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U.S. Open course Pinehurst looks 'stunning' but there's no rough

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From graduated rough to no rough at all.

Welcome to the U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2, where the championship’s evolution takes its most stunning turn yet under Mike Davis.

The restoration of the classic course to the natural design that Donald Ross intended may feel unnatural for a U.S. Open, but the USGA’s executive director sees all the elements important in keeping the championship true to its original mission still neatly in place.

While the idea of staging a U.S. Open without rough may seem like heresy to the old guard, Davis sees it differently.

Acknowledging the sandy waste areas that take the place of traditional rough could make scoring easier in this U.S. Open, Davis doesn’t see the setup as blasphemous. He sees the sacred challenges required to identify a true champion still in the rigorous test that will be offered.

“One of the things that everybody talks about is the U.S. Open being the hardest test in golf,” Davis said. “There's certainly some truth to that, relative to other events during the year. But, internally, when we talk about what we want it to be, you never hear us talk about wanting it to be the hardest test. That ends up almost being a byproduct.

“What we really want our national championships to be is an incredibly challenging test, where it challenges every aspect of the game, shot-making skills, your course-management skills, your ability to handle the pressure at certain times of the championship. We do it on some of this country's very best golf courses. So that's really what our championships are about, holding a challenging championship on some of the great courses in the country.”

But no rough at a U.S. Open? Really?

Somewhere in the cosmos beyond, Joseph Dey and P.J. Boatwright must have spit out their coffee when they got the news.

Dey and Boatwright served as USGA executive directors for five decades, their back-to-back reigns covering 1934 to 1980. Dey was in charge when Julius Boros survived the brutal combination of high winds and severe rough to win at the Country Club at Brookline with the highest U.S. Open winner’s score in the modern era (+9). Boatwright was in command for the Massacre at Winged Foot in 1974, when Hale Irwin (+7) emerged from the deep and penal rough as more sole survivor than winner.

No rough at a U.S. Open?

Isn’t that like King Arthur without Excalibur?

Or Leeds Castle without its moat?

Or Goldfinger without Odd Job?

Not necessarily.

Whether it’s graduated rough, or no rough at all, Davis has found a way to put players in tough spots when they miss fairways. He has found ways to test smarts and resolve, as well as skill, whether a missed fairway leaves a player in deep rough, as it did last year at Merion, or in waste areas, like it will at Pinehurst No. 2.

In fact, Davis seems to most relish seeing how players fare in the toughest spot of all. He relishes putting them in their own heads. He does that with setups that force players to think their way out of trouble more often now, versus putting them in spots where the sole choice is chopping out of trouble with a wedge.

“He’s learned that rough is a very weak protector of scoring,” says two-time PGA Tour winner Paul Goydos. “The best way to protect a score is not to have conditions necessarily like that. The best way to protect scores is to make players make decisions, because we are inherently terrible at it.

“Everyone’s bad at making snap decisions. You get yourself in a bad position, and the thing that gets in your way more than anything else, at least for me as a Tour player, is my ego. That ego causes me to make decisions I shouldn’t make, to bite off more than I can chew.”

Davis will create setups that tempt players to go for a glory shot, which often makes them their own worst enemy.

“Golf is a game of temptation,” said Joe Ogilvie, winner of the ’07 U.S. Bank Championship in Milwaukee. “If you give me an idea, put it in my mind that I can hit a shot, whether it’s borderline or not, the delta in my scores are going to be higher. In other words, the lowest score I shoot on a hole and the highest score are going to be pretty wide. But you give me 6-inch chop-out rough, I guarantee you I’m going to make a par or a bogey. I’m not going to make a double. It’s going to be less exciting.”

Goydos agrees.

