By Alex Podlogar

Nineteen minutes before the leaders teed off on Saturday for the third round of the 124th U.S. Open on Pinehurst No. 2, the television broadcast cut to the booth.

It’s hard to explain exactly what was seen there, but we’ll give it a shot. We should’ve known something was up when viewers were greeted by the mischievous grins.

We’ll keep this simple: there were props.

Brandel Chamblee was holding a white plastic bowl that more resembled the shape of a World War I U.S. Army helmet, and in his hands, Mike Tirico had a wiregrass bush so large it had to have been harvested from someone’s manicured yard along Midland Road before dawn.


This isn’t meant to get on Brandel – everybody does that, and we’re not in that game. And it’s not to dig at Tirico (even though some kind of serious shovel would’ve been needed to extract that wire grass bush so expertly. Sorry – bad dad joke. Tis the season…)

But if all anyone comes out of this week with is upside-down saucers for greens and wiregrass for rough, they’ve lost something essential about Pinehurst – and especially about No. 2. We could go deep here – the first draft (OK, first two drafts) of this piece tried to, in fact, and it was scrapped.

For good reason.

Because we don’t need to be technical in Pinehurst. Not here. Technicalities are work. Carolina Vista, at the mere length of 0.6 miles, has connected The Carolina Hotel to Pinehurst’s clubhouse in an easy strolling distance direct line for more than a century. And along that magnolia- and pine-lined trail is a way of life. A spirit that envelops a Village and all who enter it. And with that spirit, the soul of American golf, cultivated by those who live here, by those who visit here, and those who yearn to do either, or both. They will tell you, even if you don’t ask them. It’s just something that must be shared.

Of course, Pinehurst No. 2 is hard this week. That’s the focus. It’s firm, fast, challenging and difficult for the best players in the world. It should be. This week is about identifying the best golfer in the world at this precise moment on this precise course.

And precision is what matters. Take it from Rory.

McIlroy started answering a question about No. 2 with a standard, “Yeah, you have to…” And then he paused.

He paused for 4.7 seconds before starting again. Something came over him.

“It just requires a lot more thought,” he said, pausing another 2 full seconds. “I hit a great drive up the 8th hole, I had 151 adjusted to the hole, and I’m trying to land it 146. I can’t land it 144 because it’s not going to get up there, and I can’t land it 148 because it’s going to go over the back of the green. You just need to have a lot of precision.”

He went on.

“It’s just a little more thought, a little more consideration to everything you’re doing.”

But that’s inside the ropes. Outside the ropes – and outside the cut – Max Homa hung around Pinehurst on Saturday. He was playing not with his clubs, but with his son in the Village, walking the brick pathways with him and having lunch at Drum & Quill. He wasn’t the only one.

You could ask why, but you don’t need to do that here. It always feels obvious. Why would anyone ever want to leave?

Fans huddled in shuttles and gathered amongst each other in galleries on Saturday afternoon, and in between staggering displays of golf, they spoke the universal language of the game, some rising in unison imploring a tricking ball to, “Stop. Stop! Stoooooooopppppppppp!” One spectator brought math into it, asking his buddy, “What percentage of people here do you think have played here?” And then he answered his own question not with an actual number, but with a thought that explained his rationale. “Around here, it has to be a higher percentage than other U.S. Open sites,” he posited before getting his buddy’s answer. “I mean, it’s Pinehurst.”

It’s Pinehurst.

The leaderboard is crowded. And it is crowded with names we all recognize. There’s hope in there for certain players and doubt in others. Much of that doesn’t matter right now, though. It’ll be settled soon enough, and the crowds will disperse and the grandstands will come down and the players will leave until they return here again in five short years, this time joined by the best women players in the world.

But Pinehurst No. 2 will still be here on Monday. So will The Cradle and Thistle Dhu and the nine other courses. So will the restaurants and cozy bars in and around the Village. So will the charmed residents in their cottages, the men and women walking their dogs in the dewy morning and the horse-drawn carriage meandering under the glow of the golden hour. So will the chimes of the Village Chapel and the wisps of the pines, swaying under Carolina blue skies and dropping their needles for the fox squirrels’ bedding.

The moon will wander, the stars will shine, and in the morning, the sun will rise to take us through the paces again and again. A ball will be struck somewhere close, and friends old and new will walk together to play a game.

There will be a new champion tomorrow.

Some of us, though, have already won.