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Pinehurst No. 2 will bring the drama

6/11/2014 - Golf Phil Mickelson Jason Day + more
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Pinehurst's First Family

In his 71 years at Pinehurst, Willie Lee McRae has caddied for multiple presidents and famous athletes, and because of him, the McRae family legacy at Pinehurst continues to grow.

PINEHURST, N.C. -- There will be two descriptions you will hear a lot this week to describe the severely undulating greens at Pinehurst No. 2 for the U.S. Open: turtle back or crowned.

You will learn about the waste areas and bunkers and where you can ground your club. The conservationist in you will be pleased that the replacement of 35 to 40 acres of rough with sandy wiregrass areas will result in 40 percent less water usage. 

If you pay close attention, you are bound to absorb as much about Pinehurst No. 2 as you will the players in contention.

More than any other week of the golf season, the U.S. Open is an occasion to talk about the venue and how the golf course is supposed to test the skills and vulnerabilities of the best players in the world. That, and what makes it unique from the typical PGA Tour course.

Caddies must sleep with their yardage books.

"Short is good around most of these greens," one caddie told me by way of explaining that long is often bad. "But oh, it's OK to miss long on 13."

Players obsess over every detail of a U.S. Open course as if they are being graded on their knowledge for a test to be a club pro. Take for example, Jason Day's short, wonky dissertation on Tuesday about the location of the sprinklers in the fairways at Pinehurst No. 2.

"Down the middle there they have one row of sprinklers, which keep the fairways pretty lush in the middle and then obviously it browns off on the side of the fairways," said the 26-year-old Australian, who finished in a tie for second at Merion in 2013. "I was talking to my caddie when we first started playing and I thought the USGA had been smart and they were watering the middle and not watering the edges so you hit the brown spots and run into the natural areas."

Pinehurst No. 2 is a storyline that will evolve over the course of the week. By the end of the tournament, the players could come to hate it by believing that it was an obstacle in determining the best player and too punitive for its own good.

But early in their preparations for Thursday's first round, the players like mostly what they see.

"I think it's a great setup," Matt Kuchar said. "I've played in so many of these pro-ams and we get on these tough golf courses where guys can't finish the hole because of some hazard. "Here, you can hit it off line and go find it and play it. I think it's a great way for the game to be played. "

Phil Mickelson, never one to hide his feelings about golf courses he doesn't like, said on Tuesday that Pinehurst was the best test he's seen to identify the best player in his 24 U.S. Open appearances.

"Pinehurst No. 2 forces you to make good decisions, to choose the right club off the tee, hit solid iron shots into the green, and utilize your short game to save strokes," he said.

The only knock that Mickelson had is that with the back tees installed at the par 5 No. 5, only a handful of players will be able to reach the green in two.

"That's just not exciting, challenging, and won't have the same type of drama that it would have if those back tees were removed and the green was reachable in two," Mickelson said. "Now there's some guys like Bubba and Dustin and those guys that can reach it, but for the most part, it's two good shots to about 40, 50 yards short and then you wedge on. "But that green is exciting when you're hitting a 4- or 5-iron into it. But unless the tees are moved forward, we won't see that."

Mike Davis, the USGA executive director and U.S. Open course setup head, said that he doesn't expect universal praise from the players. If there were, he said, the USGA probably isn't doing its job. Players expect Pinehurst to play very difficult, considering particularly the complexities of the turtle back greens and the expected fast and firm conditions.

"Par will be a good winning score," J.B. Holmes said.

Yet U.S. Open golf courses do not always meet expectations.

"I kept hearing last year that we were going to have these low scores at Merion," Davis said, noting that Justin Rose, the Merion winner, finished at even par. "I kept telling people that just because it was short on the scorecard didn't mean it was easy."

Come Sunday night, we'll know how Pinehurst No. 2 stood up to the best players in the field. The restoration -- the widening of the fairways, the killing of the rough and addition of the sandy wiregrass areas -- will get its due examination as the tournament unfolds.

A great champion may be crowned this weekend, but the golf course will also be a major storyline, perhaps the biggest, in a tournament that promises much drama.