For the first two days of the U.S. Open, as Martin Kaymer surged ahead with a pair of 65s and the leader boards were bathed in red, the question was hard to avoid:
Was Pinehurst No. 2 too easy?
More to the point, was the new-look No. 2, with its natural waste areas and lack of grassy rough, too easy for a U.S. Open?
U.S. Golf Association executive director Mike Davis didn’t think so. And the USGA had a way of resolving that issue: 18 extremely tough pin positions on Saturday, when just two players broke par and four shot in the 80s.
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“Very difficult,” Phil Mickelson said. “It was a tough day to go low.”
Mickelson, who had a 2-over 72, said he kept looking for a good pin placement to attack in the third round.
“I kept waiting,” he said. “Well, I can’t get to this one, I’ll get to maybe the next hole. Can’t get to this one, I’ll get to the next hole. Finally, we got to the 18th and I’m like I can get to the pin.”
Kenny Perry, the 2013 U.S. Senior Open champion, is playing in his 13th U.S. Open but said Saturday’s experience was a first.
“It was a golf course of the toughest 18 pins I’ve ever seen,” he said. “It was probably the hardest setup I’ve ever experienced in a major. There was no room for error.”
Perry, 53, did find a good way to erase one error, holing a 220-yard bunker shot for an eagle-2 at the par-4 14th hole in shooting 74.
“A 4-iron hybrid,” he said, smiling. “Longest shot I’ve made in my life. Pretty incredible.”
But No. 2 mostly was punching back. After three bogeys the first two rounds, Kaymer had three on the front nine Saturday.
“It was easily a par 72 today,” Jimmy Walker said after a 71.
Former N.C. State golfer Garth Mulroy said he got a text Saturday morning with a tweet by 2011 U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell that said “It’s moving day” with a sheet showing all 18 hole placements.
“Just seeing that tweet made me look at the pins a little harder,” Mulroy said after a 70. “It’s one of those courses … where you’re kind of defensive from the start.”
The first two rounds had a lot of players in more of an attack mode and red, sub-par numbers on the leader boards. There were 13 players under par, compared to seven in the 1999 Open at No. 2 and five in the 2005 Open.
No. 2 had Bermuda rough in those two Opens. After the renovation and restoration done by Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore, the grass rough was gone and the players quickly found the lies in the waste areas to be ever playable.
This also was the first Open at Pinehurst with the fourth hole, previously a par-5, playing as a par 4 hole and the fifth hole, long one of the best par-4s in championship golf, converted to a par-5. Davis said that was the original course design of Donald Ross and how the holes played in the 1936 PGA at No. 2, but even Crenshaw and Coore initially had reservations about the switch and the change to the fifth.
The fifth was the 17th easiest hole in the opening round.
“It’s a bit of a risk/reward hole,” said Rickie Fowler, who had a birdie at the fifth Saturday in his 67. “If you hit it in the right position you can come away with a 4.”
Davis defended the golf course and its setup Friday, telling ESPN, “It really is a different test for a U.S. Open. Even with pretty benign conditions, soft conditions, no wind, it’s still a wonderful test of golf for the world’s best.”
Asked about the players’ reaction, Davis said “very favorable” and added, “They’re saying, ‘Geez, we thought this was more fun than we thought it would be,’ ” he said.
Kaymer’s 130 total for the first 36 holes set the U.S. Open scoring record, topping the 131 carded by Rory McIlroy when he won the 2011 Open at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md. But McIlroy was quick to say Congressional had been softened by rain, that it worked to his advantage.
“Congressional was more benign,” McIlroy said. “Here, there’s trouble lying at every corner of a missed green.”
And there’s still a final round to be played.