PINEHURST, N.C. –– Masters champion Bubba Watson called Pinehurst No. 2’s turtle-back greens “unfriendly” more than once Tuesday. He said the site of this week’s U.S. Open “wears you down.” He called this Open venue the “toughest we’ll play.” He said it’s “disappointing” and “weird” to hit an iron off the tee on a 617-yard hole.
But then Bubba from Bagdad (Fla.) also feels comfortable on the restored Donald Ross gem, what with its sandy waste areas that feature wire grass. The scrub is nothing new to him. He flashed back to Tanglewood Golf Club in Milton and the golf of his childhood.
“Looks like the same golf course I grew up on,” Watson said. “A lot of pine trees, sand everywhere. We don’t call it natural area. We called it not very good conditions where I grew up. So I’m used to hitting out of sand and hardpan with, again, we call it weeds where I grew up. So playing out of that stuff, I’m used to that. When I’m in there, I’m actually comfortable.”
There you have it, history made: Pinehurst No. 2 and Tanglewood being called similar in a sense. One is hosting its third Open in 15 years, the other is a low-key Florida Panhandle daily-fee track that 30 years ago had only nine holes. One has a 76.4 rating and 141 slope from the back, the other 70.2 and 124. Green fees range from $329 to $410 at one and from $20 to $28 at the other. One tips out at 7,552 yards, the other at 6,302.
Pinehurst and Tanglewood. Strange bedfellows, indeed.
You might say then that longtime Tanglewood manager Hiram Cook Jr. was as surprised as anyone at the connection.
“I don’t know (that) we’ve ever been compared to Pinehurst,” he said with a drawl and laugh. “Pinehurst has always been pretty plush until recently.”
On the surface, the link might seem like a compliment, but it had to do with scruffy ground. But then, hey, take the publicity any way you can.
“We just had irrigation down the fairway center line back in the early ’90s,” Cook said. “So the rough was sand and pine trees. We’ve got a better irrigation system now.”
And Pinehurst has a new, no-rough look, the product of a bold restoration by architects Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw. The natural landscape is such that Watson says he can’t tell where some fairways start and end. There, Tanglewood rears its head again.
“I guess this week I can hit a lot of fairways because we can’t define if it’s on the fairway or not,” Watson said. “So that’s pretty good for me.”
Watson doesn’t have the best U.S. Open record, what with three missed cuts and best finishes of fifth and 18th in seven appearances. But Pinehurst would seem to suit him better than other venues.
To win here, one must have a good short game; that means chipping well and making putts in the range of 6-10 feet. One must have good imagination. And it helps to be long, for six par 4s measure 483 yards and more, including four more than 500.
Watson has those attributes in spades. Next he’ll need to resist the temptation to shoot at some tucked pins and need to maintain a positive attitude after some 9-iron shots land in the middle of greens and roll off.
There are different ways to play No. 2. Phil Mickelson, six times an Open runner-up and five times a major champion, plans to play aggressively and drive his ball as far as possible, figuring he can get approaches near the green from waste areas. On the other hand, Watson, the man who this year dominated Augusta National with his length, pledges a conservative, fairway-first approach.
“It’s a second-shot golf course,” Watson said. “There’s a lot of times I’m going to be laying back. … I’m not saying it’s the right strategy; hopefully in four days I can tell you it was a great strategy. But that’s what I’m planning right now. Now if I make a few bogeys and doubles right quick, I might switch to the driver.”
His underneath approach means he’ll face some 200-yard-plus approach shots on par 4s. In a practice round, he was left with 247 yards into the 528-yard 16th and used a 3-iron. On the one hand, he called that “fun.” On the other, he said, “It wears you down mentally.”
“The U.S. Open brings out challenges that we’re not used to, challenges that we can only take once a year or we would all find new jobs if we had to do it every week,” he said.
Little wonder that Watson said there’s only one thing Pinehurst shares with his beloved Augusta.
“Eighteen holes,” he said.
There you have it. Pinehurst has more in common with Tanglewood.