As golf's best take on the challenge of the U.S. Open this week at Pinehurst Resort in North Carolina, a new but older look awaits.
Unlike the usual modern U.S. Open setups, Pinehurst's No. 2 course will lack the United States Golf Association's signature thick, juicy rough. Instead, following a renovation by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, Pinehurst's rough has been replaced by natural, sandy waste areas. Using aerial photographs and other historical accounts from the course's early years, Coore and Crenshaw have attempted to bring Pinehurst No. 2 back to its roots and better represent Donald Ross' original design.
No rough at a U.S. Open? Is the USGA finally relenting in its defense of par and apparent glee at punishing the best players in the world? Far from it.
Pinehurst won't play any easier. It will, however, play very differently.
Players missing the fairway will encounter many different lies in the waste areas, leaving their chances largely up to luck. Their ball could be sitting up in the sand, buried deep in the native vegetation or anywhere in between. As USGA executive director Mike Davis told the New York Times, "You could have two balls six inches apart and one player can go for the green and the other player can't. The game we play isn't meant to be equal all the time or necessarily fair."
In previous U.S. Opens, a player finding the rough had only one real option: gouge out his ball and advance it up the fairway. At Pinehurst, contestants should have more opportunities to go for the green from the waste areas. As Randall Mell of Golf Channel points out, these extra options could make Pinehurst harder by introducing more decision-making into the tournament.
Davis seems to most relish seeing how players fare in the toughest spot of all. He relishes putting them in their own heads. He does that with setups that force players to think their way out of trouble more often now, versus putting them in spots where the sole choice is chopping out of trouble with a wedge.
With more choices required, players will be more apt to make a wider range of numbers on a given hole, giving the tournament an extra jolt of excitement. PGA Tour veteran Joe Ogilvie explained this to Golf Channel:
Golf is a game of temptation. If you give me an idea, put it in my mind that I can hit a shot, whether it’s borderline or not...the lowest score I shoot on a hole and the highest score are going to be pretty wide. But you give me 6-inch chop-out rough, I guarantee you I’m going to make a par or a bogey. I’m not going to make a double. It’s going to be less exciting.
Pinehurst is just the first step in the evolution of the U.S. Open, though. Next year, the championship will head to Tacoma, Washington, and Chambers Bay, a links course on Puget Sound. When the U.S. Amateur was held there in 2010, the course played more like a British Open venue than a usual USGA setup.
In 2017, the tournament will head to Erin Hills in Wisconsin, another natural, links-style layout. Erin Hills also looked very different on TV during the 2011 U.S. Amateur than viewers have come to expect from the USGA. Though traditional U.S. Open courses like Oakmont and Shinnecock Hills remain on the docket in coming years, the USGA's shift to include other, more natural layouts is apparent.
Why this shift in ideology, some may wonder? Current trends in golf course architecture have many new courses being built with the goal of minimizing the amount of earth moved during construction. Many designers are choosing to leave peripheral areas in their natural states rather than planting vast swaths of rough, thus conserving water needed to irrigate the course.
On the same note, even the watered areas of courses, including the fairways and greens, are receiving less water. In short, to be "green," superintendents are letting their courses turn brown.
At Pinehurst No. 2, water use has been cut in half, saving 40 million gallons of water per year. The lack of rough eliminated many sprinkler heads from the course, and those that remain are not being used as often. The fairways are playing firmer and faster on an everyday basis. Davis explains:
At the U.S.G.A., we would say the biggest threat to the game, long term, is water. That is a great story of what Pinehurst has done because they’ve said that we don’t have to irrigate 150 acres anymore. We can get drier, firmer fairways, and we hope that this can be done other places, too.
While firm and fast courses have been a USGA staple for as long as anyone can remember, these conditions often countered the character of the course. The USGA brought in these artificial conditions to present a challenging test for the world's best players.
At Pinehurst, the firm fairways will not only greet the 156 players this week but also countless resort guests playing the course on a daily basis. Pinehurst, Chambers Bay and Erin Hills are all designed with the ground game in mind, much like the classic courses of Scotland and Ireland.
As the U.S. Open expands to include rolling, natural, windswept links, the host courses share one other thing in common: Anyone can play them. In a continuous effort that started with Bethpage in 2002 and 2009 and Torrey Pines in 2008, the USGA has sought to bring its biggest tournament to municipal and other public courses throughout the country. Like Bethpage and Torrey, Chambers Bay is a municipal. Other courses, including Pinehurst and Erin Hills, are open to the public even if they aren't city-owned.
Fans watching the U.S. Open this week should get used to the natural, scruffier look. The usual lush fairways and deep rough will give way to a browner course, playing as it was originally intended. This is the USGA's new look, and it's not going away anytime soon.