“I’m a firm believer that chop-out rough takes decision making out of the process,” Goydos said. “Flier rough and chipping areas make you think. You get over there by the greens, and there’s no rough, you have options. I can putt from there, I can bump and run. All of a sudden, I have to make a decision on what shot I’m going to play, versus I’m going to open up a sand wedge and hit a bunker-type shot for every shot around the greens. It got to the point, quite frankly, where we got really good at that shot. Now, they’ve changed the game a little bit.”

The traditional U.S. Open setup philosophy was introduced in the ‘50s, when USGA president Richard Tufts steered a policy of consistently setting up the championship with firm-and-fast conditions, narrow fairways, penal rough and quick greens. Notably, Tufts was the owner of Pinehurst at the time.

Typically, a U.S. Open came to be set up with fairways 24- to 28-yards wide, framed by a band of interim rough 2 yards wide and then by deep, nasty rough, measuring 5 inches or deeper.

With graduated rough, there are 5 or 6 yards of intermediate rough between the small band of interim rough and the deep, nasty stuff.

“It’s based on the idea that the farther off line a guy hits it, the greater the penalty should be,” Davis said when he first unveiled the plan. “It’s always been my pet peeve that a guy who misses the first strip of rough by just a foot could have a worse lie than a guy who hits it out where the gallery has tramped the rough down.”

Davis first proposed the concept of graduated rough about 10 years ago, when he worked under David Fay, the executive director he would eventually succeed. The concept had been batted around in varying forms within the USGA in the past. Back in the early ‘90s, former USGA president Sandy Tatum internally floated the idea of 18 different rough heights, with a different height for every hole. Seven-time PGA Tour winner Peter Jacobsen pushed Fay for a form of graduated rough before Davis made his formal proposal.

Geoff Ogilvy won the U.S. Open at Winged Foot in 2006, the first year the USGA used the graduated rough concept, back when Davis did course setup as the senior director of rules and competition.

Ogilvy liked it.

“Golf is much more interesting to play and watch when we’re making decisions,” Ogilvy said. “Really, there is a reason why Augusta is so interesting to watch, because it’s in guys’ heads the whole time. Hopefully, Pinehurst, in a different way, will have the same sort of mental test. It will be interesting watching guys make decisions, sometimes really poor ones, and sometimes really great ones.

“Golf is definitely more interesting when the recovery shot is part of the game.”

Not everyone likes the concept. NBC analyst Johnny Miller, winner of the ’73 U.S. Open, complained that Torrey Pines was set up like “an old Andy Williams layout, except with distance,” after the U.S. Open was played there in ’08. Ogilvy said Torrey Pines was actually his favorite U.S. Open setup.

At Merion last year, there was no graduated rough, with the relatively short course protected solely by deep chop-out rough. Miller wondered going there if the championship was losing its identity. Now with Pinehurst featuring no rough, Miller doesn’t seem certain what to expect year to year at a U.S. Open.

“There’s no guarantee what the setup is going to be,” Miller said.

Golf Channel’s Brandel Chamblee has his own concerns about how U.S. Open setups define the game.

“I think in the last decade or so, as we saw this graduated rough come into play, it's lessened the importance of driving,” Chamblee said.

While Chamblee said he loves Angel Cabrera’s swing and the way he plays, he didn’t like seeing a guy miss as many fairways as Cabrera did when he won the U.S. Open at Oakmont in ’07.

“That’s not exactly what I envision being the U.S. Open,” Chamblee said.

Chamblee believes the USGA could do a better job of directing how the game should be played with its setups. He would like to see control more rigorously demanded from tee to green.

“In my opinion, the USGA has sort of acquiesced, to some degree, to how inaccurate players are off the tee,” he said.

Chamblee, however, believes Pinehurst No. 2 is an exception to the rule, with its generous fairways and lack of rough. While Pinehurst No. 2 doesn’t demand players hit their drives down narrow fairway corridors, he believes it will severely punish poor drives. He sees the nature of Pinehurst No. 2’s turtle-back greens being such a big part of the equation there, even back from the tee boxes.

