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Published: Wednesday, 6/15/2005

Pinehurst may have stingy Open welcome

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

PINEHURST, N.C. - Phil Mickelson must have sent a shiver - or was that a ghostly shudder? - up and down the spines of United States Golf Association officials with this comment yesterday:

"Without rain, and it doesn't look like we're going to get any, we have the potential for 18 [greens] that could be like No. 7 at Shinnecock. It's very conceivable."

Welcome to Pinehurst No. 2, home of the crankiest greens in American golf, for the 105th United States Open.

Travel back a year. The Open was at Shinnecock on the far reaches of Long Island. The USGA stopped watering, the winds off Peconic Bay started howling and the old redan green at No. 7, the severely angled par-3 green with the fortress front and the sloping sides, turned into dust.

The USGA was so thoroughly castigated for the course conditions that surely it will not allow such a thing to happen again this week.

After all, if it allowed Pinehurst No. 2 to get away there would be no golf tournament, just chaos.

These are the most demanding greens in U.S. golf, and not only because of the way Donald Ross redesigned them while converting the surfaces from sand to Bermuda grass in the mid-1930s, but because of what has happened to them since.

Ross gave them his trademark inverted-bowl treatment similar to many of the greens he designed at Inverness in Toledo, but it was a subtle thing, as much to assure proper drainage in an era that knew nothing of high-tech irrigation and aeration systems.

In the decades that have come and gone, though, repeated top-dressing and re-seeding - the greens are often over-seeded in the fall with a rye grass to replace the Bermuda during cooler periods - have built the greens up more than one foot in height. A renovation about a decade ago maintained the height and extended the size of the greens while feeding the putting surfaces directly into natural swales and chipping areas.

Putting Pinehurst's greens, although tricky, isn't really the problem.

Hitting approach shots that land on what Ireland's Padraig Harrington called "very small target areas" and remain on the greens is a problem.

"You're hitting 4-irons or 5-irons to some greens that are tough enough to hit with 9-irons, so you're going to miss some of them," said Sergio Garcia, who enters fresh off a win at the Booz Allen Classic at Congressional. "It means every shot from right around the greens will have to be executed perfectly."

Added Masters champion Tiger Woods: "You have to hit the ball well, not just to put the ball on the green but to have it stay on the green. But the areas around the greens are nowhere as good as they were in 1999 [when the Open was last staged here]. The grass isn't as filled in so the ball is bouncing a little and not rolling as smoothly. Everybody is going to have to deal with it."

Mickelson, who was the runner-up to the late Payne Stewart here in '99, said Pinehurst stresses the short game, whereas most Open venues put a premium on tee shots.

"Driver is always a key club," he said, "but here it will be important to get the ball far enough down, even if it's in the rough, so that you can get it close to the green with your second shot and try to save par.

"What makes it really tough is that the grain of the grass is always going away from the green, into the player and the club, so it's very easy for the grass to grab the club and stop it. You'll see guys flubbing shots."

Add in the firmness being baked in by oppressive early-week sun and heat, and the speed that will be dictated by the USGA's course set-up, and it is possible that Pinehurst's testy greens will be taken to the edge.

It's unlikely, though, that the USGA will let things get out of control, although one player, perhaps jokingly, said he wouldn't mind.

"I'd love to see that happen," Mickelson said, smiling, "because it has always been my contention that if nobody can hit a green I'll have a pretty good chance. I'm not opposed to that occurring this week."

Contact Dave Hackenberg at:

dhack@theblade.com

or 419-724-6398



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