The contrast between the season’s first and second major venues will never be more stark than when the U.S. Open returns to a restored Pinehurst No. 2 in June. It won’t exactly be black vs. white. More like green vs. brown.
Unlike Augusta National, where the pristine palette has no tolerance for imperfections during the Masters Tournament, the U.S. Open winner will have to negotiate wire grass, weeds, washed debris, hard pan, rumpled sand and perhaps a divot or two to raise the trophy.
“I guess there’s an element of luck involved,” USGA executive director Mike Davis said. “If you get on hard pan, which for a good player is kind of green light, or you get up against a clump of wire grass – you could have two balls six inches apart and one can go for the green and one can’t. That’s kind of the nature of the game we play. It wasn’t meant to be equal all the time or necessarily fair.”
This development for the national championships in golf would likely be pleasing to Pinehurst’s original architect Donald Ross. The native Scot apparently had a handshake agreement with Bobby Jones to design the latter’s dream course in Georgia, but Ross was disappointed when Jones fell in love with the work of another famous Scottish architect, Alister MacKenzie, and went that direction instead for Augusta.
The snub only renewed Ross’ obsession to transform his prized No. 2 course in the North Carolina sandhills into America’s preeminent championship course. Through the recent restoration efforts of architects Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, Ross’ vision for Pinehurst will be presented in consecutive weeks this summer with both the men’s and women’s U.S. Opens.
“I honestly have never seen one as good as what’s happened here,” Davis said of the Pinehurst restoration that included removing almost 40 acres of grass and replacing it with native areas that have brought a variety of plant life and natural sediments into the playing arena. “It’s certainly more aesthetically pleasing, but I think from a shot value standpoint, it’s going to give the best players in the world some shots that they simply haven’t had to make in past U.S. Opens.”
For the first time in 120 years of U.S. Opens, the host venue will not be shrouded in thick rough that limits the creativity of the players who miss the typically narrow fairways. Instead, the men and women will find a course 50 percent wider than in the past that features only two mowing heights – greens and fairway – between waste areas.
That’s right, Augusta’s second cut is actually longer than any green grass the golfers will face at Pinehurst.
“We never encountered something like that for a U.S. Open. I think it’s a neat thing,” Davis said. “This time around through the great work of Bill and Ben, you’re getting different widths at different lengths off the tee. So that right there in and of itself is going to give the players on many holes options.”
This is a big change from the previous U.S. Opens played at Pinehurst in 1999 and 2005. The trademark crowned greens have always been the No. 2 course’s most defining feature, but the challenge of taking them on was reduced by players having to advance the ball out of Bermuda rough instead of attacking the greens with daring recovery shots. Now players will get to stretch their creativity and try to shoot lower scores than typical for a U.S. Open.
“The uncertainty of shots that are going to be played from those native roughs, we think, is going to be one of the most interesting stories of this championship,” Coore said. “I think for viewers and people in attendance here, the spectrum of shots that you will see in approaches to greens from players who miss the fairways will be literally from the alpha to the omega. That in itself will add a degree of excitement that we don’t associate with the United States Open Championship.”
This was a bold direction for both the USGA and Pinehurst Resort to take with their most cherished commodities. But the intervening eight decades from Ross tinkering to perfect the No. 2 course to its recent incarnation had taken most of the sandhills character away with the expanding turf.
“We lost, I think, a little bit of that specialness – we looked too much like everybody else in the game of golf,” Pinehurst owner Bob Dedman Jr. said. “It was wall to wall green. It was really monochromatic out there. I think it had become really part of the homogenization of the game of golf.”
Beyond restoring the authentic Ross intents of broken turf and bringing back the original strategic elements, the revamped Pinehurst No. 2 also offers a glimpse at what the future of golf should look like. The British Open has for years thrived with a browner-is-better philosophy, but the American standard of keeping up with Augusta National is unsustainable as water becomes a more precious resource.
“They removed over 40 acres of turf, over 700 sprinkler heads,” Dedman said of Coore and Crenshaw’s project. “We spend a lot less on chemicals now. It is tough to maintain these courses to look in their natural state, but that’s good for golf. So it’s more sustainable ecologically, but also economically.”
Davis hopes people who tune in for the men’s and women’s Opens will appreciate that when the course looks more rustic and worn on their televisions compared to the oasis presented by the Masters. Even the traditional Pinehurst bunkers will be less maintained, creating more authentic hazards.
“I think that this is a great, great story of what Pinehurst has done to say, there’s a way that we don’t have to go, we don’t have to irrigate 150 acres anymore,” Davis said. “We can cut that down. And this is a story, we can get a dryer, firmer fairways and we hope that this kind of shows the golf world that this can be done other places, too.”
Dedman called it “going backwards to go forward,” and the new/old Pinehurst No. 2 is a step in the right direction.