The USGA's two-week stay in North Carolina exceeded expectations, with Martin Kaymer, Michelle Wie and -- in particular -- the No. 2 course leaving lasting impressions
Riding to the terminal at Raleigh-Durham airport Monday morning on a rental-car shuttle whose passengers included Paula Creamer's dog, Studley, I couldn't tell if the Coton de Tulear had enjoyed his stay in Pinehurst, but I sure did. (As I read later, Creamer was at Fort Bragg the day after the U.S. Women's Open, entertaining the troops.)
Despite having covered major championships for three decades, the double dip in the North Carolina Sandhills was special. When you can go home to work historic back-to-back championships, it doesn't get any better than that. Although I haven't lived in the Pinehurst area since the 1980s, I felt the pride of a local hoping the men's and women's U.S. Opens would be completed without any hiccups.
I am someone who played Pinehurst No. 2 on cold December mornings in the 1970s in the Donald Ross Memorial Junior, was a standard bearer at PGA Tour events there and participated in high school matches on the resort's other courses. I never thought twice that there was a 91st hole in the clubhouse. Grow up around Pinehurst, and you know it has been golf land, populated by a goodly share of golf people, for a very long time.
Beyond the USGA's logistical skill and weather luck -- I'm certain I got far wetter one evening in the village when surprised by an epic downpour than any Open golfer did over 144 holes -- there is an intangible something in that Pinehurst aesthetic and vibe that contributed to the feel-good fortnight. I think David Fay, the former USGA executive director who championed the idea (and should be applauded for it), knew in the back of his mind there was something there besides a fine course and lots of room for coffer-filling, air-conditioned tents.
But let's also be honest: We were fortunate to get the sublime performance of Martin Kaymer and the breakthough achievement by Michelle Wie. Had Wie's late blunder at the 16th hole -- What was she thinking not playing a conservative shot to the fairway from that bunker with a three-stroke lead? -- led to an ugly defeat, the mood would have been much different Sunday evening. As it was her strategic error provided only a scare, and golfers will now want to try to duplicate Wie's fantastic birdie putt on No. 17 like they do Payne Stewart's crucial par putt on the 18th in 1999. Forget a statue. Someone should be drawing a painting with a table on top of a turtle's back. That would immortalize Wie's going 72 holes without a three putt with her odd stance on those wacky greens.
For those who believe that great courses produce great moments, Wie's bomb at the penultimate hole recalled Tom Watson's chip-in at Pebble Beach in 1982 or Nick Price's eagle at Turnberry in 1994. Indeed, Pinehurst No. 2 proved a wonderful stage, if seeming somewhat oversold during the U.S. Open when the gallery was so large it created several uncomfortably congested junctures. Even though the ropes were still much further from the fairways during the Women's Open than in Bermuda-rough tournaments, smaller crowds made it more pleasurable to spectate in Week Two than in Week One.
As for the restored sand, wire grass and native-vegetation areas artfully put in by Bill Coore, Ben Crenshaw and their team several years ago -- a bold move that returned the mojo to Pinehurst No. 2 -- they not only look right but reintroduced randomness to recovery shots. It's true that most balls settled in very playable lies, the one for Kaymer's remarkable approach to the fifth hole in the third round being the best example. Yet some did end up in nasty places. Two such situations for Stacy Lewis on the 14th in the final round threatened to derail her exciting charge, but she took her medicine on the second one and saved a bogey.
The challenge for Pinehurst's greenkeepers will be maintaining the areas bordering the fairways to keep the dozens of types of plants and grasses from becoming too thick and too tall to the point where they are a uniform penalty the way the thick Bermuda rough was. I'm glad there wasn't much rain for weeks leading up to the Opens; it kept the vegetation thinner and the lies more hit than miss. When the greens are as formidable as those on No. 2, missing a fairway -- even generously wide corridors -- shouldn't be a golf felony. During the Opens, in most instances, it wasn't.
Smart golf minds will debate the speed/firmness/convex-shape equation of No. 2's greens forever, including after their upcoming conversion from bent to Bermuda. Of the many views expressed in the last couple of weeks, though, a simple recollection from two-time U.S. Open champion Curtis Strange, who won the North and South Amateur on No. 2 in 1975 and 1976, is lingering with me. The grass on the fringes at that time, he recalled, was tall enough that many slightly missed approaches didn't roll all the way down the slopes, a dozen yards or more from the green into a predicament worse than the shot warranted.
Quarrel all you want about whether golfers are better now than they used to be, but it's indisputable that grasses, maintenance and mowers are. In the case of the turf surrounding the Pinehurst putting surfaces, from a golf philosophy standpoint, that might not be for the better. The same is true for the greens themselves, groomed to be slightly faster for each successive U.S. Open at Pinehurst. In the spirit of Donald Ross, who tinkered with No. 2 much of his life, and gave it to the game, those in charge should ponder what really makes common sense now.
Those are quibbles, though, coming out of a grand two weeks of golf at a singular venue. I don't see Pinehurst No. 2 ever getting three U.S. Opens in a 15-year span again, but the championship will be back. It should be back, and I hope I'm back for it. In the meantime, my memory bank is full with fresh thoughts of home.