PINEHURST, N.C. — The Open starts Thursday, and for anyone who takes a quick look at Pinehurst No. 2, there is sure to be one question.
Just which Open is this?
The fairways are as much brown as they are green, mainly along the edges. They are running so fast that some players are hitting iron off the tee on par 4s that measure more than 500 yards. The sandy areas along the fairway appear to be dunes.
It all makes this look more like a British Open.
The U.S. Open is notorious for tight fairways and thick rough. Pinehurst has plenty of room off the tee and — get this — no rough.
Bill Coore, who along with Ben Crenshaw was in charge of the restoration project at this Donald Ross masterpiece, can only imagine the conversations.
“What’s all this brown about? What’s all this sand? What’s all this native grass about?” Coore said. “People could look at this on television and go, ‘Oh my God, Pinehurst quit maintaining the course.’”
What hasn’t changed is the U.S. Open reputation as the toughest test in golf.
No one expects anything less.
Jonas Blixt dropped by Pinehurst No. 2 a month ago because he had never seen the course. After finishing his round, he was walking down the steps toward the locker room when he ran into a familiar face.
“Over par wins,” Blixt said, and he kept right on walking.
Weather usually dictates scoring in the U.S. Open. Rory McIlroy shattered records at rain-softened Congressional three years ago at 16-under 268 to win by eight. He is a U.S. Open champion who still feels as though he has something to prove in golf’s second-oldest championship.
“I haven’t won a tournament whenever it’s been like this,” he said of the hot, crispy conditions. “That’s why I’m relishing the challenge. It’s conditions that I haven’t won in before and I’d love to be able to prove to myself, prove to other people, that I can win in different conditions. It’s a great opportunity to do that this week.”
Thunderstorms are likely to pop up in the heat of the afternoon. Even so, Pinehurst already has proven to be a beast under any circumstances. In the previous two U.S. Opens here, only Payne Stewart finished under par at 1-under 279 in 1999.
Michael Campbell won at even par in 2005.
USGA executive director Mike Davis has been beaming all week, mostly at the tinge of brown across what used to be emerald Pinehurst.
“We are really ready right now,” Davis said Wednesday. “This is exactly where you want it. You’re not always lucky to get it this way going into every National Open Championship. But we’ve got it this year.”
The perception is the U.S. Open wants a winning score at about even par. Davis swears that isn’t the case. Earlier in the week, he said the USGA could set up the golf course so that 15-over par would be the winning score.
“You could make these things unplayable,” he said. “We don’t want to do that.”
Still, he left little doubt that something around par would go a long way. The last two U.S. Open champions finished at 1-over par — Webb Simpson at Olympic Club, Justin Rose at Merion. The last time three straight U.S. Opens had a winning score over par was from 1957-59.
“What the winning score is? I’m not a good guesser at that, partly because I never know what the weather is going to give us,” he said. “But I will tell you, if we don’t get any rain from here on out, this is going to be a tough test.”
For all the talk about brown, the character of Pinehurst No. 2 always has been the greens. They often are described as turtle backs or inverted saucers.
Masters champion Bubba Watson offered a different description.
“It’s going to be tough for me just because the greens are so unfriendly, I guess is the best way to say it,” Watson said. Unfriendly meaning unfair?
“No, they’re going to be fair to somebody,” he said. “The top 10 this week are going to be happy with them. The guy winding up holding the trophy is going to be happy.”
The course measures 7,562 yards, extremely long for a par 70. There are six holes over 500 yards, and only two of them par 5s. Davis, however, said the course will never play as long as the scorecard because of tees moving forward over the next four days.
“It is unusual,” McIlroy said. “You think of a U.S. Open and you think of tight fairways, you think of thick rough. You used to miss the green in a U.S. Open by 3 or 4 yards and you’re having to hack out of cabbage. But now … you’ve got so many different ways to play. You’re going to have to be imaginative.”
Only nine of the 156 players in the field were at Pinehurst for the 1999 and 2005 championships. That experience won’t help all that much now. Jason Day had never seen Pinehurst until recently, so this is all he knows.
“I think it’s going to be a very difficult course,” he said. “And I think it’s going to be a good challenge for all of us.”