Excerpt from “Slaying the Tiger” – The 2014 U.S. Open at Pinehurst

Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from Shane Ryan’s new book, “Slaying the Tiger: A Year Inside the Ropes of the New PGA Tour.”  Ryan dives into the 2014 U.S. Open on Pinehurst No. 2, the USGA, some of the – ahem – more interesting thoughts on Coore and Crenshaw’s 2010 restoration of Donald Ross’s masterpiece. You can purchase the book here.

“Charlie Price, the great writer, he’d say Pinehurst in his day was fairways, and the fairways were oases within sandy country. The wispy rye grass, pine needles and sand, the little tufts of ground, that’s what Pinehurst was.” —Ben  Crenshaw,  to PGATour.com, on the restoration of Pinehurst No. 2

BY SHANE RYAN

In the nine years preceding the 2014 U.S. Open at Pinehurst, the winning score was even par or worse six times. Two of the three winners who actually went under par—Tiger Woods in 2008 and Lucas Glover the next year—stayed nice and close, at -1 and -4, respectively. The only exception came in 2011, when Rory McIlroy put on a historic show at Congressional Country Club, decimating a difficult track to the tune of -16 and asserting himself as one of the world’s best players.

The first winner in that difficult stretch was Michael Campbell, who won at the Pinehurst Resort in the Sandhills of North Carolina with even par in 2005. Campbell has largely been forgotten—he’s a member of golf’s one-hit wonder club, and you can barely find a mention of him at the club—but the previous Pinehurst champion in 1999, Payne Stewart, has become an important part of the resort’s identity. Less than six months after he won the event, he died in a plane crash, and he’s honored today with a large statue outside the clubhouse that captures the moment when he sunk the winning putt on 18 to beat Phil Mickelson—clad in his famous knickers and tam-o’-shanter cap, right foot off the ground, fist extended in triumph.

The U.S. Open returned to Pinehurst in 2014, and the three biggest stories going were Stewart, Mickelson, and the course itself. Payne was the legend who had won the first U.S. Open ever played at the course, and his name was already on everyone’s lips in the week leading up to the event. On Thursday, Rickie Fowler upped the ante with his own moving tribute. Stewart had been one of his heroes growing up, and Fowler still remembered the moment when he heard about the plane crash in October of 1999. He was in the car with his mother, and news of the tragedy was broadcast over the radio. He broke down crying, and fifteen years later, in his first round at Pinehurst, he wore white knickers and a pair of teal argyle socks, Stewart’s signature outfit.

Phil Mickelson, runner-up to Payne, had gone on to five more second-place finishes at the U.S. Open—the kind of success that you can only call brutal. It’s the one tournament that eluded him, over and over, all the way up to 2013, when he had started the final round in the lead, only to shoot 74 and lose to England’s Justin Rose. He was viewed as something of a tragic figure after that event—someone destined never to fulfill his dream at his country’s national tournament. He spit the pity right back in everyone’s face later that summer, though, winning his first ever British Open. Now the U.S. Open was the only tournament standing between Mickelson and a career grand slam, and he arrived at Pinehurst as the overwhelming crowd favorite.

Unfortunately for him, his past success at the course meant very little. The PinehurstNo. 2 that greeted players this time was miles different from the track they’d played in 1999 and 2005. Back then, it looked like a typical U.S. Open course—very green, with thick rough and the usual USGA trapdoors. Some of that remained the same—the “par-4” fourth hole, at 529 yards, was the longest par 4 in U.S. Open history, just edging out the “par-4” 16th, a 528-yard beast. Both play as a par 5 at every other time of year, and are changed only to make everyone’s score eight shots worse by the end of the week. The par-3s, too, were punishingly long, with the shortest clocking in with a standard length of 191.

Beyond those USGA special effects, though, the course looked nothing like its previous iterations.

