Pinehurst No. 2 has been remodeled, but it was not as much to do with the U.S. Open being held there in June as it was to do with making the course look more like the day it first opened. It will look more natural and less like the wall-to-wall green that we are accustomed to seeing on golf courses. That doesn't necessarily mean easier. By embracing this approach, which was taken by the resort, the USGA is making a statement about the cost of upkeep of modern courses.
"It's hard to believe you could make it better, but it's made it better," Mike Davis, Executive Director of the USGA, said about the re-do performed by Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore. "From a shot-value standpoint, it's going to give the players, best players in the world some shots that they simply haven't had to make in past U.S. Opens."
Davis said that when people generally talk about the national opens, mostly what comes up is the difficulty of the tournaments and setup. He said that topic never comes up at the USGA.
"Internally, when we talk about what we want it to be, you never hear us talk about wanting it to be the hardest test," Davis explained. "What we really want our national championships to be is an incredibly challenging test where it challenges every aspect of the game, shot-making skills, your course-management skills, your ability to handle the pressure at certain times of the championship."
The test at Pinehurst has always been the green complexes, which are Donald Ross push-up greens, designed that way at the turn of the 20th century because there was not the kind of drainage that we have today.
"They play so much smaller than they actually at least appear on paper," Davis said about the greens.
That's because while the square footage of the greens is one size, a huge chunk of the square footage is sloping off the sides.
"When they get firmer, it's tougher to hold a ball on the green," Davis added. "When they get faster, all of a sudden some of those slopes, whether it's a false front, a false back, a false side, they shrink the green."
The design of the green slopes also provides for some creative and disastrous chipping as well as run-up shot opportunities.
There are some firsts at this year's Opens. For a change, and it's a big change, golfers will not need a machete club to get out of the rough.
"For the first time ever, we are not having long rough grass for a U.S. Open or for that matter for a Women's Open. That's a first. Considering the fact that we have been playing U.S. Opens for 120 years," Davis said, but that doesn't guarantee smooth sailing for every shot.
"Sometimes they're going to be on sandy hard pan. Sometimes they're going to be on soft, foot-printed, loose sand. Sometimes they're going to be up against or underneath wire grass. Sometimes some of the vegetation, the natural vegetation that's just come up in these areas, sometimes it will be on pine needles or up against a pine cone."
How short will the no rough look be? The fairway grass will be mowed the same length as the tees. The greens will be shorter that that. There will just be just two main levels of grass, fairway and green. There will also be scrub grasses that have been allowed to grow up in various areas of the course.
"From a golf-course-maintenance standpoint, it's really a wonderful thing, saying you got two mow heights and that's it," Davis added.
It means, in theory, no more 27-yard or 18-yard wide fairways. But strategy comes into play, which is different for a U.S. Open, but not that much different than the rest of the year for professionals.
Another first is that the U.S. Open and U.S. Women's Open will be played back-to-back at the same course, both at Pinehurst No. 2, in June.
The USGA added some new tees, but not for length alone. Some of the new teeing areas are to increase length of holes, but some of them are forward tees to allow flexibility during the rounds. If they have a drivable par four for men, they also want to have it to be a drivable par four for women.
The men's scorecard all the way back is 7,562 yards, but Davis does not expect to play it that way. The women's scorecard is 900 yards shorter.
"The way we will do the setup is that to the extent possible we want these two weeks to play exactly the same, given the slightly differing ability of the men versus the women," Davis continued. "The idea is there that if the men are hitting a wedge in, and it's kind of a bounce, stop. That's what we'll want for the women. If the women are hitting a 6‑iron in and it's a bounce, bounce, stop. That's what we want for the men.
They expect the greens to run 11.5-12 on the stimpmeter for both events.
"I can tell you this right now, we will be in the so‑called Payne Stewart location, on Round 4, both for the men and for the women," he added.
There's also a chance for another "bunkergate" with the grassy areas close to bunkers. According to the USGA, there will be a walking official with each group, and that should prevent an occurrence similar to the Dustin Johnson situation at Whistling Straights in the PGA Championship. But the PGA had an official on site, and he did not call anyone's attention to the trampled sandy area that Dustin Johnson hit out of, thinking it was a waste area because the gallery had trampled it beyond recognition.
However, Davis said they have not considered having everything play through the green or having everything a hazard.
"Where there's any question, there will be hopefully enough definition that the player along with the official can determine that," Davis said. "Something else I should note on these bunkers is that you're going to see that right now they're just being maintained in the bottoms. We are going to do that for the U.S. Open."
Whether it is the reason for this overall change or if it is just happenstance, the USGA is taking these changes as demonstrating ways to lower maintenance costs in golf.
"The second most expensive thing in a budget for a golf course is the bunker maintenance," Davis said.
He said the idea of spending so much money on maintaining a hazard to make all the lies in hazards "consistent" isn't sustainable and that they applaud Pinehurst for making a bunker a less well-maintained part of the course.
"Think about that. It's a hazard. And golf courses are spending huge sums of money, just beyond the putting greens, on maintaining bunkers. This is a better way to maintain bunkers. It's cheaper, so they just basically tamp down the outside. You'll see some vegetation growing. It gets the ball to the bottom."
To preserve the greens for both weeks, the USGA is going to prohibit anyone but caddies and players from being on the green surfaces during practice rounds. No agents, no coaches, no psychiatrists, no fitness experts, no extraneous people.
"We're not going to have 15 people up with each group on each green," he insisted.
"What was done here with the restoration, in some ways was a byproduct of them wanting to get back to Donald Ross and its origins, but what this has done is they're using less resources to maintain Pinehurst No. 2 than they used to use," Davis added. "They now do not overseed it, which costs money, uses a lot of water, fertilizer, and so on. So in the winter it goes dormant. It's a wonderful surface to play off of."
Pinehurst is also using 50 percent less water with this new "look," and they mow less. However, the look is more brown, less green in winter months for the fairways.
"At the USGA, we would say the biggest threat to the game long term is water," Davis continued. "Whether it's 20 years from now, whether it's right now in certain parts of the country or a hundred years from now, water is going to be the thing that ultimately is going to affect the game the most."
He said this shows that 150 acres of a golf course don't have to be irrigated. That clubs can cut back and cut down on how much water is used. Pinehurst took out 700 sprinkler heads.
"We can get dryer, firmer fairways, and we hope that this kind of shows the golf world that this can be done other places too," he finished.
A byproduct or unintended consequence of having all the grass mowed lower is that there will be fewer balls "lost" in the rough because there is no rough. A byproduct of having less water is that all shots should roll more, giving golfers more distance. If there's more roll, and less rough, it could actually speed up play. It won't speed it up at either the men's or women's opens, but it could easily speed it up for the resort player.
Is it possible that Pinehurst and the USGA are on to something?
Kathy Bissell is a Golf Writer for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand or from official interview materials from the USGA, PGA Tour or PGA of America.