Watching the U.S. Open is strange this year. Gone is the event’s staple - the penalizing primary cut just off the fairways that’s come to be defined simply as “open rough” over the years. In its place, natural waste areas cover the Donald Ross layout with fescue bushes speckling the North Carolina sand like spots on a Dalmatian – no rhyme or reason to their placement.
For the 156 ladies in the U.S. Women’s Open next week, this has to be a particularly strange week, knowing the test that’s currently chewing up every member of the field not named Martin Kaymer is the same challenge that awaits them next week. It’s a bold, innovative concept by the USGA, hosting the organization’s men’s and women’s preeminent events on the same layout in consecutive weeks. The USGA’s general premise makes sense - same test, same clubs, and same speed. It’s edgy and should raise the profile of the women’s event, but it’s also risky. Anything done for the first time is, but the players are excited about the possibilities.
“It’s going to be interesting. You kind of don’t really know. If we’d done it before, I’d have a better answer for you but it sounds really good on paper,” Gerina Piller said. “We’ll just see how it pans out.”
It’s pretty synonymous among players that the format should bolster the attention the women’s event gets, but there’s concerns, too, centering around the divots and the shape the course will be in after seven days of the men. But the USGA’s assured those are overblown. If the men hit a seven iron on a hole, they want the women, too, as well, which comes at a different distance. That’s impossible to avoid in the collection areas around the green, which are so common around the false fronts of the Donald Ross layout, but those crowned greens mostly force the wedges out of players hand on chips into greens.
“There may be some divots around the green, but for the most part I don't think we'll be hitting a lot of flop shots,” Michelle Wie said. “I think we'll be putting from off the green or bump‑and‑run, so there won't be that many divots, I don't think.”
Regardless, the conditions are the same for everyone, and the U.S. Open is historically the toughest test of the year – whether it’s the same course or not – and there’s an excitement about the war chest of the game’s best tracks being opened to the U.S. Women’s Open now.
“I think that if it is successful, it definitely opens up the door for us for the future. Maybe we can play Merion, play Bethpage Blak. It opens the door for us,” Wie said. “I think it's a really interesting concept, and I'm real excited.”
Few tracks are better on the planet than Pinehurst No. 2. The trademark turtle back greens that are Donald Ross’ signature went untouched in the redesign by Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore and they’re as challenging as ever. They’re not small in surface area, but the actual areas you can hit into for a chance at birdie or an easy par are. Miss those tiny targets, try to scramble for par. As a result, players have to be able to work the ball both ways, and a softer-falling fade is going to be particularly crucial world No. 1 Stacy Lewis said.
“You know, I think at the end of the week at the U.S. Open, even par or over par's probably going to end up winning. It's going to play hard,” Lewis said. “It's a golf course you've got to think your way around. You have to plot and you can't hit one golf shot. You can't just hit a draw or you can't just hit a fade. You've got to be able to hit a lot of different shots, so I think that suits my game pretty well.”
Pinehurst No. 2 more than most other major courses rewards a player for their work around the greens, and going second allows players to watch and craft a strategy based off of the results of the men’s tournament. Morgan Pressel visited Pinehurst two weeks ago for three rounds and said creativity around the greens is a must and watching the men should provide a glimpse at the winning blueprint.
“I’ll watch every second. You’re given an early look to see how the golf course plays,” Pressel said. “I’m sure the pins will be relatively similar, so you’ll get a good look at how shots react coming into the greens. I think it’ll be very helpful.”
With the men’s event still ongoing, the women are only able to play and practice around Pinehurst No. 7 until Monday morning when No. 2 is opened up to them, but fans may spot Lydia Ko as a face in the crowd when she gets to Pinehurst Saturday. She’s planning to walk the golf course and kill two birds with one stone by following around her two favorite men’s players for nine holes each – Adam Scott and Phil Mickelson.
“I want to see like how their balls react on the green and everything,” Ko said. “It's nice to watch the first couple groups where it's not as crowded. I also want to watch some of my favorite players. I'll just do a little bit of that. I just enjoy watching the men play.”
That’s the preparation Ko can’t get at a normal U.S. Women’s Open, and this U.S Open is anything but typical. No water in play, no rough and even the trees lining the waste area don’t really come into play at No. 2. It’s all about the greens and the waste areas – the question-mark zone where it’s just impossible to know what players are going to be faced with because every shot differs. Avoid one of the wire bushes and the shot’s not that much more difficult than the fairway, but it’s a crapshoot where the ball ends up.
“A lot of times you’re going to end up chipping out,” Pressel said. “Every lie is different. You hit it over there and pray you have a halfway decent lie.”
Cristie Kerr perhaps summarized it best after playing No. 2 in the weeks leading up.
“You could get super lucky or super …” she said, her voice trailing off, leaving the blank to be filled in.
In that case, maybe this is the typical U.S. Open.