In 2010, the resort took the bold step of commissioning a total restoration to Pinehurst No. 2—a return to the course as it looked before the U.S. Opens, and to the 1935 design undertaken by legendary designer Donald Ross. The team of Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore were hired to handle the job, and in the broadest sense, the aim of their project was to make Pinehurst No. 2 reflect the natural terrain of North Carolina’s Sandhills, as it had all those years ago.

The Sandhills represent an interesting geographical phenomenon—a holdout from a time, 20 million years ago, when the ocean encroached farther inland, and places like Pinehurst were still a beach. Sandy dunes built up on the shores, and they remain as remnants of an ancient era. Today, they fight for turf with towering pine trees, and form a boundary between the plateau region called the Piedmont and the coastal plain that extends to the ocean. The land is dry and hard-baked, covered with pine needles and sand, and it doesn’t have the kind of soil that can produce acres and acres of green rough without enormous amounts of water.

The restoration came at the head of a broader water conservation movement in golf, and the first big move that Crenshaw and Coore made was to get rid of the Bermuda rough altogether—40 acres of it, in total, along with hundreds of sprinkler heads. They let the “native area” take over where thick grass once soaked up endless gallons of water, and to make the course more difficult, they imported more than 80,000 clumps of aristida stricta—the wire grass that was used to fill the areas outside the fairway. This move introduced an element of chance to a player’s round. Full recovery was now possible from the new native areas, far more so than it had ever been in the dense rough, but a ball could also land beneath one of the many clumps, and force a player to chip out sideways.

Crenshaw and Coore used old archived aerial photographs, as well as an old mainline irrigation system, to restore some of the curves of the old course that had been straightened in the modern era. They widened fairways to reward players who drive down the proper side. They kept the greens’ domed shape that had developed over the years, choosing not to flatten them to ’36 standards and thus lower the difficulty, and they accentuated old bunkers, humps, and swales that had been forgotten with the narrowed fairways.

Pinehurst No. 2 was never meant to be a so-called parkland course, with verdant expanses of greens. As Coore said, the course had its origins in the rough-and-tumble style native to the Sandhills, and if it didn’t represent that visual style today, right down to the plants lining the fairway, it would be a geographical impostor.

The final product looked a little like a links course, but a lot more like something you’d see in the hot, desertlike climates of Australia. In what became their most controversial choice of all, Coore and Crenshaw allowed the climate to determine the color of the Bermuda grass. The dry, midsummer heat produced more than a few patches of brown and yellow—especially at the fairway edges, where the center row irrigation system distributed water unevenly. They liked the way the grass faded by the native areas, but they also knew how it would look on television, and they knew that the beauty of their restoration might be compromised with the flattening perspective of cameras. The owners and executives of the course knew it, too, and they took a big risk in order to produce one of the country’s most unique courses.

To those who understood and appreciated golf, the restoration of Pinehurst No. 2 was recognized as a progressive, sepia-toned masterpiece, and one that succeeded brilliantly in balancing the sport’s future with its historical roots. In December, the course won Golf Digest’s Green Star Award for Outstanding Environmental Practices, and in 2015, the resort estimated they would use 15 million gallons of water on the course, compared to 55 million in 2009.

Nevertheless, no good deed goes unpunished. For the legions of simpletons  who were conditioned to expect nothing but miles and miles of generic parkland green, the course became a target for uninformed vitriol. It should come as little surprise that Donald Trump emerged as the ringleader of the buffoons and blowhards.

“I’d bet the horrible look of Pinehurst translates in poor television ratings,” he tweeted. “That is not what golf is about!”

Bubba Watson was the most critical of the players, calling the natural areas “weeds,” and expressing his disappointment with the difficulty of landing an approach on the greens. But even he admitted that the blind tee shots simply didn’t fit his style—Watson is a player who wins tournaments by bludgeoning long courses to death, and the events that require a great amount of finesse around the greens will always be difficult.

Naysayers aside, Coore and Crenshaw earned heaps of praise for the job they’d done. Pinehurst had its character back, and though it didn’t look the same as most American courses, it only took a second glance to recognize the beauty in the difference.

Shane Ryan is the author of “Slaying the Tiger.” Please purchase the book here.

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