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DeCock: Pinehurst made back to back US Open golf tournaments possible

By Luke DeCock - staff columnist
ldecock@newsobserver.com
Luke has worked for The News & Observer since 2000. He covered the Carolina Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a sports columnist in August 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania.
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PINEHURST The idea came from the U.S. Golf Association, a bold experiment to combine its two biggest tournaments, its two most important national championships, the U.S. Open and the U.S. Women’s Open, in a two-week festival of golf, letting the men and women compete on the same course.

The USGA had the idea. Pinehurst made it possible.

As the U.S. Open returns to Pinehurst Resort and Country Club’s No. 2 course, one of the iconic tracks in American golf, it brings with it history of its own – most notably Payne Stewart’s impossibly dramatic putt on the 18th green in 1999 to deny Phil Mickleson his still-sought U.S. Open title – but history will unquestionably be made over the next two weeks.

Will it work, letting the women play on the same course just played by the men, trampled by spectators, chewed up with divots, greens simmering in the steamy sun of the Sandhills in June? That’s an open question, pardon the phrase.

But there’s no question it wouldn’t have a chance of working anywhere but Pinehurst, where the sandy soils can absorb summer rains with ease and the greens are so diabolical they don’t need to be shaved down to defend themselves and, thanks to the latest renovations, there’s no rough to worry about.

“The big challenge was trying to set up a golf course for both weeks that you didn’t compromise one week or the other,” USGA executive director Mike Davis said. “You wanted to set it up for a national championship. When the idea came up, we thought the one place it would probably work would be Pinehurst.”

None of this would be possible without the changes to the No. 2 course orchestrated by Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore, restoring the course to its original spirit by replacing acres of turfgrass rough with sandy areas filled with native plants, the course as Ross knew it – less defined, more wild. Scruffy, even, but in a beautiful, natural way.

It will also be a jarring visual change, not only from 1999 and 2005 but just about every other tournament on the calendar, especially The Masters, the first major of the year.

“Augusta is perfection to the nth degree. Now, the second major of the year, people watching on TV might say, ‘What is this?’ ” Coore, a native North Carolinian, said. “I don’t know if you’ll ever see such a huge variety in the presentation of championship courses back to back, but this is what Pinehurst was intended to be.”

With the changes may come controversy, as some players have already warned. Davis said the USGA would play the new sandy areas normally and only actual bunkers, what Davis called “a carved-out depression,” would be considered hazards, with each case-by-case decision up to the rules official in each group.

That leaves plenty of room for interpretation and opens the door to a situation like Dustin Johnson at the PGA Championship in 2010, when Johnson lost a shot at the title when he didn’t realize what appeared to be a fan-trampled waste area, like those at Pinehurst, was actually considered a bunker.

Rules interpretations may be a minor concern if the course doesn’t hold up for the second week. One week of tournament golf puts a huge strain on a course, let alone two. The USGA believes it’s easier to soften the greens for the women than firm them up for the men, a case Davis made to LPGA Tour players earlier this spring in a meeting that can safely be characterized as tense.

“They seem very confident they can get the course in good shape for two weeks,” said Karrie Webb, who won the 2001 Women’s Open at nearby Pine Needles. “They said it’s probably the only course in the United States that could handle it.”

On that front, everyone agreed: It was Pinehurst or nothing, an ambitious gamble at the only place where it was even possible – renewed, restored and ready to face what may be its greatest challenge yet.

DeCock: ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947
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