PINEHURST, N.C. – If there’s one green at Pinehurst No. 2 that is a candidate for going over the top, it’s the putting surface on the par-3 ninth. On the card it’s 191 yards, but the putting surface here is one of the smallest on the course, and it’s also the one with the most contour.
USGA executive director Mike Davis confirmed to Golfweek that they are keeping a very close watch on the green. He also said that there are plans to move the tees up at least one day, possibly two, and play the hole from 145 yards. At that distance, the hole will be marginally more receptive, especially if the hole is cut on an anticipated right-side location, on a small shelf above a false front.
Only one round will be played from the 191-yard post. A shorter shot from a higher trajectory has a better chance of holding this notoriously elusive surface.
Remember the warning “not to bend, spindle or mutilate?” Well, Donald Ross wasn’t listening when he built this one in 1935. And under U.S. Open conditions this year, the combined effects of speed, firmness, moisture levels and contour render this a central object of attention.
Davis and the entire maintenance crew, under the direction of superintendent Kevin Robinson and director of golf course and grounds management Bob Farren, proceed very carefully in course set-ups. They all labor under the memory of the final round of the 2004 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, when a combination of extreme dryness, slick surfaces and a questionable hole location led to a stoppage of play Sunday morning while crews undertook emergency watering. That incident kickstarted a process of fundamental rethinking U.S. Open set-ups and influenced everything done since then on course set-ups. And the rethinking has worked. There have been no major incidents since 2004.
That’s because crews like those at Pinehurst this week (and next) are equipped with a vast range of analytical tools. Your amateur green chairman or your self-professed home-course expert might think he or she knows a thing or two about Stimpmeter reads – measuring the pace of greens. (At Pinehurst they’ll be around 12.)
At Pinehurst, speed is just part of the equation. They have digitized slope-meter graphics of the greens showing percentage slopes of each green segment – helpful, since you can’t cut a hole on an area sloping at more than three percent, and some of these greens only have about a quarter of their total area that’s pinnable.
They also have moisture measures on hand to tell them how much water is still available in the soil profile – before the green dehydrates and goes into shock. If it gets below a certain (unnamed) level, they can add water with hoses or through automatic irrigation. They also monitor and measure firmness through a device called a TruFirm that USGA technical director Matt Pringle has developed and patented. Think of it as testing the coefficient of restitution in the green surface. If the greens get too firm or hard, they can be softened and made more receptive – which is exactly what they’ll do for the U.S. Women’s Open next week.
Before things get out of control, officials here can tweak the frequency of mowing. Ideally, they’ll double-cut each morning (with the blade set at between 105 and 115 thousandths of an inch). If the greens get too fast, they can withhold the rolling or even one set of the morning cut. The point is they are measuring, monitoring, watching and keeping track.
Especially on that ninth green, because its shape leaves less room for error than any other green at Pinehurst. It’s a forced carry over sand (or that false front) all the way to a shallow surface, with bunkers behind and steep roll off back left that can kick a ball up against the out-of-bounds line. It’s not that hard, playing to a back-left pin, to land the ball 3 feet behind the hole and have it kick and roll down and over by 30 yards.
That’s not what they want. Which is why they’re watching that green carefully. And it’s part of the reason they’ll be moving the tees up and letting the players have a go at it from a marginally more captive position – a higher trajectory shot, shorter and presumably with more accuracy. To a green that’s closer to the edge than any other out here.