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Pinehurst will play tough, just like '99By
June 14, 2005, 12:47 PM ET
By Ron Whitten
It has been just six years since the only previous U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2, and all we've been hearing, leading up to this month's return engagement at the venerable North Carolina layout, are a lot of warm and fuzzy recollections about how perfect Pinehurst was in 1999. Payne Stewart won dramatically; runner-up Phil Mickelson played admirably; and the entire field greeted this grand old course with hosannas and rose petals.
Unlike the course setups at Bethpage and Shinnecock, the one at Pinehurst No. 2 in 1999 doesn't receive much criticism, despite the fact that only one player broke par.
Have we lost our ability to remember?
There were a lot of players who didn't like Pinehurst No. 2 in '99, and it's likely even more won't like it this year.
How could anyone not like Pinehurst No. 2? It looks so innocent, so benign, off the tee. It's probably the only tree-lined course in championship golf where the trees aren't a factor. The only water hazard is a tiny, inconsequential pond in front of the 16th tee. The phrase "walk in the park" was probably conceived with Pinehurst No. 2 in mind.
But back in '99, many disliked No. 2 because of the way the USGA set it up, turning two gimme par 5s, the eighth and 16th, into stern par 4s, reducing par on the 7,175-yard layout to 70. "I played it as a par 88," said John Cook, who ended up tied for 60th.
The eighth measured 485 yards that year, while the 16th was, at the time, the longest par 4 ever in a U.S. Open at 489 yards. Statistically, both played a half-stroke over par during the four rounds, but neither was the toughest hole on the course. The 482-yard fifth was even harder. Only 27.1 percent of the field hit the fifth green in regulation that week.
For the 2005 Open, Pinehurst No. 2 will officially measure 7,214 yards, par 70, an increase of just 39 yards from last time. But many players will feel it is at least a mile longer.
"I think they mismeasured it back in '99," says consulting architect Rees Jones, who supervised installation of seven new back tees for this year's event. "We've added a lot of length."
The second, 447 yards last time, now measures 469 yards. The short but heavily bunkered par-4 seventh, where most players hit an iron off the tee in '99, now measures a still-short 404 yards, an increase of just six yards if the old card is to be believed. The par-4 11th, conceived by architect Donald Ross in 1935 as a drive-and-pitch hole, is now stretched to 476 yards. The slightly downhill par-4 14th, listed at 436 yards in '99, will play at 468 yards this time.
The 16th will no longer be a record par 4 in length. (To do that, it would have to exceed Bethpage Black's 499-yard 12th, which some insist played more than 500 yards in the 2002 Open.) No. 16 will measure 492 yards for 2005. With its small green, originally designed for a pitch shot on a par 5, it again won't yield many birdies. Only 11 players birdied the 16th in 1999.
As for the other two brutes of the previous Open, both will supposedly play shorter this time, the fifth at 472 yards and the eighth at 467 yards. But don't believe it. For at least two rounds, says USGA executive director David Fay, the tee on the fifth will be all the way back, at 482 yards.
Of course, it wasn't just length that had players grumbling during the 1999 Open. They also grumbled about the giant, dented army helmets they call greens at Pinehurst No. 2. Many players hated the pin positions that hugged the outside edges of those helmets and cursed the little trenches and foxholes that surround those greens.
"Borderline sadistic," Scott Verplank said of the hole locations. He finished tied for 17th. "I've been asked many times, what's the hardest golf course I've ever played," said then-defending champion Lee Janzen. "Now I have the answer."
Janzen, remember, shares the U.S. Open scoring record of 272 with Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods and Jim Furyk. At Pinehurst in '99, Janzen scored 18 over par for the tournament, an average of one bogey every four holes.
"It was like trying to stop a 6-iron on a pitcher's mound," said David Duval, who led the field in greens in regulation in '99, hitting a whopping 47 pitcher's mounds out of 72. Duval had been a first- and second-round co-leader, then faded to a seventh-place finish with a pair of 75s on the weekend.
