PINEHURST, N.C. — The U.S. Open, the national championship of golf, begins Thursday at Pinehurst, where as much pre-tournament attention has been paid to those missing as there has been for those competing for the title.
It was here in 1999 that Payne Stewart won his last major before dying in a plane crash four months later. The storyline of the tournament, however, had to do with Phil Mickelson’s greater commitment to his family than to winning the U.S. Open. With his pregnant wife Amy back home in California, Mickelson had his caddie, Jim McKay, carry a beeper in his bag during the weekend rounds.
He repeatedly told the media that if the beeper sounded and the news was that Amy was in labor, he would head to the airport and fly home for the birth of Amanda, his first child — even if he were leading the tournament.
The tournament, which also was held at Pinehurst in 2005 when Michael Campbell won, will begin without Tiger Woods, who continues to suffer from injuries, having missed the Masters in April. A bad back is not good for a golfer, especially one whose goal is to break Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 major championships.
An interesting vignette surfaced in a magazine story this week about a comment Tiger made to Payne Stewart at Pinehurst in 1999. Tiger said that when he got into golf course design, he would build 9,000-yard courses, which would essentially eliminate all other competitors. Stewart’s response was that if it involved U.S. Open courses, he still would have to hit the ball in the fairway.
That might be an issue with Masters winner Bubba Watson, the professional most likely to overpower a golf course today. Bubba is one of eight former Georgia golfers in the field. Although disappointed with not winning at Memorial two weekends ago, he says his game is in good order and his confidence is high as he enters Open competition.
If Bubba can find the fairway off the tee, he has the game to win the championship. Likely, it will come down to the par-three holes, which feature signature Donald Ross greens. Even good shots to the green have a way of rolling off the sides unless the shot is rigidly accurate. A good shot, but not quite good enough, takes away pars and rolls to locations where up and down, even with a putter, is a challenge.
You would think that Bubba would have an advantage on the two feature holes on the front side:
No. 4: This hole, for the Open, will be a 529-yard par 4 with a downhill tee shot. With accuracy, this is the kind of hole where Bubba’s distance could give him an advantage.
No. 5: This hole has been altered into a 579-yard par 5. Again, with accuracy, Bubba gains an advantage on the field.
The Open is played in summertime, which means that in this part of the world, there will be heavy humidity and the threat of thunder showers. Without rain, the prevailing view is that the firm, sloping greens will require the most accurate of shot making to gain opportunity to make par, which often wins the U.S. Open. Even with rain, Pinehurst officials believe that they will be able to keep the greens firm.
In addition to Bubba Watson, there will be an anxious group of Bulldogs in the field at Pinehurst, including Russell Henley, Harris English, Eric Compton, Kevin Kisner, Brendan Todd, Hudson Swafford and Chris Kirk.
Kirk, of St. Simons; Henley, from Macon; and Todd, from Atlanta, are a feature pairing. They will play together for the first two rounds, no doubt amid cheers of “Go Dawgs!” from the gallery, which will be peppered with Bulldog fans.