13 Jun 2024 | Opinion |

Clayton: Pinehurst's Sandbelt-style challenge provides optimism for US Open

by Mike Clayton

Pinehurst 2024

Australians, used to watching televised professional golf from the United States, would be excused for thinking most "American golf" was closely related to what we saw from Valhalla and the PGA Championship.

What the ball did in the air was infinitely more important than what it did once it hit the ground and iron shots splattered into greens and barely moved. It’s one way to play the game, especially in a climate unsuited to the golf we in Australia are more used to.

We have the advantage of our biggest cities hugging the coast and building on sand in usually windy places making what the ball does on the ground a critical part of the game – just as it is one the championship links of Britain.

This week the US Open is in Pinehurst, a small, golf-centric town in North Carolina and Donald Ross’ #2 (of 10) course is the closest American golf to the Melbourne Sandbelt.

There is no long grass around the greens, likely a feature Ross bought from his home course in Dornoch, and the upturned saucer greens shed the less-than-ideal shot far away from the edges of the putting surfaces.

2002 Australian Open champion Steve Allan played well at Pinehurst in the 2005 (Michael Campbell) Open and well remembers playing the final day with Vijay Singh.

“The pins were so close to the edges of the greens, and I was scared of knocking long putts off the green," Allen said.

"I’d left a few miles short and, on the eighth, both Vijay and I had 40-footers from the front of the green. We were both close to the lead and I was fully committed to getting my putt to the hole – until he went first and knocked his clean off the green and down onto the ninth tee. It was a given mine was going to be 10-feet short – again.”

Allan was a member at Woodlands, a brilliant Sandbelt course best known for small demanding greens, the most severe of which is the high above the natural grade fourth green at the short par-4 hole.

“Just imagine” said Allan, “hitting a three-iron into the fourth at Woodlands – that’s what it’s like playing at Pinehurst.”

At most US Opens we are subjected to pros early in the week dropping balls into impenetrable rough to demonstrate the brutality of the week’s test. There is none of this at Pinehurst and we should be grateful for it.

Instead, people are dropping balls on the hard and fast greens and watching them roll not only off the greens but far off them.

When Ross first built the course, the greens were made with sand, but he converted them to grass in the 1930s, back when greens running at seven or eight feet on the stimpmeter were the norm.

The same was likely true of Alister MacKenzie’s masterpiece at Royal Melbourne but slow greens disappeared as mowing machines and newer, finer grasses allowed for something a lot faster – and more fashionable.

In some ways it’s a pity and there is no greater contributor to slow play than greens running at 14 feet. They are also a reaction to the modern-era ball going so far and it’s one of the few ways to restrain the scoring.

The favourite this week is blindingly obvious because, Tiger Woods aside, Scottie Scheffler’s first half of the year play is the equal of Johnny Miller’s phenomenal early season play in 1974 and 1975.

He’s playing the best golf on the tour by a long way, but this week isn’t going to be so much about how many greens you hit but where you miss them and how well you manage to get the next shot close enough to save pars - and bogeys.

Scheffler, for one, is a fan of the way Ross set up the play around the greens.

“I appreciate more having the playability of the run-off areas more than heavy rough surrounding every green," he said.

"It definitely provides a little bit more variety, a little bit more excitement and a little bit more creativity around the greens. I believe it’s a better test than just having high rough over the back of every green.”

Of course, this version of golf is far more interesting than what we saw at Valhalla and far less predictable. Scheffler may be the overwhelming favourite, but the genius of Pinehurst is so many have legitimate cause for optimism.

And, if you’ve never played golf in the United States, it’d be a huge mistake to think the golf – and the golf courses - we see on television each week from the PGA Tour is reflective of golf in America.

Pinehurst is but one of so many brilliant examples of their hugely wide variety of brilliant golf courses.

• Live on Fox Sports, available on Foxtel and Kayo.

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