Pinehurst No. 2 messed with the heads of a lot of players that year. Many stared in disbelief after simple approach shots from the fairway would hit the center of a green, trickle into a little trough, gather speed and roll down a slope and off into one of Pinehurst's trademark tightly mown chipping hollows.
Every player had trouble hitting recovery shots from those hollows in '99. They tried chipping, they tried putting, they tried bump-and-runs, all without success. Tiger Woods told reporters that week, "You have so many options that you can actually get kind of confused." He chipped with a 3-wood twice in the opening round, each time stopping the ball just a couple of feet from the hole. But in the third round, from the left of the first green, his chip scurried all the way across the surface and rolled down the other side.
It led to a crucial double bogey. Woods finished tied for third, two shots back of Stewart. And who can forget John Daly? A contender for the first 36 holes, but an also-ran by mid-Sunday, he tried putting from a tightly mown hollow at the back left of the eighth green, up a long slope. His ball failed to reach the crest and rolled back. He tried again with the same result, and as the ball was still rolling toward him, Daly lost his cool, strode up and whacked the ball clear across the green. That led to a two-stroke penalty for hitting a ball in motion, an 11 for the hole, a final-round 83 and last place among the 68 who survived the cut.
Architecturally, Pinehurst No. 2 might be just about the fairest design in the land. All four par 3s play in different directions, the two par 5s for the Open run in opposite directions, the same number of holes turn right as turn left. As for those greens, well, everybody has trouble holding a ball on those greens.
In '99, some players even took the frustration of Pinehurst No. 2 home with them. Masters champ Jose Maria Olazabal, who double-bogeyed the 18th hole for a 75 in the first round, pounded his hotel room wall in frustration, broke a metacarpal bone in his hand and had to withdraw.
There are those who insist Stewart won because he remained calm and detached throughout the championship, looking as focused and determined during that final round as he'd ever been in his life. OK, but we also remember his jaw giving a hunk of chewing gum a maximum workout for 18 holes. Or maybe he was just gnashing his teeth.
The bad news for competitors in 2005 is that Pinehurst's greens and surrounds are liable to be even harder, and tougher, this time around. The G-2 bent-grass greens measured about 10.5 feet on a Stimpmeter in 1999. This year, Tim Moraghan, the USGA's Director of Championship Agronomy, wanted that speed somewhere between 11 and 11.5 feet by Monday of Open week. He can't be much more precise than that because, quite frankly, there aren't a whole lot of flat spots on Pinehurst's greens on which to measure accurately.
The banks, slopes and hollows around the greens were not to Moraghan's liking in 1999. Weather conditions left them a bit patchy. This year, they will be purer, and he hopes to have those areas (all hybrid Bermuda grass) mowed at just less than one-quarter inch. "That's the goal," he says. "Not too tight, or everybody will just end up putting out of them. We'd like to pose some options. Maybe a putter, but maybe a 5-iron or a rescue club, or maybe even a wedge."
He calls it options. Woods calls it confusion. The USGA likes to mess with the heads of a lot of players, which is why they are back at Pinehurst No. 2 after only six years. And hoping, no doubt, for just as thrilling a finish as in 1999. Recall the last group on the last hole. With a one-shot lead over Mickelson, Stewart drove into deep rough. An impulsive player might have tried to muscle the ball onto the green from there, as Stewart had tried to do in the opening round, when he took bogey. This time, Stewart pitched back into the fairway, wedged on from 78 yards out and determinedly sank a 20-foot putt for the title.
It was one final display of discipline on a day of supreme discipline by Stewart. He hit just seven greens in regulation that Sunday but took only 24 putts. On the par-4 second his approach missed the green to the right and settled into a chipping swale, several feet below the domed putting surface. His weak chip failed to carry a knob and rolled back to him. No problem. He chipped again, with a little more authority, sank the putt for a bogey and moved on.
That's how to win at Pinehurst No. 2: Don't let it mess with your head.
"I took my medicine," Stewart told the media after his round.
It probably tasted like chewing gum.
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