U.S. Opens in uncharted territory
Some may wonder why this never happened before. Others may wonder why it has to happen at all. Bottom line, though, is this: It's happening.
For the first time, the United States Golf Association is holding its two highest-profile events -- the U.S. Open and the U.S. Women's Open -- in consecutive weeks on the same course.
Pinehurst No. 2 is the laboratory. The women's players -- and everyone else who'll be around for both weeks in Pinehurst, N.C. -- are the test subjects.
We are not going to know until the Women's Open is over, and then we can talk about it pretty intelligently. It could be fantastic, or it could be a little controversial.Johnny Miller
So will this work? Is it good for golf?
"We are not going to know until the Women's Open is over, and then we can talk about it pretty intelligently," past U.S. Open champion and television analyst Johnny Miller said. "It could be fantastic, or it could be a little controversial."
USGA executive director Mike Davis said the idea for this originated with his predecessor, David Fay, after Fay attended the U.S. Open tennis tournament.
In tennis, there are separate tours for men and women, but the four majors have been "co-ed" for several decades. However, the dimensions of a tennis court are the same for men and women.
Golf course setups are different for the PGA and LPGA players. But if a course is long enough for the men, it can be adaptable for the women. Pinehurst No. 2 will become the ninth course to have hosted both the U.S. Open and U.S. Women's Open. However, it's the first to hold both not only in the same year, but in consecutive weeks.
That part of the equation -- having a course suitable to both setups with virtually no turnaround time -- is not something the USGA could do just anywhere. The other necessities for this huge undertaking are having a community that's experienced with such events and a course owner willing to do it.
The Pinehurst/Southern Pines region is a well-known destination area for both tournament and recreational golf. Thus, the infrastructure -- including approximately 6,500 volunteers and adequate lodging -- was in place. And Pinehurst owner/CEO Bob Dedman liked the idea of his resort doing something that has never been tried before.
Still, this is an experiment, and as such it has to be regarded with both optimism and skepticism.
"I'm concerned, for sure," said Meg Mallon, a two-time Women's Open champion. "There are going to be a lot of traffic areas on the course that could be in tough shape. How will the greens be, depending on if they get hot weather? What if there's a Monday playoff for the men? What if there is a lot of rain? There are just so many factors of things that could possibly go wrong."
Moving on up?
For the men playing in the U.S. Open, the logistics aren't expected to be much different than usual. This will be the third time they've played this tournament at Pinehurst No. 2, with Payne Stewart winning in 1999 and Michael Campbell winning in 2005.
The U.S. Women's Open has been to this part of North Carolina three times before, so the area is not new to the LPGA. But those tournaments -- in 1996, 2001, and 2007 -- were held at Pine Needles, which is about six miles from Pinehurst No. 2.
Now the women get to experience Pinehurst, a more famous course, in a major championship for the first time ... except there's a caveat. They'll do so just days after the U.S. Open players and thousands of spectators have traversed the grounds. Course wear and tear is a concern. So is practice time, which might be more limited than at a standard Women's Open, where they are the only act in town.
The LPGA players have had lots of time to practice their "diplomatic" answers as to how they feel about this. Publicly, most have voiced support for the doubleheader. But behind the scenes, the women were so concerned about potential problems that Davis attended a players' meeting at the LPGA Founders Cup in March. There, he answered myriad questions about both actual and hypothetical issues the women players may face. For instance, in the event of a Monday afternoon 18-hole playoff in the U.S. Open, the women will get to practice that morning.
"I totally see what they want to get out of this," Suzann Pettersen said of the USGA. "It's a huge cost savings for their sake. And I think it's great for us to get tested on the same course that the guys have just played. It remains to be seen how the course holds up."
