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.
“I do feel heading into this year’s U.S. Open that this golf course, this setup and everything about Pinehurst provides me the best opportunity,” Mickelson said.
As for all those painful near misses at U.S. Opens? Mickelson insists they’re not the demons they might seem.
“I look at those close calls as a positive sign for having given myself so many opportunities in our national championship,” he said. “And I believe that I’ll have more opportunities.”
3. While Mickelson goes for a career Grand Slam, Bubba Watson is the only player with a chance to capture the 2014 Grand Slam.
Yep, Bubba is now eight weeks removed from winning the Masters and his experiencing handling that pressure-cooker environment can’t hurt. But U.S. Opens don’t seem to put Watson in the same comfort zone that Augusta National seems to.
This will be Watson’s eighth U.S. Open. He had one top-five finish in 2007 but has missed the cut three times – in 2004, ’08 and ‘12 – and hasn’t really been a major factor otherwise. And from the sounds of his press conference at Pinehurst this week, he isn’t exactly overflowing with confidence coming into this tournament on this course.
Watson senses that Pinehurst No. 2’s layout won’t make his length off the tee as big of a factor as it can often be. So he’s already strategizing to scale back some to take away the risk of bombing his drive into some of the waste areas.
“I don’t know what they call it,” Watson said. “Rough. Dirt. Sand. I don’t know what they’re calling it. But it’s going to be iffy. You don’t know what kind of lies you’re going to get.”
Watson does know that the U.S. Open is traditionally taxing mentally. And Pinehurst seems to have plenty of teeth in that regard.
“It wears you down,” Watson said. “It wears you down mentally.”
4. Looking for your 2014 U.S. Open Champion? Prioritize creativity, precision and patience around the greens.
Yes, there will be a lot of talk about those areas adjacent to the fairways – the wire grass and the sandy hardpan and all the elements that combine to become a rough equivalent. But many players agree this tournament will hinge on solving the nuances of the tricky Donald Ross-designed turtleback greens.
On approach shots, flag hunting will be discouraged. There’s just so much risk involved in attacking firm, domed greens that repel imprecise shots.
“Everyone is going to miss a few more greens this week than they’re used to,” Adam Scott said. “So they better be ready for that. Patience will be tested.”
Knowing where not to miss will often be more important than going at the hole. And in those run-off areas around the greens, short-game options will be plentiful. Putting. Chipping. Bump-and-run.
“Imagination,” Scott said, “is going to be a big thing.”
5. The course is listed at a length of 7,562 yards but will never play that long.
USGA executive director Mike Davis said so directly on Wednesday afternoon, simply noting that the tee box options offer a length up to 7,562 yards but have so many diverse possibilities that the flexibility in course set-up will be terrific on a daily basis.
Take the par-3 sixth hole for example, which has a new tee box that will allow it to push back as far as 240 yards. The hidden reason?
“Pinehurst removed a brick restroom that was there,” Davis said. “And we thought, this will give us an opportunity to spread the length of shots into the different par 3s.”
The other par 3s list at 191 yards at No. 9, 202 at No. 15 and 205at No. 17. Now, the sixth hole can be pushed back, Davis suggested, to, say, 240 yards on one day just to add some variation to the par 3s.
“We may move it way up another day, depending on hole location, depending on weather condition,” Davis said.
The other big change from the ’05 Open to now is that the fourth hole once was a par 5 and is now a 529-yard par 4 and the fifth was once a par 4 and now a par 5 that can be pushed back to 576 yards. Those changes have caused plenty of chatter this week. But Davis simply shrugged. What does it matter?
“Those two holes are going to play to a par 9 no matter what we call them,” he said.
6. The U.S. Open begins Thursday morning and is scheduled to end on Sunday, June 22.
Well, to be more clear, the men’s U.S. Open begins Thursday morning. And when that tournament is finished, the women’s U.S. Open will take the stage on the very same course at Pinehurst and finish up on June 22.
