Pinehurst’s ‘natural habitat’ makes for a natural disaster

Sally Jenkins (c) 2014, The Washington Post. PINEHURST, N.C. — It would have been nice if the U.S. Open had been played on a traditional U.S. Open course because maybe then someone could have stayed awake to watch it. A great win for Martin Kaymer was a failed experiment for the tournament, which became a classroom lesson in botany and was about as interesting. The problem was that Pinehurst No.2 didn’t have rough. It had scruff. “Back where I grew up, we call that weeds,” Bubba Watson said before the tournament began, and he was exactly right.

Take nothing away from Kaymer, who played nearly immaculate golf with his opening two rounds of 65-65 and then did a superb job of protecting his lead the rest of the way for an overwhelming eight-stroke victory. But this will go down as one of the dullest U.S. Opens in recent years, thanks to a combination of his dominance and a course setup that substituted beds of arugula for rough. The U.S. Golf Association and Pinehurst allowed a bunch of biodiversity wonks to subvert the tournament.

In 2010 Pinehurst underwent a restoration, led by Ben Crenshaw and architect Bill Coore, who did a beautiful job of making it more sustainable and indigenous. Fine. The problem was they gave the rough over to a research team led by a “crop scientist” from North Carolina State and her students, who cultivated “native areas” alongside the fairways instead of penal areas. According to a story on the university’s website, native plants “were carried back by sandhill breezes and native birds.” In other words, they let it go to seed.

What Pinehurst got was a lot of pigweed, wide-open sandy wastes with some sparse wiry salad greens. And what the U.S. Open got was a non-tournament. It should be a ruling principle that when you drive your ball 30 yards offline in a major championship, you shouldn’t be rewarded with an eagle. But the “natural habitat” was so alternately arbitrary and forgiving that that’s exactly what Kaymer was able to do at the par-5 fifth hole Saturday, the hole on which his tournament turned.

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USGA Executive Director Mike Davis has a good record of setting up courses, which he has been doing since 2005, and partly he just got unlucky at Pinehurst when rain softened the course the first two days. But he may also have made a couple of serious miscalculations in conditioning Open courses lately. Twice now in four years we’ve seen the two biggest runaways in tournament history.

In 2011, Rory McIlroy destroyed an unprotected Congressional course to win at 16-under-par 268. Some of that was nature; rain and very little wind made for soft conditions. But Davis was also partly responsible, choosing to go with shorter and less penal grass alongside the mown fairways. He admitted later, “Even though the height of rough should have been enough, it wasn’t.”

At Pinehurst, Davis was delighted to announce there would be no rough at all. The USGA totally ditched its classic Open setup of narrow fairways and graduated shags of grass. Normally in an Open, the bigger the miss, the more choking the grass becomes until it curls over the shoe tops. Miss badly enough and you should be in grass so heavy that a full swing only gets you 60 yards or so, and it costs at least a half a stroke. For more than 200 years, it has been considered a fair test. But at Pinehurst, the idea was to give golfers something unusual and unprecedented with those “natural” waste areas.

“For the first time in the history of the U.S. Open, which goes back to 1895, we’re going to be playing a U.S. Open with no rough to speak of, at least the way most of us think of rough as grass,” Davis said.

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“It is going to be very unique; it’s going to be great for television.”

It was indeed unique, but it wasn’t great for television; it was awful.

The problem was that the “natural areas” were too generous — except when they were capricious. The vast majority of the time when a player missed the fairway, his ball came to rest on a bed of firm sand surrounded by a light spray of kale. Only if a ball found a thick clump of wiregrass or a rare patch of hardpan was anybody penalized. “Even if you’re in there, you take your chance,” Adam Scott said. “Seventy or eighty percent of the time I had reasonable shots at the green this week.”

With no rough to speak of, the USGA was careful to set tough pin placements. But that just made it harder to score and therefore duller. As Retief Goosen said, “They’ve set it up so no one can go low.” It brought the tournament to a screeching halt.

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Mainly, the landscape gave a tremendous advantage to the guy who had a hot putter and control of his approach irons. That guy was Kaymer. Add in some good breaks in the waste areas, and it was a rout.

Over the final two days, Pinehurst was weirdly, unnaturally quiet. It simply wasn’t a course that produced more than a handful of big shots, and the thick stands of pines and all of the pine straw on the ground muffled the few crowd noises. It was difficult golf but not in an interesting way for spectators, with a monotonous sameness to the holes lined by scrub pines and sandy waste and crowned greens.

There was no Amen Corner, no signature go-for-broke stretch where players could make up ground. Instead there was just a lot of wonderful control and carefulness from Kaymer, who seemed to get more meticulous as the tournament wore on, picking even microscopic debris off the greens. It wasn’t exciting, but he still deserved full credit for it. He was the only guy who made something happen around here.