Players saying all right things about Pinehurst No. 2 - for now

Posted: June 13, 2014

PINEHURST, N.C. - They say they love it.

For now.

Phil Mickelson called the rustic redesign of Pinehurst No. 2 "awesome" and "wonderful."

Rory McIlroy said it looks "fantastic."

Bubba Watson complained a little and Mickelson called one hole boring, but, as a whole, the professionals who will try to conquer this 7,500-yard period piece say that they like its new look and feel.

For now.

As usual, the U.S. Open will require patience and perseverance.

But this one, on a course 300 yards longer than it was for the 1999 and 2005 Opens, will be different from usual, thanks to the innovations from Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore.

It will be less arbitrary; less dependent on penalizing golfers with deep rough, from which they cannot control their golf balls, either from the fairway or near the greens.

It will require innovation, like many British Opens, where irons and metal woods off the tee are not unusual; where putters and hybrids are used close to the green, instead of always using a wedge. McIlroy, insanely long and one of the favorites, normally uses four wedges, but will use only three this week. He also inserted a 3-iron, which he expects to use off three or four tees.

The images of the 2014 edition will be fast, hard greens shaped like the backs of turtles that run off into collection areas mown too low to always chip and too high to always putt, as Jason Day found out in his first visit to No. 2.

"In this kind of grass, you get the turtle-back greens, the water runs off the greens and pushes the grass down. So, every chip shot you have is back into the grain. You try and chip with a 60-degree wedge, back into the grain, I'm going to say a good amount of those chips you probably are going to catch them a little fat," Day said. "So then that brings in a lot of imagination. Should I bump and run a 4-iron? Should I bump and run a 7-iron? Am I going to use a 3-wood or 4-wood? Am I going to use a putter?"

The decision gets easier, said Mickelson, if the forecast remains true and it rains . . . and he couldn't be happier.

"When it's wet, the ball skids that first bounce, gets up on top of the hill, and then checks," Mickelson said. "Very easy to get by the hole the little bump chip that I like to hit."

Imagination might not be as necessary on the par-5s. The fifth hole, previously a long par-4, was made a 576-yard par-5, but the green is so hard to hit, Mickelson said, the pros will not risk the penalty; it is his "one knock" against the course.

"I thought it sure would be exciting to see us hitting long iron shots in par 5 trying to make birdies and eagles," Mickelson said, "but when the tee boxes were moved so far back to where it's not reachable, now the shot we're hitting into that green is a 50-yard pitch shot. That's just not exciting."

Neither is the 10th, which was stretched out to 617 yards; it's simply too long for all but the biggest hitters to contemplate hitting it in two shots.

The 16th offers similar distance issues. Watson was soured that perfection was not rewarded on several holes, including that 528-yard par-4 that pinches into a nasty landing area just beyond 300 yards from the tee.

"I hit a drive to about 295 off the tee, dead center of the fairway. I had 247 to the hole. It's a par-4," Watson moaned. "So for me to hit a driver and me have a 3-iron into a par-4, it's a 'fun' golf course. It wears you down. It wears you down mentally."

That's what the U.S. Open does every year, but usually the penalties are laughable length, ridiculous rough and greasy greens.

This year, they have two of the three. The rough is negligible, replaced by sandy hardpan areas planted with wiregrass tufts, truer to the original Donald Ross design of more than 100 years ago - an homage to tradition, sure, and a savings of nearly 40 million gallons of water a year, but an aesthetic shock. The greens will run at around 12.5 on the Stimpmeter, said USGA director Mike Davis. For the players, the speed is less of an issue than their receptiveness.

"These greens were built back in the early days, when green speeds were a little slower," Watson said. "So I believe that these green speeds we're putting them to and the firmness we're putting them to makes it 'unfriendly,' we'll say."

Plenty of players have hit shorter irons into the greens in practice and seen them bounce off and long, and long is the worst miss on most of the holes.

"In the 72 holes, I'm hopefully going to play here, I mean, I might go at five pins," said McIlroy, perhaps the most aggressive player on the PGA Tour. He estimated the green on the difficult second hole will be missed 80 percent of the time.

McIlroy and Mickelson both stressed that the absence of thick rough, or "cabbage," as McIlroy called it with disdain, is a good thing; that hitting off the sandy hardpan can allow for brilliant recovery shots.

Still, some of the waste areas include bunkers, which could cause confusion among the players, since the rules are different for different areas. The rule of the rake - if it's raked, it's a bunker - might sound feasible, but the USGA has instructed its rules officials that walk with every group to be especially vigilant and helpful in discerning between the two surfaces.

Call it the Dustin Johnson policy. (Johnson was penalized at the 2010 PGA for grounding his club in a hard-to-identify bunker.)

With all of the changes - the USGA calls it a restoration, but it more of a redesign - the organization, long known for its masochistic sense of fairness, does not operate the Open on the ethic that "even par must win," Davis said.

With all of the changes, the pros might have no chance at even par.


Email: hayesm@phillynews.com

On Twitter: @inkstainedretch

Blog: ph.ly/DNL

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