Yes, the women are likely to inherit a course that’s a little beat up. Divots from the men will be everywhere. Large spectator-walkway paths through the fairways will be trampled. And keeping the greens humming for the men this week without drying them out and making them too fast and too unreceptive for the ladies will be complicated.
But overall, the USGA is pushing the sentiment that this unique back-to-back U.S. Open experience at Pinehurst will inject a new level of excitement into the women’s tournament.
Said Davis: “There's been, I think it's fair to say, probably more talk about the Women's Open and this back-to-back thing than we've had going into any Women's Open in probably the last 69 playings. We're excited about that, they're excited about that. … In a lot of ways, this next week is going to be showcasing women's golf. That's one of the reasons we wanted to do it.
“I certainly am a big believer that most golfers do not realize how good these female players are. They play a slightly different game, but they play a marvelous game, and it's going to be neat to see them on the same iconic golf course here at Pinehurst.”
7. Cool under-the-radar storylines are everywhere.
It’s quite a field once again. Twenty-four players here have previously won a major championship.
But a dozen amateurs will also tee it up Thursday.
The oldest player in the field is Kenny Perry, who’s 53.The youngest player is 17-year-old Will Grimmer, who just so happened to card a remarkable 59 last year playing in the North & South Junior Amateur at Pinehurst No. 1.
Players with Chicagoland ties include Kevin Streelman (originally from Winfield); Luke Donald (a former Northwestern standout); Steve Stricker and D.A. Points (both University of Illinois alumni) and Brian Campbell (a current Illiini); and Mark Wilson (who currently lives in Elmhurst).
8. Webb Simpson feels right at home at Pinehurst.
And he should. Long before Simpson made it big as the 2012 U.S. Open champ, he was a kid growing up in Raleigh with his family’s getaway home in Pinehurst at the Country Club of North Carolina. So Simpson is as familiar with Pinehurst No. 2 as any competitor in the 156-player field. In high school, he even captured an individual state title as a senior with a final-round 71 on Pinehurst No. 2.
At the 1999 U.S. Open, Simpson served as a third-round standard bearer for Tom Watson and Stephen Allen.
And this week, he knows he’ll be able to draw a little extra energy and adrenaline from a home-state crowd that will include so many enthusiastic friends and family. But with that, Simpson said his caddie Paul Tesori offered a subtle pep talk early in the week about managing his excitement.
“After walking nine holes Monday, he called me and said, ‘There's two things we've got to do well this week: you've got to get your rest and we've got to stay patient on the golf course,’” Simpson said. “He thinks rest this week is more important than practicing. It was kind of a good phone call, because you get here and there's so much you can work on, the practice facilities are so big and there's so many shots you can hit.
“The kid inside of you wants to be out all day practicing. But it's 90 degrees. So, yeah, I think we've had really good focused practicing sessions. They've just been a little shorter than most tournaments.”
9. The last word heading into the tournament belongs to 2011 U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy.
McIlroy began the year with a personal push to win two majors. He finished in the top 10 at the Masters in April but was never really a serious contender after a rough second round left him right near the cut line. Only three majors are left this year. But McIlroy still believes he can win two of them.
The key to taming Pinehurst this week? Here’s McIlroy’s take: “The greens are obviously very undulating. They throw the balls all different directions. And you're going to have to have a very imaginative and inventive short game to get the ball going. … It's set up as the ultimate test of golf, like the U.S. Open always is. And I'm relishing the challenge of grinding out pars and having to get it up and down when I need to. The last couple of champions around here (Stewart in 1999 and Michael Campbell in 2005), they only averaged 10 or 11 greens (in regulation per round. Ao you're going to have to have a really sharp short game. And a lot of practice has been going into that to try to get it as sharp as possible. … In the 72 holes I'm hopefully going to play here, I mean, I might go at five pins – if they're pins that are accessible, pins that you feel confident that you can get to. With the way these greens are, the green complexes, anything in the middle of the green is a really good shot.”