Watching this week's U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2 -- even with the course's more natural, less-manicured, Donald Ross-era appearance -- has brought back some of the most vivid memories from my career in sports journalism.
When the Open was played at Pinehurst in 1999, I had the good fortune of being an assistant sports editor at the News and Observer in Raleigh, N.C. Even better for this golf lover, I was put in charge of our Open coverage, including producing a 40-page special section and being the on-site editor. We produced an eight-page Open special section daily.
In reading about Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw's bold restoration project, it was interesting to learn that much of their knowledge came from time spent in the library in Pinehurst Village that contains archival photos and the writings of Ross. I, too, spent almost a full day there looking for photos to help illustrate our special section. I could have spent days, there was that much to see. In the end, my best find for our special section was a classic picture of Ross hitting a shot to a green at a scruffy looking Pinehurst in its earliest days.
Sports Illustrated this week previewed this year's event with a rememberance of the ‘99 tournament, headlining its story with "The Greatest U.S. Open Ever." I'm not so sure about that -- Francis Ouiment's win, Arnie's charge at Cherry Hills, Ben Hogan at Merion and Tom Watson chipping in to beat Jack Nicklaus at Pebble Beach come to mind as contenders -- but it certainly was unforgettable for me, especially considering the tragic death of winner Payne Stewart months later.
While the golf world's lasting images of that overcast Sunday are Stewart's reaction to the winning putt and his holding Phil Mickelson's head as he consoled him by telling him he was about to become a father, I have a personal image that is indelible. It came as I peeked into the hall that led the players into the press center. Runner-up Mickelson was at the podium and Stewart was standing in the hallway, awaiting his turn, hugging his U.S. Open trophy with fresh tears in his eyes.
Months later, it was the golf world that was crying when his plane crashed and one of the game's most talented players and unique personalties sadly left us.
The restoration of Pinehurst to its original Ross design -- certainly a look that isn't in keeping with the green perfection most expect to see on today's courses -- was a bold move by the club and resort.
"People asked, ‘Have you lost your mind,' " said Bob Farren, Pinehurst's director of grounds told the New York Times. "I admit that when we started the work, we started as far from the clubhouse as possible so not many could see what was going on."
So far, so good this week. The players -- with Bubba Watson one notable exception - have praised the new look and how the course has played (the sandy, native grass area has proven far less penal that the previous deep bermuda rough).
But this coming week will test the USGA's own bold move -- playing the U.S. Women's Open on the same course. More than a few LPGA players have voiced concerns about the conditions they'll find when they arrive Monday (and of course, there is the unlikely possibility of the Monday playoff to possibly complicate matters).
Country Club of Pittsfield course superintendent Jim Conant, who always keeps the CC of P layout in spectacular condition, believes the USGA and Pinehurst staffs will be up to the task of having the course ready for the ladies.
"They have extraordinary resources to deal with it," Conant said. "I was at a U.S. Open at Winged Foot and they had a staff of probably 100. They have a high level of expertise and know how to attend to every detail.
The hope is that the USGA can set up the course -- it can play as long as 7,562 for the men, though they haven't set it up that long, and 6,649 yards for the women -- so it provides an equal opportunity for both genders to show off their skills.
"Let me just say that for the two weeks, our intention is to try to test both groups of golfers in a like manner," USGA Executive Director Mike Davis told the New York Times. "Whether we are actually able to pull that off or not is another story that I think a lot of us -- including me - are still waiting to see, although we are confident we can get pretty good at it."
While the women are concerned with good reason -- they know the scores will be compared for certain -- the upside is that the women's open will receive a lot more attention then has been the case previously. Given that the LPGA Tour is making a remarkable comeback and has had a succession of popular winners -- Paula Creamer, world No. 1 Stacy Lewis, Michelle Wie, Inbee Park and amazing teens Lexi Thompson and Lydia Ko -- the timing couldn't be better, assuming the USGA provides fair conditions.
If you've been watching the Open on television, you've probably seen more than one promo for this year's Drive, Chip and Putt competition for kids ages 7-15.
Last year's inaugural event was a resounding success with some 17,000 youngsters participating and the finals providing a good kickoff to Masters week at Augusta National.
This year, the event is expected to draw up to 50,000 participants. Last year, the event included local and regional qualifying. A step has been added. To make it Augusta, golfers will have to survive local and subregional competitions before reaching the regional qualifier.
The good news is that this year Berkshire County golfers won't have to travel to Eastern Mass. to participate. A local qualifier will be held on July 2 at The Ranch Golf Club in nearby Southwick. There are also two qualifiers in the Albany, N.Y., area, at the Town of Colonie Golf Club on July 12 and Van Patten Golf Club in Clifton Park on July 19.
The subregional qualifiers for all the Massachusetts sites is at Pinehills Golf Club in Plymouth and for the New York qualifiers, the site will be the Town of Colonie Golf Club. The regionals for both states will be at Bethpage Black in Farmingdale, N.Y.
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