I covered my first U.S. Open in 1988 at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass. Through the years, I have been fortunate enough to return to the national championship 11 times.
Of those 12 U.S. Opens, three stand out.
There was the dramatic duel in 1996, when East Valley residents Steve Jones and Tom Lehman went to the final tee at Oakland Hills tied for the lead only to have Jones emerge with a one-shot victory. And who can forget Tiger Woods’ incredible performance at Pebble Beach in 2000, where he dusted the field by a record 15 shots.
But of my three favorites, the 1999 U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2 is my most vivid memory for two reasons, the main one being the fantastic finish provided by Payne Stewart and Phil Mickelson. I can still see the victorious Stewart punching the air and kicking out his left leg as his par-saving putt at the last hole found the cup.
It was an eerie ending in retrospect, as a mist or fog — nobody was sure just what it was or where it came from — had moved in and enveloped the 18th green in the waning moments. And when the bells began to toll almost on cue from the nearby Village Chapel, well, now we know for whom, as four months later Stewart perished in a plane crash in a South Dakota pasture.
The story line already was filled with emotion, as Mickelson’s defeat came the day before his wife Amy gave birth to the couple’s first child, Amanda. Stewart had helped the theme along on that fateful Sunday afternoon, when just moments after celebrating like an NFL player who had just scored the winning touchdown in the Super Bowl, he grabbed Lefty and whispered in his ear: "Good luck with the baby. There’s nothing like being a father.’’
Lost in the fuzzy afterglow was the other reason the 1999 U.S. Open stands out more than others. Pinehurst No. 2 had proved to be a green monster never seen before. Almost every player in the field had a complaint about how unfair the course had been set up, and considering the scores were higher than last year’s train wreck conducted by the U.S. Golf Association at Shinnecock Hills, some of it was justified.
Perhaps the best spin on Pinehurst No. 2 was provided by twotime U.S. Open champ Lee Janzen, who had this snippet following his 18-over par performance: "I’ve been asked many times, what’s the hardest golf course I’ve ever played, and now I have the answer.’’
Lest we forget, all of the arrows were aimed squarely at the USGA and not at the late architect Donald Ross, who created and recreated Pinehurst No. 2 over two decades beginning in 1901. As a member who lived on the course, Ross tinkered with the greens at No. 2 until they eventually were filled with small hills and dales, and, egad, appeared upside down. "Turtlebacks’’ they called them.
Whatever the lingo, these shaved-down surfaces drove the players nuts. Who can forget John Daly’s infamous 11 at the eighth hole, which included a two-shot penalty for swatting his ball while it was still rolling? Long John, who had been among the early leaders, vowed he would never play in another national championship, even though he has played in two more since, and is back this week.
Trust me, despite last year’s debacle at Shinnecock Hills and the lingering memory of what happened here six years ago, more carnage is on tap. According to Paul Jett, the superintendent at Pinehurst No. 2, the grand old dame hasn’t lost any of her teeth.
"I’ve read a lot of the articles in the newspapers and magazines, about how the course is going to play easier, with no rough and (slower) greens,’’ Jett mused. "And all I can say to that is, reports of our demise are greatly exaggerated.
"Last time, Payne Stewart won with a score of 1-under par. This time, 5-over might get it done.’’
Jett said the rough has made a sizable comeback from a cool spring, and those diabolical surfaces have been jacked to 11.5 on the Stimpmeter compared to 10.5 in ‘99. Toss in an additional 40 yards of length (7,214 yards), plus the weather report — scattered thunderstorms throughout the week — and Pinehurst No. 2 once again will be more than the majority can handle.
What’s slightly amusing about this is, viewed from the naked eye, Pinehurst No. 2 looks like a patsy resort course. The tall pines are well off the fairways and rarely come into play unless a player pulls or pushes the ball. The bunkers, while big, are not ubiquitous. There’s not even a water hazard of note.
So what is the poison that makes Pinehurst No. 2 so deadly? It’s those huge, one-of-a-kind greens, which look as if they actually begin at the bottom of small hills rather than on top, where most "normal’’ greens are positioned. That, and the way the USGA sets it up, as only 37 percent of these greens’ surfaces are deemed "pin-able,’’ meaning the slopes are too severe for hole locations on the other 63 percent.
Another factor is that Pinehurst No. 2 has been reduced to a par 70. As frequently is the case at a national championship, two of its regular par-5s — the 482-yard fifth and the 489-yard 16th — have been converted to par-4s for this one special week.
How the latest chapter unfolds at Pinehurst No. 2 remains to be seen. Chances are it will not eclipse what has come before, as Payne Stewart’s final moment of glory is so golden. But Jett, for one, isn’t predicting anything less than another battle royale.
"The course will be similar to ‘99. No surprises,’’ he said. "Your winner is the player who can hit greens in regulation. Either that, or he does a hell of a job saving par.’’
In other words, we’re in for another typical U.S. Open.