PINEHURST, N.C. -- The 114th U.S. Open begins Thursday morning at Pinehurst No. 2 in the sand hills of North Carolina. A 156-player field will attack a par-70 course that has so many unique challenges throughout.
As a primer for the start of the tournament, we’re offering nine plot lines to watch.
The big stories
1. Pinehurst No. 2 is brown. And undulating. And full of trap doors and torture chambers.
But back to the color scheme of this U.S. Open for a second … brown. Or brownish. At the very least, browner than when the tournament last rolled through Pinehurst No. 2 in 2005.
That course, nine years ago, was far more lush. The fairways were narrower, too.
This version? It’ll immediately catch your eye with so many added waste areas – those segments off the fairways filled with sand and pine needles, hard pan and wire grass. Nearly 40 acres of Bermuda grass has been removed. Did we mention it looks a little browner out there? Just a forewarning for when you pop on the TV.
Said USGA executive director Mike Davis: “I think (people are) going to turn it on and say, ‘Did I tune into a British Open? What is this I'm looking at?’”
This has all been by design, a calculated restoration project aimed at returning the Pinehurst No. 2 course to a look and a layout more befitting of what original designer Donald Ross intended. And in what is both a movement and an experiment, Pinehurst’s browner look is a push to alter thinking around American golf course design and maintenance.
Environmental efficiency is on the front burner. Water conservation is a priority.
“Less water on a golf course is a very good thing,” Davis said. “We happen to think that, long-term, water is going to be the biggest obstacle to the game of golf -- more than participation, more than anything. And I think certainly in certain parts of this country we're already seeing it. It's not going to just be a question of cost. It's a question of, will you be able to get it? If we can start to train golfers to say, less water is good, maintenance up the middle. In other words, what happens out in the roughs? Use less water, you have to mow it less, less fertilization. That's a very good thing.”
2. Phil Mickelson finally has his first chance to complete the career Grand Slam.
With a win this weekend, the five-time major champion would join an elite five-person fraternity. The current members: Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Tiger Woods.
Then again, the U.S. Open has been the one major that has vexed Mickelson more than any other. Six runner-up finishes in this event. A half-dozen cruel, galling, stomach-punch experiences of settling for second place. The most recent lump-in-the-throat came last summer at Merion when Mickelson finished two shots back of Justin Rose. The most unforgettable came in 2006 when Mickelson went to the 72ndtee at Winged Foot Golf Club with a one-shot lead yet came totally unraveled and never even had a putt to force a playoff.
Yep. That happened.
But the first time Mickelson ever finished second at the U.S. Open? It was 1999, right here at Pinehurst. He finished one back of Payne Stewart. Stewart sank a dramatic par putt on the tournament’s final hole. And his leg-up, fist-pumping celebration pose is commemorated with a statue not far behind Pinehurst No. 2’s 18thgreen.
Mickelson was preparing to rush to his wife’s side that day as she was preparing to give birth to their first child, Amanda. Stewart, who died in a freak plane crash later that year, tried to soothe Mickelson’s second-place sting with some perspective.
“You’re going to be a father,” Stewart told Mickelson, “and there’s nothing greater in the world.”
Now? Mickelson is back at Pinehurst No. 2. Amanda will turn 15 next week and is the oldest of three Mickelson kids.
And while Phil is still without a U.S. Open title, something about the vibe at Pinehurst has him enthused.