Pinehurst No. 2 is universally acknowledged as one of the world's greatest layouts. Yet the 2005 U.S. Open is only the third major championship to be held on the course. The most recent was the stuff of legend, as the late Payne Stewart won a duel with Phil Mickelson just months before Stewart's untimely death. Will this year's U.S. Open match 1999's drama?
Who can forget the 1999 U.S. Open? You had the built-in drama of a major championship finally coming to North Carolina's Pinehurst No. 2, one of Donald Ross' sublime masterpieces. You had Tiger Woods rounding into his "Tiger Slam" form and finishing third, his game ready to explode into the stratosphere. You had Phil Mickelson, looking for his first major championship while listening for his beeper to see if his wife had gone into labor with their first child - who would be born the day following the tournament.
And finally, you had Payne Stewart capping a career resurgence with a steely 15-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole, the longest birdie putt to ever win a U.S. Open. Months later, he was part of the winning U.S. side at the Ryder Cup Matches at Brookline. And just months after that he was gone, one of the victims of a tragic plane accident.
Much will be said about Stewart this week, and he will forever be a part of Pinehurst's aura. But once the players put their pegs in the ground and put their tee balls in play, it will be time for another man to claim his place in history. Here's what to watch for:
Pinehurst No. 2 is the marquee attraction at Pinehurst Resort and Spa, where there are now eight courses. No. 2 was designed by Ross, a Scottish design master, and opened in 1907. The course hosted many high-profile tournaments through the middle of the century, but only one major (Denny Shute won the PGA Championship there in 1936, the year after Ross redesigned every green). This was due largely to the fact that Pinehurst is truly remote - the nearest large metro area is Raleigh-Durham, and that's more than an hour by car. Also, the facility fell into a slight state of disrepair in the 1980s.
Pinehurst rebounded in the 1990s and undertook a major renovation and restoration project to get the 1999 U.S. Open. The greens were torn up and completely rebuilt to Ross' original specifications using his notes and precise laser measurements, adding more modern grasses and drainage systems. I had the privilege of playing the course in 1997 shortly after it reopened, and it was remarkable. Nothing compares to the inverted-saucer design of Ross' greens. He designed the course with the idea that it should be fairly easy to make bogey on any given hole, but it should be very hard to make a birdie. Chances are the field will discover that first-hand this week.
At the 1999 U.S. Open, heavy rain softened a course that many predicted would produce high scores. Still, Stewart needed that birdie putt on the last hole to be the only player in the field to break par, finishing at 1-under.
The USGA was concerned about the rough not being thick enough for this year's Open, but recent warmth and rain has beefed it up nicely. Throw in the heavy, humid weather expected this week, and the players will need plenty of patience and stamina to contend with Pinehurst's length and greens.
"The golf course is playing a little bit more difficult this year with the rough," Woods said in a pre-tournament press conference. "It seems like it's higher, thicker, the ball seems to be settling down in the bottom every single time. You're not going to get a ball where you can have it sit up where you can put the ball on the green quite comfortably. Putting the ball in play is going to be at a premium trying to cull the balls into the greens."
You'll see an amazing variety of shots being utilized from off the green, including bump-and-runs, chips, flops and Texas wedges. And you'll see some frustration coming out, not unlike when John Daly took an 11 after hitting his ball while it was still moving as it rolled back down one green's slope toward him.
Pinehurst No. 2 will demand accuracy off the tee - duh, this is the U.S. Open. The bash-and-wedge strategy employed recently by Vijay Singh, Woods and Mickelson won't work well at all this week. But even hitting the fairway will only be half the battle, as the greens will baffle many players. Anyone want to lay odds on who will ring up the first four-putt of the event? (I'll take Sergio Garcia, on No. 11 in the first round.)
For more on the course conditions during the week, check out Scott Hollister's excellent on-site blog at http://gcmatusopen.blogspot.com/.
Everyone is quick to whittle the field down to the so-called "Big 5" of Singh, Woods, Els, Mickelson and defending champ Retief Goosen. And I'd say three of them have good chances this week. Tiger is Tiger, and having won the Masters gives him the extra motivation of being able to win the second leg of a Grand Slam. Pinehurst is an ideal course for his power and short-game imagination, and his fitness makes him a good bet to gut out four long, hot days of golf over a hilly golf course.
Ditto for Mickelson, though his much-discussed subcutaneous fat takes his fitness down a notch below Tiger's standard. But lots of golfers will be missing greens, and Phil handles that situation better than most anyone. And you can't count out Goosen on any U.S. Open track, what with his uncanny combination of distance, accuracy and unflappability. To me, he always looks like he's thinking, "Should I hit a big 7, a little 6, or just take a nap?"
I don't like the chances for Singh or Els this week. Pinehurst is too much of a short-game test for Vijay, though he did tie Tiger for third back in 1999. I don't think he can repeat the feat. Meanwhile, Els seems to be in a bit of funk. While he has all the tools to dominate at Pinehurst, no one's going to win the U.S. Open with their C-game.
Some other strong possibilities are America's new sweetheart, Chris DiMarco, and Stewart Cink. DiMarco needs to cash in on one of his final-group pairings and win a major, much like Tom Lehman did at the British Open after a string of bad breaks at the U.S. Open. Given DiMarco's ability to come up big under pressure, and his accurate irons and sharp short game, he could be a factor again this week. And Cink seems destined to win a U.S. Open, thanks to his good scrambling and excellent putting.
Also throw in the likes of David Toms and Mike Weir, guys who can grind out the tough pars. And if you're looking for a couple longshots for your office pool, try Luke Donald, Jim Furyk or Pierre-Henri Soero. OK, I only picked Soero because of his name. But he's a 21-year-old qualifier who plays at the University of Hawaii, and you know someone like him is going to come out of nowhere to shoot a nice number in the first round. Why not the pride of Noumea, New Caledonia?
Golf's Year of Bad Weather continues, as it looks like storms could halt play a couple times during the week. That makes for long days on a tough course under major pressure. That also makes it easier than usual to throw out a lot of the field.
No matter how much it rains, the greens are still going to be a major test for all the players. Many of them have talked about how the chipping areas around the greens aren't as tight and uniform as they were six years ago, so expect some carping and complaining from players who feel the golf gods have forsaken them. Boo hoo.
Stewart won at 1-under in 1999. I see scores going a little lower this time, but not by much. I think Tiger and Phil will be in the mix to the end, with DiMarco and Donald in hot pursuit. And the winner at 4-under-par? Phil Mickelson. OK, I picked Phil to win the Masters, and that didn't really pan out (who could have predicted Spikegate?). But I think Lefty will thrive in the theatrics of Pinehurst, keeping memories of 1999 alive while securing his place in golf's pantheon.
105th U.S. Open Championship
All times EDT
Thursday, June 16 ESPN 10am-3pm NBC 3-5pm ESPN 5-7pm Friday, June 17 ESPN 10am-3pm NBC 3-5pm ESPN 5-7pm Saturday, June 18 NBC 12:30-7pm Sunday, June 19 NBC 12:30-7pm
If an 18-hole playoff is needed on Monday, June 20, ESPN will begin coverage at the playoff's noon start, with coverage switching to NBC at 2pm.