PINEHURST, N.C. — The 114th U.S. Open begins Thursday with its requisite list of favorites (Rory McIlroy, Bubba Watson, Adam Scott), intriguing upstarts (Jordan Spieth, Hideki Matsuyama) and at least one sentimental pick (Phil Mickelson).
But dig deeper and you’ll find a different list of men whom this year’s champion will have to conquer.
Mike Davis. Donald Ross. Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore.
No, none of that quartet is competing here. But by week’s end, their fingerprints will be obvious all over Pinehurst No. 2.
Davis is the USGA’s executive director and the mastermind behind each day’s course setup. He is a risk-reward antagonist seeking tee positions and hole locations that will stimulate players’ imaginations while challenging their discipline.
Ross was Pinehurst No. 2’s designer, renowned — and often cursed — for his domed, turtleback greens. In Watson’s words, you can call them “unfriendly” or “very difficult.” But Ross, who died in 1948, always wanted them as tests of skill and patience.
And Crenshaw and Coore have marched into the spotlight as the architects of Pinehurst’s massive restoration project, an undertaking that began in 2009 to return the course to what Coore called the “rough-and-tumble” feel Ross intended when it opened in 1907.
So, yes, that means this tournament will have a browner hue. “A rustic look,” Davis called it.
The U.S. Open last came to Pinehurst No. 2 in 2005, when the course was an easy-on-the-eyes, lush, green paradise. Today? As part of the restoration and with a push toward becoming more environmentally efficient, the fairways remain green down the middle but are browning toward the edges.
The sprinkler system was condensed, and Davis said Pinehurst has reduced its water usage from 55 million gallons annually to 15 million.
In addition, almost 40 acres of Bermuda grass were removed. Where once there was thick rough, now there are waste areas. Everywhere. Sand. Hardpan. Scraggly wiregrass.
“We call it weeds where I grew up,” Watson quipped.
All of it will come into play during a unique U.S. Open that’s promising to put a premium on recovery and creative thinking, even in the request to spectators to understand the new look.
Said Coore: “People could look at this on television and go, ‘Oh, my god. Pinehurst quit maintaining the course.’ “
Added Davis: “It’s like artwork, I suppose. Some piece you like, I might not like.”
Mickelson is a proponent of the new look, certain those unruly areas outside the fairway will offer myriad options to get toward the greens. He labels the recovery shot the most exciting in golf.
“And this,” he said, “is going to provide some exciting recovery shots.”
Exciting as in good. But also exciting, Mickelson suggested, as in, “What the heck just happened there?” when players misjudge lies.
“The sand will make the ball come out dead with a lot of spin,” Mickelson said. “And the wiry grass will make the ball come out shooting into a flier. So identifying which way the ball’s going to come out is going to make a big difference. Because it’s 40 or 50 yards (of difference) with an iron.”
Quickly, on a new-look course with new challenges, the urge to get aggressive will be tempered by survival instincts.
“You have to look at just finishing,” Watson said. “In four days, I’ll tell you how much I really like it and how much I really hate it.”