Pinehurst No. 2: wickedly wonderful

A flag at Pinehurst Resort & Country Club’s Course No. 2. (Gerry Broome/AP)

PINEHURST, N.C. - It will be an exercise in tongue-biting, a lesson in lip-gnawing this week and next.

When the men of the PGA descend on the new planet called Pinehurst No. 2, they will find themselves faced with an unfamiliar game for the second consecutive U.S. Open.

The women, who play their Open on the same course the next week, might never return to North Carolina.

Last year, short little Merion with its tight boundaries and its jungles of rough stressed club selection, commitment to uncomfortable lines and deciphering diabolical greens that most of the men had never seen before.

This year, the re-imagined site of two U.S. Opens eliminated the rough and opted for tufts; evil, random sprouts of wire grass that border the fairways, planted in a sandy hardpan that will bounce clubs off its clay base and send shivers up their shoulders when they miss.

And they will miss.

Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore spent $2.5 million widening fairways and adding 200,000 wire-grass plants to replicate the original Donald Ross design.

"I honestly have never seen one as good as what's happened here," said USGA director Mike Davis. "It's going to give the best players in the world some shots that they simply haven't had to make in past U.S. Opens."

How they deal with the misses likely will determine the winner. If they take their medicine and rely on touch and putting strokes, they might avoid disaster.

As usual at the U.S. Open, avoiding disaster will mean everything.

Disaster lurks everywhere at Pinehurst No. 2.

The day after Bubba Watson finished winning his second Masters in three tries, three elegant South Africans graciously allowed one inelegant Philadelphian to join their midday three-man game at Pinehurst No. 2. The greens recently had been top-dressed, thank goodness, because none of us would have beaten sunset had they been faster.

Standing on the first tee, an echo of Jim Furyk's response from a question the previous week resounded. Asked how he would play the 402-yard par-4 - it narrows into a tight neck, so driver might not be the best play - Furyk, a short hitter, replied, "It depends on how they set it up."

No matter how they set it up, the bailout area on the right side features a forest of that otherworldly landscape: sandy hardpan and tufts of wire grass, a stark contrast to the lush greenness of the resort's other courses.

Once the pros get close, consider this: One of my partners lofted a nice pitch into the middle of the green . . . and it trickled off, into a bunker. He hit five more shots, all of which were on the green's surface at some point. Then, he picked up.

Welcome to Pinehurst No. 2.

The second hole offers no respite. It will play 507 yards for the pros, most of it sandy waste, now more visible since they raised the bunkers to make them easier to see, and thereby instill terror.

The 387-yard third hole can be made drivable for both genders (or, for Rory and Bubba and Lexi Thompson, cannot be made undrivable). The question: Is it worth surrendering control considering the No Man's Land that awaits anyone who goes long?

Really, long is dead on most of the holes. Donald Ross hated for golfers to go long, and so he punished them for it.

(He also made clubs, and wire grass is hell on hickory shafts, so this was a constant revenue stream.)

Length is the punishment on No. 4, a 530-yard par-4, Pinehurst in all of its hideous glory. Four waste bunkers on the right side and one to carry on the left - 300 yards out. There is a flowering dogwood to aim at for those who want to draw it on the right side. Once you eventually get close, there are diabolical greenside bunkers with fair sand (experienced it) and an uphill/downhill putt.

No. 4 was just a bit shorter than the next hole, which will be a 585-yard par-5 with a 300-yard carry to fly the fairway bunker.

"Welcome to the hardest hole in North Carolina," said one of our caddies, Cameron. "At least, into this wind, it is."

Of course, you par that one.

After enduring No. 4 and No. 5, there should be a medic at the sixth tee . . . which remains unchanged. That just means this 219-yard par-3 already was too hard, just like the 191-yard, par-3 No. 9; also, essentially the same hole.

We needed about 40 shots to play those par-3s. Two of us picked up; not saying who.

In between, there is No. 8, where, according to contested legend, Fred Couples was served with divorce papers during the 1992 Tour Championship.

Then comes No. 10, a little 617-yard par-5, followed by Ben Hogan's favorite, No. 11. It was almost my favorite, too, because I lipped out on a birdie putt.

Just sniffing birdie on this course feels like climbing Mount Everest.

The 12th tee apparently abuts a portion of Pinehurst No. 4, a typically plush southern course with subtle changes in hues of green; none of the brown-tipped grasses in the fairways of No. 2, none of the rustic beauty of those hardpan areas and all that wire grass.

It was like watching Brooke Shields eat dinner with LaToya Jackson.

Rain came on the 14th tee, which made No. 15 so much more fun. Jack Nicklaus once said No. 15 was like hitting a 5-iron onto the hood of a Volkswagen; I hit the windshield, rolled over the trunk into a collection area, but two-putted from off the green for a weary par.

By the time we made No. 18, with its fairway sloped left-to-right - Phil Mickelson and Bubba Watson could murder this course with cut shots - No. 2 had beaten us all. None of us had energy to try the Payne Stewart putt, or to pose for the fist-pump picture.

Our wrists were sore from the hardpan and wire grass. Our brains hurt from visualizing shots and reading greens.

And none of us could wait to do it all again.


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