I can’t wait for the U.S. Open to start this week, partly because it is possibly my favorite major, but also because I want to see what Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore have done to the place. I’ve seen pictures. I’ve heard stories, but I don’t think it’s going to sink in until we see the course under tournament conditions. I have a pretty strong memory of Pinehurst. The 1999 U.S. Open, for obvious reasons, was probably the pinnacle of my golf fandom. Pinehurst produced an unmatched leaderboard that year, but it did so with ribbons of fairway and heavy rough. Crenshaw and Coore have blown the place up, restoring all that original grandeur. The fairways now meld into waste areas, the rough is non-existent, and it should be as spectacular and difficult as ever.
Coore and Crenshaw restore as well as they create. There are several highly regarded designers out there right now (Doak, Hanse, etc), but I don’t know if anyone gets as consistently praised as these two and they deserve it. This U.S. Open might help put golf course architect at the top of Ben Crenshaw’s resume rather than Masters Champion, and I honestly think in 50 or 100 years if we’re still playing golf and all the great courses haven’t been taken over for windmill farms, that Crenshaw could be better known for his courses than his on-course exploits.
The older the golf course and the older its designer, the more esteem we seem to give, the thought being that a new course can not instantly be great. We’ve started to get away from that a little bit with the help of places like Bandon Dunes, or the Coore & Crenshaw masterpiece, Sand Hills. But, I think time will only make us fonder of the work these two guys are doing.
So, what are we expecting for this U.S. Open at the digitally remastered Pinehurst?
For me there are three stories this week. The first, is the course, which I just touched on. Not only is this the wide release debut of the redesign, but Pinehurst is tasked with hosting back-t0-back events. The women will have their U.S. Open on the same course next week. So in addition to how it’s playing, there will be a level of concern about how the course is holding up. I think it’ll do just fine.
The players will be taking center stage, though, and leading the way are Phil and Rory. With Tiger still sidelined with his back injury, we look to Phil and Rory to fill that void and both are doing an admirable job, with on and off-course exploits. Rory has been alternately brilliant and awful since his 17th hole split with The Woz. The course seems to set up perfectly for what Rory does well, when he’s doing it well. Then, there’s Phil…
Phil has had an inconsistent year at best, but he’s mostly gotten a free pass because everyone knows he’s been pointing to this week. Phil has become all about the majors in recent years and more specifically all about the majors he hasn’t won. The career grand slam seems to be the last realistic goal that Mickelson wants to check off his list. He’s never going to catch Tiger, so winning the U.S. Open would give him all four titles and no longer make him “that guy who finished second 6 times.”
In true Phil fashion, Mickelson added a bit of spice to the proceedings with his involvement in an insider trading investigation. Phil had a little impromptu meeting with some FBI agents at the Memorial, who apparently wanted to know about one of Phil’s gambling buddies and some stock activity. Mickelson claims he has no involvement, but I guess we’ll find that out soon enough. If you asked me to construct a list of PGA players who I thought might get caught up in an insider trading scandal, Mickelson would shoot to the top of that list, but that doesn’t mean I won’t still be surprised if he’s guilty of something. Philly Mick couldn’t handle prison, not even fancy Martha Stewart prison.
Getting back to Phil on the course, this does seem like it’s his last chance. Right after Payne Stewart won in 1999 he was talking about how gratifying it was to take advantage of the opportunity, because he knew deep down that his chances were going to be limited. Stewart was 42 at the time of his tragic death just months later, but he knew that his window for serious major contention was closing. Mickelson is 43, and while equipment has made golfers effective later into their careers, with his physical ailments, family, and the crazy depth of the modern fields, you can’t feel too confident saying Phil could win his U.S. Open at 48, or 50. It might need to happen now at a course where he should be able to work his magic and where he has some positive memories from past results.
After this year the Open goes to two new courses in three years (Erin Hills and Chambers Bay sandwiched around Oakmont), before visiting what would be a good Phil window in 2018-2020 (Shinnecock, Pebble, Winged Foot), but by then it may be too late.
I think it’s going to be a great week at Pinehurst. This time last year we were worrying about the torrential rains ruining Merion, and that turned out to be mostly be wasted energy, but it’s nice to head into the week with no real worries about the golf course.
The Definitive, Yet Arbitrary, Top-10:
- Jim Furyk
- Rory McIlroy
- Dustin Johnson
- Sergio Garcia
- Henrik Stenson
- Miguel Angel Jimenez
- Bill Haas
- Jason Dufner
- Hideki Matsuyama
- Jordan Spieth