Back-to-back U.S. Opens at Pinehurst No. 2 prove very interesting

When the idea of playing the men’s U.S. Open and the women’s U. S. Open in back-to-back weeks at the same venue was first suggested, skeptics were plentiful. Concerns included housing and transportation issues. What about weather delays? Could the course handle the increase in play, or would the women be hitting out of divots that had not healed after the men’s Open?

Despite the naysayers, the USGA went ahead with the idea. Venerable Pinehurst No. 2 was the chosen site and the experiment proved to be a huge success. Comparing the games of the best men and women golfers in the world was fun. How would the men and women handle the difficult conditions of a U.S. Open prepared course? Perhaps that is where I should start to recap the last two weeks – looking at Pinehurst No. 2.

If the course looked different to you than what you remember from previous Opens, you are not alone. Donald Ross designed Pinehurst originally, but it was changed in recent years by former PGA member Ben Crenshaw. The deep Bermuda rough was replaced by sandy waste areas, love grass and native vegetation. It was intended to give the course the brown rustic retro look that Ross had originally created.

The redesign, not appreciated by Doral owner Donald Trump who criticized the course’s new look, did create some interesting lies, none more strange than one encountered by Ken Duke. His lie between a greenside bunker and the green was so bad that he decided to chip the ball back into the trap rather than take a chance on hitting it toward the green. The move became a “stroke” of genius when Duke then holed the bunker shot.

Pinehurst, playing at roughly 7,500 yards for the men and 6,700 for the women, proved a tough test. Only four golfers broke par in the two tournaments and then just barely. Well, except for men’s champion Martin Kaymer, the former world’s No. 1 from Germany, who had the best of tournaments.

He went out and shot 5 under par in each of the first two rounds and cruised to victory. He did have one instance like the rest of the field(s) when he turned a 30-foot birdie putt into a 30-yard par chip. Strike the ball too firmly at Pinehurst and those things happen. He was in a different class than everyone else though, as he shot 9 under par for the week. Only Eric Compton and Rickie Fowler who tied for second at -1 were able to break par. As a buddy of mine suggested, “take Kaymer out of the equation and this would have been a great tournament to watch.”

One of the great storylines from the men’s Open was Compton. The man is on his third heart having had transplants twice in his life. The fact that he is playing golf as such a high level is a tribute to medical science and some incredible determination on his part.

As for the ladies this Open was a mix of the young, the old and the totally ridiculous. Michelle Wie, who seems to be a veteran at the tender age of 24, shot a 2 under par score for her first major win. It seems like an eternity since she broke on to the scene with great fanfare – barely a teenager – in 2002. Expectations were so high that she even played against the men on occasion with little success on either tour.

She has now matured and is starting to show the winning form that many expected would come much sooner. This may be the start of the fabulous golf that everyone expected to see from the beginning. For me the best part about Wie winning is the happiness it generated from her fellow professionals. That speaks more to her character than her considerable ability.

This was a tournament that also featured 53-year-old Julie Inkster playing in her 35th and perhaps final U.S. Open. Inkster struggled to make the cut and then showed a glimpse of her storied past as she fired a 66 on moving day. The score brought smiles to the faces of those of us that remember her first Open appearance oh, so many years ago.

Maybe the biggest story of the women’s Open was the debut of Lucy Li who qualified for the tournament at the ridiculous age of 11. The sixth grader brought the debate over “how young is too young” to the sports pages of newspapers throughout the country. Her performance did nothing to solve the debate as she shot 8 over 78’s in the first two rounds, missing the cut.

So was Li too young to be playing with the pros? I’ll let you decide, but consider the facts. At first glance a pair of 78’s was not very impressive. Then again she came within four shots of world’s No. 4-ranked Suzann Pettersen. She also tallied the same two-day total of Natalie Gulbis. So 78 was not that bad a score. For an 11-year-old I would suggest it was pretty darned good.

If nothing else she provided me with the greatest moment of the two-week experience. If you saw any of her interviews you realize that she is a precocious young lady as she giggled her way through a series of questions as only a youngster can do. It was one seemingly simple question that grabbed my attention.

Li was asked if her father could beat her at golf. She smiled while giggling. Then she giggled some more before stopping momentarily to say with a straight face – “no” – then she giggled some more. It was both priceless and sincere.

We likely will say goodbye to Julie Inkster and will be hearing a lot more from Michelle Wie and Lucy Li. We may never see back to back Opens like this ever again. Then again we may, because this experiment was a classic, rousing success.

Al Stephenson is the golf columnist for The Advertiser-Tribune.

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