“The golf course is so well designed from a position standpoint,” Chamblee said. “You have to be in the fairway. You have to have the right angle to have any chance to hit these greens.”

Ogilvy sees that, too.

“Pinehurst has always been about position and angles,” Ogilvy said. “There are going to be situations where you are better off with a bad lie in the right angle than a good lie in a wrong angle, which is what golf at its best is. Augusta is like that, and Pinehurst should be similar. It looks kind of like it’s supposed to look.” 

With architects Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore finishing their restoration three years ago, Pinehurst No. 2 will feature fairways that sprawl wider than modern U.S. Opens have ever seen, framed by sandy waste areas, just the way Ross intended when he designed the course more than 100 years ago. It’s a stark contrast to the lush, wall-to-wall green grass look when Payne Stewart won the U.S. Open at Pinehurst in 1999 and Michael Campbell won it there in ’05.

A ball that misses a fairway at Pinehurst now could end up in a nice sandy lie, or in a foot print in the sand. Or it could end up on pine straw, or trapped under a small wire grass sprig, or amid some weeds.

“We think you’re going to see some of the most spectacular recovery shots in U.S. Open history,” Coore said.

Jim Furyk, winner of the ’03 U.S. Open at Olympia Fields, isn’t so sure.

“There is no skill in the escape, I don’t believe,” Furyk said. “You are either going to have a shot, with not that much skill, or you are going to be behind one of those clumps.

“I think, because of the way it plays, it’s going to take the aggressive play out of everyone’s hands, that’s the way I see it. That’s what I believe is going to happen, but I’ll wait to see it in tournament conditions and how those clumps look. 

With no U.S. Open being played in a setup quite like Pinehurst No. 2 now offers, nobody is sure what to expect. There’s a lot of guess work going into this championship.

“I anticipated sand and wiregrass outside of the fairways,” said Curtis Strange, the two-time U.S. Open winner and ESPN analyst. “It is that and much more. It is what they want to call undergrowth. I call it weeds. It is everything that you have seen in your worst kept lawn. It is dandelions growing up 12 to 15 inches. It's low‑growing weeds, and in some cases, it's actually difficult to find the golf ball.

“It looks a little different than I anticipated. It's a different type of rough, and a different type of penalty, but it's still going to be penal and still going to be playing tough if you miss the fairway. The fairways are a little bit wider than normal U.S. Open standards, but they're going to be firm, and they slope. So they're still going to be tough to hit. I think it's going to be a hell of a test.”

While Davis wasn’t behind the restoration decision, he whole heartedly endorsed it. The restoration plays into his hands as the man who still sets up the U.S. Open. There will be an element of luck for balls running off fairways, but that only heightens the mind game a Davis setup offers.

Davis doesn’t just like to put players in tough spots in their heads off fairways. He likes to get them thinking twice about their decisions on tee boxes. He does that with variable tee boxes, where he will dramatically move up a tee, completely changing the nature of a par 4 or par 5.

We saw the dramatic effect that can have at the 16th tee at the Olympic Club at the 2012 U.S. Open. Furyk stepped to the tee box on Sunday of that tournament practically scratching his head. It was a 670-yard par 5 on the scorecard, but Davis moved the tees way up for the final round.

“The tee was 100 yards up,” Furyk said at the time. “I know the USGA gives us a memo saying that they play from multiple tees, but there's no way to prepare for 100 yards . . . I was unprepared and didn't know exactly where to hit the ball off the tee.”

Furyk decided to try to draw a 3-wood around the trees of that right-to-left dogleg. Instead, he snap-hooked his tee shot into the trees. He made bogey and ended up losing the U.S. Open to Webb Simpson by two shots.

That’s one of the defining moments in the Davis’ era of U.S. Open setups.

With Pinehurst calling for so many decisions from the tee boxes, rough and around the greens, it’s possible we will get more than one more defining moment in Davis setup at Pinehurst No. 2.

-- Randall Mell, GolfChannel.com

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