Message of 2014 U.S. Opens: Scruffy is new neat
There’s a good story to be told by the U.S. Golf Association about its forthcoming twin national championships at Pinehurst No. 2. Officials from American golf’s ruling body gathered Monday for the annual ritual of a media event to get the story across. It all about a very different look to championship venues, one that is scruffier, less green, less manicured, and also firmer and faster. Luck will play more than a small role. Expect the golf gods to be laughing. Except some pros to be cursing.
It remains to be seen if the world’s best players will accept it. Time will tell – first the men, with the U.S. Open on June 12-15, followed by the U.S. Women’s Open on June 19-22. My bet is that the ladies will be more accepting. They generally tend to be grateful for playing fine courses, even when those courses – as with Sebonack Golf Club in Southampton, N.Y., last year, are designed with unpredictable, sandy, quirky conditions in the roughs. The men, by nature of their weekly expectations on the PGA Tour, are more spoiled as to lush, predictable turf quality and are more likely to voice displeasure at anything perceived to be “less.”
The different look at Pinehurst this year won’t be a compromise of conditions. It’ll be a deliberate effort at sparse, starved turfgrass that’s healthier, more disease tolerant and also sustainable, with fewer inputs like water and chemicals. As USGA executive director Mike Davis made clear this week, that will mean a golf course that is more environmentally friendly, while also playing faster in terms of ground-game roll and strategic angles.
In showcasing such a set up, the USGA might not be able to rely as heavily as it needs to on a cooperative TV crew of announcers. With this year’s championships the last to be aired by NBC-TV and next year’s going to FOX Sports, Johnny Miller and friends might not prove to be entirely amendable to convey the USGA’s message. One can only imagine those pre-tournament production briefings going less than ideally for the USGA.
Nonetheless, there’s the golf course, a Donald Ross gem (dating to 1907) which Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw restored in 2011-12 by widening the fairways, removing 35 acres of maintained Bermudagrass rough, turning off peripheral irrigation heads that spilled out into the rough, and implanting hundreds of thousand of wiregrass plants while creating uneven native areas flanking the fairways.
Bob Dedman, Pinehurst resort president and CEO, told Golfweek that at the start of the project he knew he was taking some risk. “I told my staff back then that this will either be the dumbest thing we’ve ever done or the smartest,” he said. But it’s also a restoration that had to be done, said Dedman, since Pinehurst No. 2 resort had lost some of its unique character and become too much like other courses in its lushness and dependence upon maintained turf.
What Dedman, Coore and Crenshaw didn’t anticipate is how cooperative nature would be in allowing the native seed bank in the soil to supply dozens of native plants to reoccupy the sandy ground that had been opened up by the Bermudagrass removal. The look is amazing, with some 70 different plants now appearing in a kind of seasonal parade of flowering and dormancy – yellow wood sorrel, light green Bahia grass, blue toadflax.
The result is unevenness and unpredictability in the native areas, with the ball likely coming to rest in a spot that’s variously easy to hit, hard to gouge out, or simple in a potion to make the player wonder and have to guess. All of which adds a level of unpredictability, which is fine, says Davis.
The same could be said for the juxtaposition of more formal bunkers with all of that uneven, broken sandy ground. Each group will be accompanied by a rules official whose task it will be to declare the ball either in or out of the bunker – with the rules pertaining to each status made clear. In some cases, that will be a tough judgment call. Davis made it clear that if there’s any doubt, rules officials will tip the balance towards declaring the ball in a hazard so that players would be on notice in that case with a warning not to ground their club.
It’s all lining up to be an ambitious two weeks of championship play, with the world’s best players expected to master a course that will look far from the green carpeted surfaces they usually play on. The biggest issue will be how the fairways bleed out, or seemingly die out at the edges as they spill out into the flanking native areas. There will be a lot of marginal tee shots that race outward on the ground into trouble.
Expect a few unhappy golfers. And expect the scruffiness to be the new norm in golf moving forward.