A combination of common sense and high-tech wizardry led to a successful U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2. Consider it a welcome victory, not only for Michael Campbell and New Zealand, but also for the U.S. Golf Association.
The day before the start of the championship, Mike Davis, the USGA’s senior director of rules and competitions, voiced the association’s prevailing sentiment: “After last year at Shinnecock I think we need about five good events in a row to overcome what happened.”
USGA staffers responsible for hole locations took a cautious approach all week. Only about 1,800 square feet of an average 6,000 square feet domed green at No. 2 is level. The USGA was determined to avoid those horrific images that plagued them last year – of short putts rolling into bunkers. On Saturday, Davis, accompanied by what looked like a USGA subcommittee, took 35 minutes to decide on a placement for the cup at the third hole. The day before, on the sixth hole, a cup that already had been agreed upon and cut was shifted at the last minute to a safer spot 6 feet away.
Green speeds were kept stable all week, around 11.5 on the Stimpmeter. When one freshly mowed green measured on the slow side of the desired range Friday, USGA Green Section agronomist for the Southeast Region, Chris Hartwiger, was called in to remeasure. Had a second cut been applied, it would have increased speeds anywhere from 6 inches to 1 foot. Upon remeasurement, the green’s speed came within acceptable range – just barely. No second cut needed.
“This week,” said Hartwiger, “I’d rather get in trouble for a green that was too slow than for one that was too fast.”
“We always double cut,” said USGA executive director David Fay. “The remarkable fact about these greens is that we’re single cutting. I’ve been involved with the USGA since, what, 1978? It’s never happened.”
When the USGA’s championship agronomist, Tim Moraghan, wanted some inside information on potential problem greens, he turned to 55-year-old Rufus Cole. A foreman on the No. 2 Course who has worked at Pinehurst for 35 years, Cole knew Moraghan from the early 1980s when the future agronomist was then a superintendent-trainee there.
Cole complied with a detailed list of perennial hot spots that needed close monitoring: the front of the first green, the fifth and sixth, and the backs of Nos. 3, 8, 14 and 18. Not surprisingly, the list corresponded to what course superintendent Paul Jett knew to be the trouble areas. Crew members stationed throughout the course eyeballed each green all day for signs of wilt. Putting surfaces were treated to morning and evening watering with hoses. But just in case, they also were cooled with a few waves of the hose (what superintendents call “syringing”) between rounds Thursday and Friday and occasionally during play on the weekend.
In monitoring greens, Jett also had a new tool in his arsenal. It’s provisionally called “a Thumpmeter,” though a more descriptive name would be the “Firmometer.” The patent is still pending on what amounts to a bicycle pump-like cylinder hooked to a laptop computer. All week, USGA senior research engineer Matt Pringle took the geeky-looking device onto Pinehurst’s greens, let a golf-ball sized sphere drop from within the cylinder and recorded the impact data. Every evening, he gave Jett a report that graphed the coefficient of restitution of the greens. Jett used the data to interpret whether the greens were getting harder or dryer during the week. They weren’t.
USGA officials didn’t want players to reach automatically for the putter around the greens, as they felt had been the case in 1999. This time around, they raised the mowing heights of the approach areas slightly – by exactly “twenty-five one thousands to one-quarter of an inch,” as described by Brad Kocher, Pinehurst’s vice president of grounds and golf course management. That seemingly minor adjustment prompted consideration of other options, whether bump and run, a fairway metal, or a lob shot.
Other minor adjustments had major consequences. The intermediate rough alongside fairways was raised by one-quarter of an inch to 11⁄2 inches total; with the ball sitting down that much more, approach shots following slightly wayward drives became more of a guessing game. And while the primary rough cut was held to 3 inches, it played much harder than in 1999.
Why? Kocher gave two reasons: Recently added irrigation, and the effects of new Toro rotary mowers that make the blades of grass stand up straight after clipping, which resulted in balls disappearing deep within.
The one obvious blemish all week had to do with the inconsistent approach areas surrounding each green. It’s often a problem at Pinehurst No. 2 this time of year, especially because when clipped down in wintertime, dormant Bermudagrass easily is stressed by a combination of freeze-thaw cycles, shade, player traffic and the impact from greens mowers turning around on the edges. Repair work in the form of sodding was slow to heal.
Last year, the USGA never really got Shinnecock Hills into the shape it wanted for the U.S. Open. Going into the week, the course didn’t have enough fertility or moisture in reserve. The greens also were subjected to overly aggressive mowing and rolling. The weekend weather suddenly turned dry and virtually dehydrated the course Sunday. The USGA also made some bad decisions that day with (non) irrigation and with certain hole locations, especially at the notorious par-3 seventh hole.
This time around at Pinehurst No. 2, the USGA got what it wanted – with the acknowledged exception of those uneven approach areas. The fairways and greens had enough stored-up fertility and moisture to withstand a week of play at close heights. The weather cooperated, even when the air got dry Friday and Saturday.
This was a U.S. Open about the players being properly tested on a demanding, well-designed, classic era golf course.
The USGA got it right this time. One down, four to go.