Pinehurst No. 2 'getting her face on' for the U.S. Open

PINEHURST, N.C. - The old girl was a little ragged around the edges: brown, discolored fairways, weeds sprouting in the collection areas, holes punched in her greens. But, the group of USGA officials walking the course here last month didn't seem concerned.

That's because come June, when summer comes and the 2005 U.S. Open barrels into this small, golf-centric town in the sandhills of North Carolina, her caretakers say she'll be one stately, handsome woman again. Like most classic beauties, it takes her a while to get her face on.

Donald Ross' masterpiece at Pinehurst, the venerable No. 2, will host its second U.S. Open June 13-19 and officials there say they hope it will be as dramatic as the first, when Payne Stewart sank a putt on the last hole to beat Phil Mickelson by a stroke.

"The way we're set up, we could have incredible drama just like we did in '99," said Pinehurst Resort's Director of Golf Matt Massey.

Lefty: 'Give me another shot'

What Massey means is that No. 2 won't be much different than it was in 1999, which gives Mickelson tingles of excitement.

"I'd love to get another shot there because of that golf course," Mickelson told the media last month. "The way it was set up in '99 sets up very well for me, where it brings the short game back into play."

The short game is crucial at No. 2 because the long game is so easy, relatively speaking. Ross built what he called "the fairest test of championship golf ever" by constructing wide-open fairways with few hazards other than his characteristic, strategically placed bunkers. There's no water, for example, and no out of bounds. Nor is the course overly long at a little more than 7,200 yards.

Long John short

Ross saved the best for last when he constructed No. 2's turtleback greens, most of which resemble a hard, ceramic bowl turned upside down. Trying to land a ball on most of these greens with anything other than a mid- to short-iron shot is like performing brain surgery with a pocketknife - you have to be luckier than you are good. They're hard and slick and turn their nose up at everything but the softest, most feathery approaches.

Golf fans will remember John Daly, thoroughly disgusted with the way the USGA set up the course in '99, on the eighth hole. Daly hit a putt off the crowned green only to see it roll back toward him. He smacked it again before it stopped rolling - thereby hitting the same putt twice and incurring a two-stroke penalty.

Those who know the course say aim for the front third of the green, no matter where the pin is, and if you miss you'll be looking at the toughest greensides in golf. If the pros manage to land on the greens, they'll be looking at difficult reads on greens which will be rolling about a 10.5 on the stimpmeter.

Hackers love it, scratch golfers fear it

It's an odd course, which is surely what Ross intended, by appealing to the high handicappers while giving scratch golfers the sighs and trembles. Hackers love the fact they can play the course with the same ball, while low-handicappers always seem to shoot at flagsticks that leave no room for error.

Aside from Mickelson, others say Tiger Woods is the man to watch. With plenty of room on the fairways, Woods can spray the ball and still get close with his high, accurate irons. Woods played well here in '99, missing a four-foot putt on No. 17 and a 20-footer by a whisker on the final hole to finish third, two strokes behind Stewart and one off Mickelson's pace.

Woods should get some help there from the USGA. Burned by accusations that it made Shinnecock too hard for last year's U.S. Open, the USGA isn't going out of its way to make No. 2 too much harder than it was in '99, particularly in light of its difficult greens. The fairways are being narrowed from an average of 28 to 32 yards in '99 to about 24 to 28 yards for this year's Open, though the rough will only be about 3 ½ inches high.

"That's consistent to what it was in '99," Massey said. "Bermuda rough, as you know, can be very wiry and 3 to 3 ½ inches in height will penalize the shots that come in there. You can still get a club on the ball, so you're not going to hack it out 20 yards, but you're obviously not going to be able to get any spin on it.

"Once the ball starts to land in and around those crowned greens, that's when the ball can really carom and bounce just about anywhere."

No 'Open Doctor' here

This is one U.S. Open course where the public can play - No. 2 is a resort course with a private membership - and the course you may be playing now will be very similar to the one the pros will try in June.

"It really doesn't change a whole lot, that's probably why it's so famous," said Greg Austin, a former pro at Pinehurst. "You know how they call Rees Jones the Open doctor? This course has been here for 100 years, there's really no need to make many changes."

There will be a few, though. They leveled the tees at the second and seventh holes, which used to be elevated. Nos. 8 and 16, now par 5s, will be par 4s. They added a new tee on No. 11 and added a little length on Nos. 4 and 14.

"That's pretty much it," Massey said. "Beyond a little length and narrowing the fairways in spots on certain holes, it's going to play very similar to how it was set up in '99. The USGA completely dictates how the course is set up, but from our conversations with them, there will be very little change."

Break par, get a statue

That should be enough. Payne, now deceased, was the only one to break par in '99 and he did it by just a stroke - and they built a statue of him outside the clubhouse.

Pinehurst officials didn't want to take a chance with overseeding this year, fearing the rye grass might interfere with the transition to Bermuda.

"I think that's going to promote a great transition and really get that Bermuda grass as thriving as we want it," Massey said.

No. 2 will stay open for resort play until May 29 and will re-open June 22.

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