” contends Mike Davis, USGA executive director and the man charged with course set-up. “People have misconceptions. This is a pretty neat opportunity to let men and women perform at the same time and at the same place.”
Not quite exactly the same. Armed with their frying-pan drivers and thermo-nuclear golf balls, the men will play at a maximum of 7,565 yards, the women, at most, just 6,649 yards. There are other differences too. The purse for the men is $8 million – for the women $3.25m. So, while the ladies will play around 88 per cent of the course laid out for the men, they will receive only 41 per cent of the remuneration.
One last thought. If there are weather-related delays in the shape of thunder and lightning (a real possibility), we could see the traditional 18-hole Monday (or Tuesday) play-off for the US Open taking place when the ladies will surely want to be out practising. Just saying.