PINEHURST, N.C. — The statues watch with unflinching vigilance over the 18th green. Donald Ross and Richard Tufts, locked in perpetual conversation. Robert Dedman, his proprietary pride apparent even cast in metal. And Payne Stewart, frozen in limb-splayed glory, the only one of the three monuments requiring barriers to protect it from camera-happy crowds.
The statues represent and honor the founding of Pinehurst, its rebirth and its greatest moment. In this place, so steeped in history, so pivotal in the history of American golf itself, a new page will unavoidably be turned this week.
After years of anticipation, the U.S. Open is back, the Women’s Open to follow. That’s hardly the only novel aspect to this third Open on No. 2.
From 1999, Stewart is gone, lost all too quickly after the crowning moment of his career. Phil Mickelson is still here, still looking for his first U.S. Open title after coming ever so close that summer, but playing under a cloud of insider-trading accusations. Vijay Singh and Tiger Woods, it is easy to forget given the drama on the 18th green, were only a shot behind. Both are absent for different reasons.
Six years later, Michael Campbell came from nowhere to win and just as quickly vanished from the scene. Instead of the Sandhills, he’s in Spain, having suffered damage both physical (a bad ankle) and personal (the breakup of his marriage).
Woods, whose late charge fell just short, is at home as well, with injuries of his own. Jason Gore, the unlikely crowd favorite in 2005, failed to make it out of sectional qualifying. Retief Goosen, the other half of Sunday’s final pairing with Gore, looking for his third Open in five years, is here but hasn’t won since 2009.
Even the course those two tournaments were played upon is gone, its identity then at least, stripped of decades of improvements and shorn back to something resembling Ross’ original design and intent, the rough replaced with sandy waste areas, the greens as frightening as ever.
Pinehurst No. 2 epitomizes tradition. It connects us with the birth of golf in America. It tells the story of the game’s growth, the good and the bad alike.
Given those ties to the past, it is somewhat jarring to consider this third U.S. Open is a completely blank slate. The direct connections to the other two Opens here are tenuous at best, surprisingly so, and even if they weren’t, this is a step into the unknown for so many, not least the USGA.
First, the governing body was willing to abandon its traditional U.S. Open setup – deep, thick rough as the course’s primary defense – when confronted with the alternative presented by Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore in their retro remaking of No. 2. Then, it decided on the unprecedented step of sending the women out onto the course for their national championship immediately after the men conclude.
Both of those decisions have the potential for spectacular payoffs, just as they have the potential to backfire in equally dramatic fashion, the latter in particular given the increasing likelihood of afternoon thunderstorms this week.
Pinehurst has provided a stage for two very different kinds of drama in its previous Opens, and the only guarantee is that this one will, inevitably, strike out in a new direction as well.
Back to the past. Into the future. There’s no better time, no better place to make history all over again.