USGA hopes Opens can take root at Pinehurst
Sunday, February 16, 2014
PINEHURST, N.C. – Once the formalities of the U.S. Golf Association annual meeting in Pinehurst were done last Saturday night, officials could get down to important matters. Like playing golf.
Outgoing USGA president Glen Nager had left town without even attending the final night’s dinner. Such is the fate of those who lose out when they seek to reshape the group’s governance structure. Meanwhile, new president Tom O’Toole Jr. (who serves on a volunteer basis) and executive director Mike Davis (a full-time employee) were out Sunday playing Pinehurst No. 2. For Davis, who hadn’t even brought his clubs and had to borrow a set from the resort, it was his first round on the restored Donald Ross gem – it had reopened in April 2011. Not that he was unfamiliar with the place. He’s walked the restored layout numerous times, most recently Tuesday during the week of the annual meeting. He toured it with architect Bill Coore, who had teamed with Ben Crenshaw in redoing the famed layout.
Davis spent a lot of his time during the annual meeting explaining what is something of a risky enterprise – staging back-to-back national championships on No. 2 this June, the U.S. Open followed by the U.S. Women’s Open. Davis has been clear that “contrary to what some people think, this was never about trying to make it operationally easier or to save money. This was all about comparing the world's best men with the world's best women.” And they’ll be doing so on the same par-70 golf course.
Pretty much, anyway. The men’s layout will play around 7,400 yards; the women’s 6,700. Green speeds will be in the 11.5 range on the Stimpmeter for both weeks. But because of their different ball flight and spin rates, the women will see a slightly softer, more receptive (i.e. less firm) set of greens. In an era of gender equity and USGA emphasis on access, Davis is understandably defensive about one issue – why the women are going second, not first.
It has to do with agronomics, namely that going to marginally softer greens during heavy championship play is easier than firming up greens. Moreover, the initial decision as to timing was made back before the restoration, when Pinehurst No. 2 had lots of Bermudagrass rough that would have played longer for the men, shorter for the women, and thus required some trimming.
But then came Coore and Crenshaw in 2010, who eliminated all of that Bermudagrass rough, replaced it with wire grass and sandy waste areas, and expanded the fairways to give the place back its scruffy look. And with those wider fairways and more generous landing areas, it suddenly seemed even easier to accommodate back-to-back Opens than would have been the case without the restoration.
There are some lingering setup issues that will have to be resolved – or simply dealt with. Strategically, the ideal is to get the women to hit the same basic shots and clubs that the men are doing. Since the PGA Tour players men drive the ball about 40 yards farther and hit a middle-iron about 15 yards longer than the average LPGA player, par-4s and par-5s will be set up about 50-60 yards different in length so that they can end up hitting about the same shots in. On many holes, the women will play from landing areas ahead of the men, but on a few holes where the fairways narrow and balls come to rest in about the same place, there will be some considerable divoting to deal with. Holes 1, 3, 7 and 13, all of them relatively short par-4s, are of concern here.
The USGA will be asking the guys to hit no more than one practice-round shot per fairway – this to limit divot damage. And the maintenance crews will be out in strength sanding divots and smoothing down fairways. They had better be, as Bermuda divots (admittedly smaller than those taken on bentgrass fairways) take about two weeks to heal. It helps that this year the fairways on No. 2 are stronger than they were than on the eve of previous Opens in 1999 and 2005. That’s because the resort has held back more than usual on overseeding and allowed the Bermudagrass base to strengthen itself for several years.
But if there’s some rain, things could get unpleasant. It’s one thing to champion, as Davis does, dealing with the rub of the green. But it’s another to have to play through a minefield of sanded divots. It might look a little weird on TV.
So, too, the prospects of the women standing around waiting to get onto the course. They’ll have access to the range, but not to No. 2 proper until Monday, after the end of the regularly scheduled 72 holes. Unless, of course, there’s playoff, in which case they’ll be playing behind the playoff group going out – unless, again, as in 1990 or 2008, the 18-hole playoff goes into OT. In which case the gals will step aside and let the guys play through.
And then there’s the outside-the-ropes logistics of getting players (and their entourages) into their hotels and rental homes over the weekend – whether Sunday or Monday. It all seems manageable, but clumsily so. And if there’s a weather delay, watch out.
All of which puts Davis in the slightly awkward position of having to explain what the USGA is trying to achieve by the twin events. And he’ll take his explanation directly to the women next month when he addresses the LPGA players.
He means well, as does the USGA. And it could make for a glorious two weeks. But it’s also one of those somewhat chancy undertakings with a less evident upside than the USGA has been able to convey. In smart strategic play, you figure out your risk/reward options. To make the calculus work there’s got to be an identifiable reward. Will TV audiences hang with a two-week event? And will NBC, on the last year of its contract with the USGA, having lost out to FOX Sports starting next year, be willing to cooperate with the kind of attention to detail and analysis required to make the two events a worthwhile comparison?
We’ll find out in June.