PINEHURST — Pinehurst No. 2 is anything but perfect for the U.S. Open, at least in the traditional sense of major championships in America.
USGA executive director Mike Davis could not be any more thrilled.
“It’s awesome,” Davis said Monday as he gazed out at a golf course that looks like a yard that hasn’t been watered in a month.
Sandy areas have replaced thick rough off the fairways. They are partially covered with that Pinehurst Resort officials refer to as “natural vegetation,” but what most anyone else would simply call weeds.
The edges of the bunkers are ragged. The turf is uneven just off some of the greens, with patches of no grass.
Instead of verdant fairways from tee-to-green, the fairways are a blend of green, yellow and brown.
That was the plan all along.
Shortly after this Donald Ross gem was awarded its third U.S. Open in 15 years, the fabled No. 2 course went through a gutsy project to restore it to its natural look from yesteryear, before this notion that the condition of a course had to be perfect.
Ernie Els, a two-time U.S. Open champion, was amazed when he walked off the 18th green.
“I wouldn’t call this an inland links, but it’s got that character,” he said. “I was a bit nervous when I heard of the redo. But this looks like it’s been here for a long time.”
Els has been playing the U.S. Open for two decades. He never imagined the “toughest test in golf” without any rough. Nor does he think that will make it easier.
“You don’t need it,” he said. “When I played it in ‘99, I didn’t like it. You hit it in the rough, you’re just trying to get it out. It was one-dimensional. Now, you’re going to have an unbelievable championship.
“If you miss the fairway, you’re not just going to wedge it out. You’ve got a chance to hit a miraculous shot. And then you could really be (in trouble). This is the way it used to be.”
Els said the look of Pinehurst No. 2 reminded him of Royal Melbourne, and a guy who actually grew up next to Royal Melbourne agreed.
“These are Melbourne fairways,” Geoff Ogilvy said as he walked down the first fairway, where the grass was green for the first 200 yards before turning brown, and then going back to greener grass toward the green.
“This is kind of the way grass is supposed to be. In the summer it browns up, and in the winter it’s green. To my eye, this is what golf courses are supposed to look like.”
Ogilvy understand architecture better than most players. He was looking at photos as Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw worked on the restoration. He had heard stories. And it still managed to exceed his expectations.
As for the idea of a U.S. Open without rough? He pointed to clumps of grass in the sandy areas, and some of the wiregrass bushes. And yes, the weeds.
“Look, the reality is there is rough there,” he said. “It’s probably what rough used to be like before we had crazy irrigation.”
The past two U.S. Open champions finished over par — Webb Simpson at Olympic Club, Justin Rose at Merion, both at 1-over. A third straight U.S. Open champion over par would be the longest streak in nearly 60 years.
Not many were willing to bet against that.
“I’ve never played anything like it,” Jordan Spieth said. “And it’s already — right now, with the pins in the middle of the greens — hard enough for even par to win. It’s going to be extremely challenging. But at the same time, it’s a great test.”
More than a great test, Davis is hopeful it sends a great message.
The USGA has been preaching in recent years to get away from the idea that golf courses have to be perfectly manicured to be great.
Pinehurst No. 2, and perhaps Chambers Bay next year outside Seattle, allows a chance to show the golfing public what it means.
The restoration project involved removing some 35 acres of sod and keeping only 450 of the 1,150 sprinkler heads. Water use is down an estimated 40 percent.
“It’s look back in the past, but it’s really looking forward to the future,” Davis said. “Owners, operators and superintendents won’t give you this until the golfers think it’s OK.
“At private clubs, unless the greens committee says, ‘This is what we want,’ the superintendent won’t do it. It’s people thinking, ‘This looks fine.’”
Pinehurst No. 2 effectively presents the opposite perception of Augusta National. For years, superintendents have complained that too many courses wanted to be just like the home of the Masters in the quality — near perfection — of the conditions.
“Hopefully, this sets a precedent,” Ogilvy said. “If Augusta has been the model everyone followed, hopefully this shows that it doesn’t have to be that way to be great.”