It's OK to be No. 2 at No. 2
The double U.S. Open experiment at Pinehurst continues with the women set to take center stage -- and the USGA's grand plan slowly being vindicated.
PINEHURST, N.C. -- When Martin Kaymer finished off his victory in the U.S. Open last Sunday, the 4,077 seats in the bleachers at the 18th green of Pinehurst No. 2 were full. That won't be the case this Sunday when the U.S. Women's Opens ends on the same Pinehurst No. 2 course.
Well, the bleachers may be full, there just will be fewer people in them.
In an impressive bit of maneuvering, the USGA removed 2,517 seats from the 18th green grandstand, cutting it down to 1,560.
That's just another example of how hard the USGA has worked to make this unprecedented twin U.S. Open experiment a success. It has left nothing to chance -- both in perception and in reality. Empty seats would look bad so there won't be any.
While many LPGA players took it as a slight that the Women's Open was going after the men's, the USGA has gone out of its way to make them feel not only welcome but special. Women who arrived over the weekend marveled at the quality of the food in player hospitality and were pleased to learn it would remain the same for them.
On Monday night, Rolex and the World Golf Hall of Fame hosted a dinner celebrating women in golf. On Tuesday, the USGA had a first-ever champions' dinner for those who had won the U.S. Women's Open. The purse is jumping from $3.25 million to $4 million, its first increase in six years.
And the grounds staff has worked tirelessly to get No. 2 ready for another U.S. Open, a crew of 100 on the morning shift and another of 60 toiling in the afternoon heat, according to Pinehurst director of golf course & grounds management Bob Farren.
When USGA executive director Mike Davis addressed an LPGA players meeting during the Founders Cup in Phoenix in March, he was met with some rather skeptical questions and a few hostile remarks. While not all in the LPGA family are happy playing the same course the week after the men, most have spun 180 degrees from their initial reaction, seeing it not as a slight but an opportunity.
The significant risks of going second are very likely worth the potential rewards. This is the most anyone has been talking about the U.S. Women's Open going into the tournament ever.
Those players who walked inside the ropes Sunday with the final group of Kaymer and Rickie Fowler were genuinely swept up into the magic of the moment. "I was talking to [Jessica] Korda and I looked to my left and I was like, 'Whoa, this is amazing,'" says Michelle Wie. "We both got goose bumps. I'm getting chills right now thinking about it. We're definitely making history this year."
The biggest concern the women had -- the condition of the golf course -- seems to pretty much be a non-issue. Usually, by Sunday night of the U.S. Open, the course is close to dead. Not so this year at Pinehurst No. 2.
"We have focused a lot of attention on the closely mown green surrounds to manage the grain and moisture levels," Farren says. "Our focus has been centered on these areas along with the putting surfaces. We have paid really close attention to the divot manage and are very pleased with the results of these efforts."
The players also seem to be pleased. What Davis had said all along -- that the firm base of the North Carolina Sandhills makes No. 2 a course that can bounce back quickly -- has proven to be true.
"The conditions on the golf course are great," says Lexi Thompson. "This golf course, it's pretty firm, so there's not many divots or anything. I'm barely taking divots here and I take massive divots."
What is it going to take to win this week? Power, precision and putting. Long hitters will be rewarded by having shorter irons into the turtle-back greens, but all will face the challenge of getting the ball up-and-down from the greenside collection areas.
"I spent most of my practice rounds in those chipping areas around the edges of the greens, because I think you're going to end up there more of the times than you're going to end up on the green," says Stacy Lewis, the No. 1 player in women's golf.
Farren says that the biggest challenge this week will be the weather as temperatures are expected to hover near 100 degrees throughout the tournament. On Tuesday, thunderstorms rolled through the area, knocking out power in nearby Southern Pines.
So who among the field of 156 best fits the power, precision and putting formula?
Suzann Pettersen, Wie, Lewis, Anna Nordqvist and Thompson are among the top six in greens in regulation. Thompson, Pettersen, Lewis, Caroline Hedwall and Wie are among the top 20 in driving distance. And Lewis, defending champion Inbee Park, Sandra Gal, Wie, Paula Creamer and Korda are in the top 10 in putts per GIR.
"The words I got from Martin [Kaymer's] caddie was just be aggressive," says Pettersen. "Much better being in the native area having a shorter iron than laying back and coming in with less trajectory."
That strategy worked for Kaymer and aggressive play will likely be rewarded this week as well. This should be fun to watch, and most likely with a much more dramatic finish.
Midway through, the Twin Open experiment is a success. But all along we knew the second week would be the real challenge. What we do know is this is perhaps the biggest stage upon which women's golf has ever performed. And that's a good thing.