Pinehurst hosts back-to-back championships

This April 23, 2007 file photo shows a sign identifying the Pinehurst No. 2 golf course at the Pinehurst Resort and Country Club in Pinehurst, N.C.

One course, two national championships on back-to-back weeks. It’s unprecedented at the professional level. The folks at Pinehurst Resort hope it doesn’t rain when the men’s and women’s U.S. Opens visit in June. At the U.S. Golf Association, the goal will be to crown two national champions playing the same course and hitting similar clubs into the same greens.

Mike Davis, the USGA’s executive director, says the issue is less about cost savings on setup than on pure competition. “There are some economies of scale, but not much,” Davis said. “Rentals of tents and other staging equipment over time are still rentals. The real issue is we just want to compare the best male professionals in the world with the best female professionals in the world.”

In fact there’s a chance we’ll see some of the men and women practicing side-by-side during the two weeks before the June 12-15 U.S. Open when Pinehurst No. 2 otherwise will be closed to the public. Barring an 18-hole playoff for the men on Monday, June 16, No. 2 flips to the U.S. Women’s Open competitors.

Odds are, Pinehurst can handle the fortnight. This is, after all, a well-draining, sand-based golf course (No. 11 on Golfweek’s Best Classic Courses list) where the Bermudagrass fairways recover quickly. Besides, each Open weekend, the cut will reduce the field to the low 60 and ties, which means far less wear and tear than the 150 or so rounds that the course would endure on a typically busy June weekend.

Given the quality of play, the distribution pattern of divots will be more concentrated than with tourists. All the spectator and media traffic will take a toll alongside tees, fairways and greens, especially if it rains, as it did (though lightly) during the U.S. Open in 1999 at No. 2. June is, after all, the fourthrainiest month at Pinehurst: 4.05 inches on average. One inch for the week wouldn’t be a big problem, though two weeks’ worth at once – not unheard of – would be. In which case parts of this Donald Ross gem could start looking like a mosh pit.

This won’t be the first time Pinehurst No. 2 will have hosted consecutive weeks of professional golf. The World Open, a 144-hole PGA Tour event with a then-record $500,000 purse, was inaugurated here during a cold November in 1973. In the first week, the 240-player field competed on the resort’s Nos. 2 and 4 courses. The low 70 made the cut for the next week, played exclusively on No. 2. Miller Barber won $100,000 for his 2-over 570 score. Ben Crenshaw, a towheaded rookie from Texas who won in his pro debut at the previous tournament, collected $44,000 as runner-up.

Four decades later, Crenshaw, now a Hall of Famer, is central to the USGA’s doubleheader, thanks to an ambitious restoration of No. 2 that he completed in 2011 with design partner Bill Coore. The two reversed four-plus decades of Bermudagrass overgrowth on a course that used to have vast fields of sandy scrub and wiregrass between holes. They studied old photographs, looking at fairway lines, roughs and green contours to determine how Ross’ most famous layout had evolved.

Those scratched-out areas are back. In fact, they’ve replaced the 35 acres of dense Bermudagrass rough that had overtaken the ground between the old fairways and tree lines. In removing roughs, Coore and Crenshaw restored the fairways to their size of 40 acres.

The benchmark of this work was an understanding of what Pinehurst No. 2 looked like in 1936 when it held the PGA Championship. Ross recently had converted the sand greens to turf. Aerials confirmed the basic size of features. Ross’ own hole-by-hole description of strategy – a central part of the 1936 PGA program booklet – showed how he intended holes to be played.

That was the year of the last major routing change, when the current fourth and fifth holes were created. Back then, they were, respectively, a par 4 and a par 5. Over the years they evolved into a short, easy par 5 and a long, notoriously difficult par 4 – which is how they played for the 1999 and 2005 U.S. Opens. For the 2014 U.S. Opens, they will be back to the 4-5 sequence, with the fifth hole lengthened to play as long as 576 yards. The USGA’s Davis is more concerned with providing solid golf holes than fussing about par on this or that hole. “Together, they’ll play as a par 9,” he said.

The men and women will confront a golf course with newly re-established sandy scrub that includes hundreds of thousands of tufts of wiregrass and other native plants. The best estimate is that one third of the time, a golfer will have a clear recovery; one third, uncertainty because of lie or footing; the other third, players will have to bail out and just get the ball back into play.

Staging back-to-back Opens requires juggling landing areas to avoid having divots pile up in one spot. All along, it has been Davis’ intent to create setups where the men and women would be playing basically the same shots into greens – even if from different distances. The goal is to set up a hole where, if the men are hitting 7-iron from 175 yards, the women would be hitting the same club from about 150 yards. To do that, Coore and Crenshaw needed to create new back tees – stretching the par-70 layout to 7,565 yards – 351 yards longer than in 2005. The women, by contrast, will be playing a par-70 course at a maximum of 6,649 yards. On average, that’s 51 yards per hole shorter – smaller on the par 3s and larger on the 4s and 5s.

Bob Farren, Pinehurst Resort’s longtime director of grounds, said that the calculation of landing zones “was a mixture of data and common sense.” In 2013, the median drive on the PGA Tour was 288.2 yards; on the LPGA, it was 246.6 yards. Thus, the women will be approaching greens from about 10 yards closer than the men.

That might not be enough to enable them to play the same club, but there are other factors as well. For one thing, the women are more accurate. The men hit 61.4 percent of fairways; the women, 71.1 percent. While some of that is attributable to wider fairways on the LPGA, it also suggests a narrower shot dispersion pattern off the tee. Moreover, the women tend to hit the ball lower and get more ground roll while the men generally achieve more of their distance through the air. If, as expected, Pinehurst is set up dry and fast, that will benefit the women more – making up some of the distance gap and enabling them to get closer to the same club in.

In working on No. 2, Crenshaw invoked a lesson he learned long ago from Pete Dye. “Numbers and yardages are a small part of the situation,” Crenshaw said. “What counts is how holes play, and that’s certainly true at Pinehurst No. 2.”

No major-championship site in the country is more dependent on the ground game. No matter how far players fly the ball, they’ll have to be mindful at No. 2 of what happens when the ball hits the ground. The Bermudagrass fairways will be healthier and firmer than ever going into a U.S. Open. The resort hasn’t overseeded No. 2 since the restoration, enabling the fairways to develop a stronger base than for previous U.S. Opens.

Tom O’Toole, the USGA’s vice president and chairman of the championship committee, says that because the women tend to hit their irons with less spin than the men, the greens will need to be marginally more receptive. That means a bit less firm – something the maintenance staff can monitor closely and control via firmness measurements and water management. As for speeds, O’Toole thinks the difference might be only “a half-foot or less” (on the Stimpmeter). That would be less than the 1- to 1½- foot slower speeds for the 2010 U.S. Women’s Open at Oakmont than the U.S. Open there in 2008.

One certainty for 2014: “Fewer crosswalks,” O’Toole said. “We’re going to rely less on pedestrian crosswalks across fairways, to reduce wear and tear on possible landing areas.”

Although most par 4s and par 5s at Pinehurst allow for flexing of landing areas, there are concerns about bottlenecks because of landing areas and fairway shapes. Two short par 4s, Nos. 3 and 13, plus the par-5 10th, could feature a lot of approach activity from the same fairway areas. Here’s where the USGA will use flexibility. At some time during each week, the two short par 4s will be set up for drivability off forward tees. Whatever happens with one hole for the men, the same will happen for the women.

Together in this back-to-back fashion, the two championships should make for fascinating viewing.

That’s certainly the USGA’s hope.

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