Pinehurst restoration looks like gem
What would Donald Ross do?
Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw don't own wristbands with this inscribed, but the question was etched into their minds as they worked for a year to restore Pinehurst No. 2 to the original intentions of the famed architect for the 2014 U.S Open.
From the opening of No. 2 in 1907 to his death in 1948, Ross tinkered with his masterpiece.
"It was his baby," said Mike Davis, the United States Golf Association's executive director.
Coore and Crenshaw uncovered old photos revealing sandy wiregrass areas that melted into the fairways. So they removed 35 to 40 acres of rough to bring them back, reducing water use by 40 percent. They widened the fairways to offer more strategic options for the players.
Aesthetically, No. 2 will look strikingly different from its previous incarnations in the 1999 and 2005 U.S. Opens. Before the restoration, there was not much visual distinction from the fairways to the rough. It was just a sea of Bermuda grass.
Now the sandy wiregrass areas produce a profound break from fairway to rough, bringing back the natural look that Ross combed from this Sandhills region of North Carolina.
"The whole idea was to bring back to the 1930s and '40s, the way Ross had it," Davis said. "Ultimately, Bill and Ben weren't trying to absolutely mimic Ross's design, because the yardage doesn't work for today's game.
"What they really tried to do was say, what was the intent on every hole architecturally and let's see if we can make that work for both the U.S. Open and the U.S. Women's Open."
Crenshaw hopes that Ross would be proud of the reverence that he and Coore showed for his intentions.
"This restoration is an appreciation of a true artist," said Crenshaw, who with Coore is also working on a restoration of Shinnecock Hills.
What will the players say about this new-look U.S. Open?
"I can't believe that this is a U.S. Open," Davis believes they might say.
That's because all they know is narrow fairways, fast, firm greens and high rough at this championship.
Where did this idea come from that a U.S. Open has to have these defining characteristics?
In the mid-1950s, Richard Tufts, then the USGA president, and Joe Dey, the USGA executive director, devised the setup philosophy for the tournament. Tufts was a grandson of the James W. Tufts, the founder of the Pinehurst Resort.
Other than the introduction of graduated rough in 2006, this recipe for the U.S. Open setup has been mostly in place for the last 60 years.
"That's what so funny about it," Davis said. "We're going back to the original Donald Ross intent at No. 2, and it goes a little against the Tufts family, particularly Richard Tufts."
This unconventional setup for an Open is refreshing news to Hunter Mahan, who finished in a tie for fourth last year at Merion.
"It's obviously a dramatic change and the opposite of what everybody is doing these days, which is add bunkers, length and deep rough," he said. "I liked that Pinehurst went the opposite way."
Still, the turtleback greens are the most dangerous and defining trait of this layout. Coore and Crenshaw slightly softened the contours of the putting surfaces, but the severely undulating greens are mostly as Ross conceived them when he converted them from sand greens into Bermuda overseeded with rye grass after 1936.
To Crenshaw, it makes perfect sense why Ross put so much effort into the No. 2 greens.
"Greens are the most important part of a golf course," said Crenshaw, who missed the cut in the first U.S. Open played at Pinehurst No. 2 in 1999. "People remember greens and their undulations. They have to be distinctive, and you have to offer a variety of slopes and contours.
"Greens should receive greater attention than any other aspect of the design because they are the final act. Greens should dictate the play back to the tee box. That's what makes it a strategic effort."
Of course, the weather will play a big role during tournament week.
"If they don't have thunderstorms and wet weather, those turtleback greens are going to play hard," said Tom Watson, the 1982 U.S. Open champion at Pebble Beach. "The greens are the defense of the golf course. It doesn't matter if the course has rough or not.
"If you hit it off line into the sandy waste areas, you might have a shot to get to the green, but you have to fit that shot onto a very small surface and hope that it doesn't roll down one of those swells off the green."
Justin Rose, the lone survivor of a difficult challenge last year at Merion, said he expects this year's championship to be a cross between the U.S. Open and the Open Championship with a lot of different running shots.
"We hope that they see the tests and that it's something attainable, and we hope to stimulate their thinking and provide an exacting test that a U.S. Open should be," Crenshaw said.
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And contrary to popular belief, Davis said, the objective is never to protect par or embarrass the best players in the world.
"I have never heard anybody at the USGA say we want par to win," said Davis, who is working his 25th Open for the Far Hills, New Jersey-based organization. "I won't say that there aren't people at the USGA who say that or that it wasn't said many years ago.
"We do want it to be a very stern examination that tests every part of your game -- the course management, the mental side and your nerves in the heat of the battle."
Yet Davis admits that they don't always get it right.
"We continue to make mistakes," he said. "And sometimes you get fooled by Mother Nature, and sometimes it's human error."
Davis hopes that Coore and Crenshaw's meticulous care of Ross' masterpiece will be received well by the players. But perhaps the toughest critic has already been satisfied, Donald Ross.
"I think it will be like most U.S. Opens and that the players are a little skeptical of how the USGA will set the course up," Davis said. "If they are giving universal praise, I am wondering if we're doing our job."
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