U.S. Open course goes scruffy chic

First, before rushing to judgment on the all-natural, whole-grain, free-range Pinehurst No. 2, answer one question:

Wouldn’t Charlize Theron still look good with no make-up, in a dress her mother made out of the living-room drapes?

The point is, nature provides us certain treasures that require really less maintenance than you’d think. That is the new aesthetic they’re preaching from the sand hills of North Carolina.

Prepare yourself. It’s going to be a little bit of a shock when you tune in today to the U.S. Open and discover that championship golf in America doesn’t have to be played on wall-to-wall carpets of immaculate grass. Pinehurst No. 2 is now a different kind of exclusive — a greens fee here still goes for $415 even if the place is only half as green.

One of the architects who oversaw the de-sodding of No. 2 is concerned with first impressions as his work is unveiled to the world at this Open.

“People could look at this on television and go, ‘Oh, my God, Pinehurst quit maintaining the course,’” said Bill Coore, who along with two-time Masters champion Ben Crenshaw, redecorated the place.

There is no rough at this U.S. Open, which is like saying there will be no snow at the next Iditarod. Under Crenshaw’s and Coore’s supervision, they removed 35 acres of turf and turned the fairway borders into hardpan sand and native-plant waste areas that more reflected its early 1900s look. About 100,000 tufts of wiregrass were spread throughout the waste areas.

Since sand requires little irrigation, more than half of the old sprinkler heads were removed, replaced with a system that runs down the center of each fairway. The edges of these fairways, where the water doesn’t reach, yield to a sere brown, then to long stretches of sand and weed that are mindful of your neighbor’s yard. Dandelions grow calf high, fearing neither string trimmer nor Roundup.

Some in the field feel quite at home in this environment.

“Looks quite linksy,” Northern Irishman Rory McIlroy said. There is that kind of feel of proud neglect to the place.

“It looks like the same golf course I grew up on,” Bubba Watson said, invoking his Milton, Fla., muni-course memories. “A lot of pine trees, sand everywhere. We didn’t call it a natural area, we called it not very good conditions where I grew up.

“I’m used to hitting out of sand and hardpan. And we called it weeds where I grew up. When I’m in (the waste areas) I‘m actually comfortable. I’ve grown up playing golf that way.”

Quite a risk they undertook at Pinehurst, taking a beautifully groomed place that was already ranked among the best courses in the world and so radically changing its look.

Like suddenly ripping the toupee off John Travolta.

Returning the place, as Coore put it, to “the Pinehurst that was rough and tumble.” A place true to the native vegetation and sand-hill terrain, which also incorporated significant savings in water and maintenance.

Feel free to use that same rationale when your wife tells you to get off the couch and work in the yard. “No, honey, I think it’s time we join the USGA’s ‘Go Brown’ initiative.”

To best prepare for the U.S. Open viewing experience, the first thing golf fans must do is wipe all visions of the last major from their minds. At Augusta National, nothing is left to nature. That place makes the Gardens of Versailles look like an apocalyptic hellscape.

“I don’t see any similarity (between Augusta National and Pinehurst No. 2), except they’re 18 holes. That’s about it,” Watson said.

While the real unchanging nature, and the ultimate test of No. 2 lies in its turtleback greens, the redesign of the periphery will well affect play.

The line blurs here between what is a bunker and what is the new natural order of the place. Each group in this Open will be accompanied by an official there to advise a player if he can or cannot ground his club on any given lie. It’s just that uncertain in some areas.

Drives that do wander all the way into the waste areas are subject to a high degree of randomness. All according to the bounce and the final resting place. “You can get fortunate with a good lie to where you actually hit less club (out of the hardpan) than if you had hit the fairway,” Jordan Spieth said. Or, a player might find himself in wiregrass jail.

Either way, Phil Mickelson, for one, is anxious for the chance to play out of anything that isn’t the usual ankle-high U.S. Open rough.

“The hack-it-out rough offers no recoverability,” Mickelson said. “I think the most exciting shot in golf is the recovery shot. And this is going to provide some exciting recovery shots. You could be turning bogeys into birdies. Now, you’ll be making some doubles along the way, too, because this golf course is just tough.”

Properly applied, a little benign neglect could be just what this tournament needs.

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