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Back-to-Back Backbreaker?

Here's hoping a move designed to promote women's golf doesn't backfire a week after the men play the same course

June 2014

This year, the United States Golf Association's cash cow becomes its beast of burden. Not only will Pinehurst No. 2 be the host of the U.S. Open on June 12-15 and the U.S. Women's Open the next week, but the USGA has also foisted upon the course so many other roles, messages and object lessons as to turn Pinehurst into a pachyderm. The USGA is trumpeting Pinehurst's austere irrigation as something to consider, its absence of rough as something to behold and its minimally maintained bunkers as something to embrace. All that and double duty is a lot to ask.

The legendary course in the charming Village of Pinehurst, N.C., constructed, rebuilt and refined by legendary golf architect Donald Ross, who lived left of its third green for decades until his death in 1948, is thrust into a fortnight as the all-purpose, do-everything answer to golf's woes:

It's strong enough for a man, yet not overpowering to a woman. It's a championship test that a resort duffer can play. It's a window to the past and the wave of the future. It's luxurious and a money-saver. It's a floor wax and a dessert topping.

I've been a longtime supporter of the USGA and a defender of many of its most controversial decisions, including its upcoming ban on anchored putting. I'm an enthusiastic fan of the way its executive director, Mike Davis, has set up courses for championships. So it pains me to take issue with any decision of the USGA. But its tandem U.S. Opens is tantamount to tokenism. With the men playing first, it smacks of banquet leftovers for the women, trickle-down largesse.

I have no quarrel with the course. Pinehurst No. 2 is a fabulous layout, ranked 40th among Golf Digest's latest list of America's 100 Greatest Golf Courses and frankly deserving of an even better spot after a 2010 restoration by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw and their team. They removed all the Bermuda rough that had been foolishly installed in the 1970s and re-established areas of hardpan sand, dotting them with tufts of wiregrass to allow the native vegetation to become established.

This will be the first U.S. Open and Women's Open in memory without narrow fairways framed by deep grass. (At Pinehurst in 1999 and 2005, the men faced sticky Bermuda rough of three inches.) Many of No. 2's fairways are now extremely wide, 45 yards or more, which allows players to position drives to provide the optimum angle of approach into greens. A few shorter par 4s still have fairways pinched into landing areas to provide the reward of a shorter approach shot for the risk of a long, accurate drive. But the penalty for a bad tee shot won't be a lie in ankle-deep gunch. It'll be a lie that can be easily found but not easily played.

"I hope we see some balls on hardpan," Davis says, "some balls in softer sand with footprints, some up against a patch of wiregrass, some that are sitting on pine needles. We want to see all that."

Coore calls the vast sandy areas "the stuff."

"When they hit into the stuff and have to play out of it," he says, "we're going to see some of the craziest shots coming from some of the most talented players in the world."

Combine that with Pinehurst's famous perched putting surfaces, greens that look big but play small because of sloping edges, and the result is a test of golf that demands creativity as much as caution. It ought to make for a great U.S. Open. And a great U.S. Women's Open.

I just don't like them back-to-back. The men will be getting pristine conditions; the women get the stadium the day after the Super Bowl. Tournament conditions routinely stress a golf course over a week, let alone two weeks in a row. Then there's the havoc that weather delays might cause, spilling from one championship to the next.

Former Women's Open champion Cristie Kerr tells us she won't be able to get into her housing at Pinehurst until Monday night of the second week. "What happens if there are weather delays?" Kerr asks. If the final round ends up on Monday, forcing an 18-hole playoff to Tuesday, "that means the girls can't get on the course until Wednesday!" Kerr says.

Davis met with the LPGA players in March to hear their concerns and ease them. "We could have a playoff on Tuesday," he told me before that meeting. "We'll still let the women play practice rounds. We could have the women on other holes during a playoff." Under one scenario for a Monday playoff, play would begin at noon, and LPGA players would be allowed on the course beginning at 7 a.m and then again after the playoff. "Remember," Davis says, "it rained so much at the Open last year at Merion that some men got to practice only 27 holes."

Stacy Lewis points out that the Women's Open doesn't have a next-day 18-hole playoff. It's settled by a three-hole playoff immediately after the final round. "I would have preferred the women went first," she says. "The men would not have the risk of losing a day as a result of a playoff."

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