The U.S. Open's other winner

6/16/2014 - Golf
Pinehurst No. 2 challenged golfers such as Rickie Fowler, one of just three to finish under par. Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

PINEHURST, N.C. -- At the end of any U.S. Open, there is always the question of how the field stood up to the golf course.

At last year's Open, Justin Rose wasn't as much the winner as he was the player who had the lowest score at the end of a one-sided fight won by the Merion Golf Club.

This year, there was nearly universal belief among the players at the beginning of the week that Pinehurst No. 2 would yield at best a winner who finished around par. We know now that Martin Kaymer won by eight shots with a 9 under total, the third-lowest winning total in the 114-year history of the event.

Watching Kaymer's assault of this Donald Ross masterpiece, it was easy to recall the 2000 U.S. Open, which Tiger Woods won by 15 strokes. What is less remembered about Tiger's record-setting performance was that he was the only player to finish under par. The next-best score was 3 over par.

At Pinehurst, only three players -- Kaymer, Erik Compton and Rickie Fowler -- finished under par.

But Kaymer was alone in his mastery of Pinehurst No. 2, an outlier in a week when the field stroke average was 3 over par.

On Sunday night, the restoration of Pinehurst No. 2 seemed like a distant memory. Kaymer and Compton, a two-time heart transplant survivor who finished in a tie for second with Fowler, were in the foreground.

Yet Pinehurst No. 2 was a big star this week. And not because its greens rejected approach shots as if they were shot-blockers in the NBA. That's a unique characteristic of the course that the USGA shouldn't try to actively replicate in its other venues.

Although Phil Mickelson had a very frustrating week, finishing in a tie for 28th, he had nothing but positive things to say about Pinehurst No. 2.

"I just loved the golf course, the setup, how it played, how fair it was," Lefty said. "What surprised me is how pure and perfect the greens were. I thought, with this heat, bent grass, I just didn't think they would be as perfect as they are. They're just amazing. You get the ball on line and they go in every time, just like Augusta."

One of the most valuable lessons from this week was that the hardest test in championship golf could succeed without thick rough and ultranarrow fairways. Every future venue won't replace its rough with sandy wiregrass areas, but the decades-old mold of the tournament setup has been broken -- opening the door for new interpretations of what a U.S. Open course can be.

Probably few of the thousands who herded the fairways this week at Pinehurst No. 2 realized that 40 percent less water was being used because there was no rough.

Dan Burton, the chairman of the USGA championship committee, said Sunday that they weren't trying to make brown courses but mainly wanted to make courses less manicured off the fairways in the hope of reducing maintenance costs.

"I think by having the national championship of the United States at a golf course like this, we hope to -- I don't think you ever change public perception overnight, but over time if we go places where we show there are options and there are sustainability issues, it helps move that perception somewhat," Burton said.

Pinehurst No. 2 didn't need "doctoring" the habit of so many recent U.S. Open courses. It got a much-needed undoing that hopefully sparks a new trend in championship tournament course setups.

"Wherever you play, you should go with how the golf course is supposed to be played," Kaymer said Sunday night. "I enjoyed the way [Pinehurst No.2] played because that's the way it was supposed to be played."

Pinehurst No. 2 stuck closely to its heritage this week. Years from now, the 2014 U.S. Open should be remembered, among other things, as calling back to the way a golf course was originally conceived, the way it was supposed to be played.

Kaymer is a great young champion who will go on to win, perhaps, several more major championships. Hopefully, the work he did this week will bring about more recognition for the restored Pinehurst No. 2 and its viability as the site of many more major championships.

If there ever were a year when the U.S. Open crowned two champions, it was this week when Kaymer and Pinehurst No. 2 put on a show for the ages.