Friday, June 14, 2024

Winning at Pinehurst could signal the end of a career – Irish Golfer Magazine

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I have a dream of winning the Euro Millions Lottery. If I did I would hire a plane, fill it with my best golfing buddies and take us all on the winter break golf junket of a lifetime to Pinehurst, arguably the best golf resort anywhere in the world – although I have never been there to be able to confirm that impression from afar.

For almost 100 years, the United States Golf Association declined to bring its premier championship – The US Open – to what had been recognised by many as one of America’s best, most difficult and uniquely southeastern United States golf courses, Pinehurst No. 2 in North Carolina. Concerns about high temperatures in June and long distances from any major populated area were the reasons.

Circumstances and attitudes change. Pinehurst No. 2 is now on the cusp of hosting its fourth USO since 1999. No other golf course will have been honoured as often in the 25-year timespan. And, the USGA has already booked its USO to return to Pinehurst again in 2029, 2035, 2041 and 2047. Only eight courses in the 124-year history of a championship that was first held in 1895 (and won by Englishman, Harold Rawlings) has hosted more USO’s than Pinehurst No. 2: Oakmont, PA (9), Baltusrol, NJ (7), Pebble Beach, CA, Winged Foot, NY, Oakland Hills, OH (6 each), Shinnecock Hills, NY, Olympic Club, CA, Merion, PA (5-times).

The wiregrasses and other native vegetation in the waste areas alongside the fairways at Pinehurst seem to have become irresistible to the blue coats at the USGA, and even more so since Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore were engaged to retore the golf course to its ‘natural state’ before the third hosting of the USO took place in 2014. The renovated rough areas (if that isn’t an oxymoron) are now more brutal and difficult to navigate. If an errant tee shot finds a clean lie on the the hard sand, it’s much to do with luck as the ball tends to skid along the ground before being stopped in its tracks by an impenetrable bush. There’s no scraping one’s way around No. 2. Another feature is the upturned-saucer, tabletop nature of the greens that makes chipping ‘high tariff’ but Martin Kaymer found an answer by employing a Texas Wedge during his runaway eight-stroke victory in 2014.

Opening with two 65s, Kaymer held a comfortable six-stroke lead. A two-over par 72 had him four strokes ahead with 18-holes to go. A one-under 69 in the final round was good enough to double the margin at the finish. Martin’s early bolt to LIV Golf, where he has been singularly unsuccessful, makes it most unlikely for him to be in the field in 2024. That US Open win was Kaymer’s last of eleven career tournament victories. An unwanted pattern that seems to have dogged every major winner at Pinehurst.

The 2005 USO winner, New Zealand’s Michael Campbell (also winner of the Smurfit European Open at the K Club in 2002 and Murphy’s Irish Open at Portmarnock in 2003) came all the way through sectional qualifying at Walton Heath where, had he missed a six-foot putt on the last hole, he would not have been in the field. In the tournament itself, Campbell only assumed the lead midway through the final round when the 54-hole, four-stroke leader and defending champion, Retief Goosen, ballooned an 81. Campbell shot 69 (one-under) for the final round and was the only golfer in the last two pairings of the day to break 80. With three holes to go, Tiger Woods was only one shot behind Campbell, but he pushed too hard and dropped shots on the 16th and 17th. Two months later, Campbell proved he was no flash in the pan by finishing in a tie for sixth in the PGA Championship at Baltusrol, won by Phil Mickelson. The following season, Campbell’s solid game suddenly ‘went south’ and he was never a factor in any major again.

The first USO to be held at Pinehurst in 1999 was won by the tragic, Payne Stewart, who died in a plane crash four months later. It was Stewart’s second USO and his third major title, and was deemed such a success that it now seems like the USGA cannot get enough of Donald Ross’s most famous creation. After scoring birdies on the 16th and 17th to edge ahead of Phil Mickelson, Stewart sank an heroic 15-foot putt for par on the final hole for a winning 279 (−1). Tiger Woods and Vijay Singh tied for third behind Mickelson.

The championship’s return to Pinehurst will mark the first time in over a century the USGA has awarded four Opens to a single site in a span of 25 years. But the spectre of hoodoo lurks. The U.S. Women’s Open was played at Pinehurst one week after Martin Kaymer’s win in 2014. Michelle Wie, at one-time forecast to become the greatest woman golfer of all time won, but did virtually nothing since and is now retired. Northern Ireland’s Stephanie Meadow in one of her first-ever pro events, finished in third place without ever quite looking like she might create some sensational history.

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