I think it's great for us to get tested on the same course that the guys have just played. It remains to be seen how the course holds up.Suzann Pettersen
Pettersen voiced a common theory: that thriftiness is part of the reason the USGA is attempting to do this. Is the USGA getting somewhat of a "bargain" Women's Open by having so many things -- from stands to hospitality tents -- already set up? Perhaps, but Davis insists this experiment has nothing to do with finances. Rather, it's just a great chance to put on display the best of both men's and women's golf close together.
The Pinehurst layout is 7,562 yards for the men, 6,649 for the women. Par for each will be 70, and you can expect similar hole locations for both on the small, sloped greens. In fact, the USGA's goal is to make the tournaments as strategically alike as possible. That's the whole point, Davis said.
"If the men are hitting a wedge in, and it's kind of a bounce, stop ... that's what we'll want for the women," Davis said. "This all sounds wonderful on paper; we have spent a lot of time thinking about this. I can guarantee we will not get this thing perfect. But the idea is we're going to try to have them play the same golf course."
Order of play
Since the last U.S. Open was played at Pinehurst in 2005, the Donald Ross-designed course has been refurbished by Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore, so conditions will be different. The main alteration was the removal of rough, as the natural sandy areas were restored with some native vegetation. That's made the course truer to its original design in the sand hills region of North Carolina and more environmentally sustainable, as it requires considerably less water.
The lack of rough also should make it a bit easier to maintain Pinehurst No. 2 during back-to-back major championships.
While the absence of rough is odd, it's actually not needed considering the difficulty of most shots into the greens -- even when players are in the fairway.
"You only have to do one thing to make a [tough] golf course," Miller said. "Make firm greens and make them sit up high with shoulders on them."
Pinehurst No. 2 definitely has those. The goal at every U.S. Open is for the greens to be challenging, but not insanely so. To that end, it might seem to make more sense for the Women's Open to go first. That way the greens could gradually harden during their tournament and then peak in difficulty for the men.
The USGA has countered that it believes at Pinehurst No. 2, it will be easier to do it the other way around: to slightly dial back the difficulty for the women.
Mention this to LPGA players, and you'll likely get a raised eyebrow and wry smile. They doubt the USGA seriously considered making the men's event follow the women's. Because if it had, then more of the burden of the experiment would have fallen on PGA players. They'd have been the ones fretting about divots, practice time and course conditions. Safe to say the PGA players are accustomed to being accommodated.
Instead, those worries will belong to the women. And there are other things for them to be concerned about, too. Will the Women's Open attendance be negatively affected by it being the second act on the same stage? Will the women feel overshadowed? Or will the Women's Open actually get more attention than usual?
"It's going to be a great opportunity to showcase our sport," said Stacy Lewis, who recently elevated to No. 1 in the women's world rankings. "There's going to be challenges, we all know that. But playing like that right behind the guys, they're going to be talking about us playing while the men are playing."
NBC golf producer Tommy Roy seconded that. He also mentioned technical aspects of the network's U.S. Open coverage, such as Pinpoint 3D animation that shows the details of each hole and will also highlight the women's tee box.
"So the viewers have a sense, even as they are watching the U.S. Open, of what's going to take place the next week," Roy said.
When the Women's Open was at Pine Needles, Annika Sorenstam won in '96, Karrie Webb in 2001 and Cristie Kerr in 2007. Both Webb, who at age 39 has won twice on tour this year, and Kerr are still highly regarded players who will compete at this Women's Open.
"I expect it to be fairly similar, in Donald Ross-design ways," Webb said of comparing Pinehurst No. 2 to Pine Needles. "With the chipping areas, thinking you're going to be on the green but catching one of the runoffs. Probably a little more target-oriented, as the greens are smaller than at Pine Needles."
Mallon won't be playing, but she'll be watching with both high hopes and some trepidation.
"Usually, the most pristine course the women play -- and the most challenging -- is at the Women's Open," she said. "The men play golf courses like that all the time. The women don't play them as often. This time it's going to be different, though, because this course will have just been played on.
"But that being said, it's happening. So they've got to go into it with the best attitude."