PINEHURST, N.C. – This is the first time the USGA has tried the same stage strategy for the U.S. Open and U.S. Women’s Open, but if the U.S. Open is any indication, here’s four things we learned from the men with Thursday’s first round of the U.S. Women’s Open approaching.
1) Native sand and fescue isn’t as penalizing as previously thought.
The USGA originally thought the redesign to natural sand with fescue wire bushes throughout it instead of rough would force about 1/3 of the balls that entered to pitch out. That didn’t look to be the case any day at Pinehurst during the men’s event. Just as it would out of the rough, the ball fires out of that deadpan sand with less spin on it than it would out of the fairway, making navigating the crowned Donald Ross greens a tricky proposition, but it frequently wasn’t difficult for players to get a lot of club on shots. The natural waste area actually played slightly easier when players missed the fairway than the rough did during the 1999 or 2005 U.S. Opens at Pinehurst.
Casey Wittenberg actually thought he was much too conservative in pulling driver and laid up too much, so he texted his buddy Benji Thompson, Lexi Thompson’s caddie, some simple advice for his player.
“Hit driver all day!” the text read.
The native grass never filled in those sandy natural areas quite as prevalently as the USGA likely had in mind, and so the bad lies don’t happen near as much as theorized. Therefore, Wittenberg’s theory was simple: Thompson’s strong enough to hit it out of the native, and you need the shorter clubs in hand to hold the greens.
2) You better be able to hit a fade on Pinehurst No. 2
The difference in missing the green and nearly guaranteeing a bogey or staying on the green and having a solid look at birdie or par can be just inches at Pinehurst. Greens that quick with that small of landing areas and false fronts on every side create “very narrow targets” as Belen Mozo put it and fades hold substantially better than a draw. Martin Kaymer, for example, is a notorious fader of the golf ball.
“This course is set up for a fade player, and the course will be long and you need to be able to stop it on the greens and be able to work it around the golf course,” Danielle Kang said. “I think it’s a good test of golf and not just a test of who the best putter or best wedge player is. It’s based on what kind of golf you can play, and I think it’s a great opportunity for everybody to win.”
It’s not just on the approaches, too. The variety of dog legs require right-handed players to frequently work the ball both ways off the tee, but there’s more left to right drives needed out there than vice versa. If the men’s event is any indication, it’s hard to imagine a player that can’t cut the ball winning this week.
3) Scrambling requires creativity at the USGA’s preeminent championships
With false fronts protecting nearly every green at Pinehurst, the creativity has to come out in bunches. There’s a number of different routes to navigate these false fronts: loft a wedge above it and hope to stop it in time, run a mid-iron into the bank and scoot it up to the hole, use a wood or hybrid to avoid the initial drag off the face while playing it like a putt or simply putt it up the banks to the hole. The latter is what Kaymer frequently chose, but the methods differed amongst players.
“I think it’s what you prefer. I think you have to have a strategy and stick to the strategy. It’s really what you prefer and you just have to play in the practice round and see what you like best,” Kang said.
It’s unlikely that it was a coincidence that Kaymer finished first in the field in scrambling, getting up and down 19 of the 27 times he missed the green. Sure, Kaymer made a ton of putts inside 15 feet, but he also knew where to miss it. He was only tied for 18th in the field in greens in regulation, but when he missed it, he usually missed in the correct areas.
“From watching on TV, I know I have to think more into my approach shots than usual,” Lexi Thompson said. “It’s kind of like British Open golf, you have to think about where you want to place it, where you want to land it, and the spots where you can get up and down from if you do miss.”
Where you can’t miss is long. Almost every hole on the golf course is particularly penal when you miss long, and Kang had perhaps the most interesting statement in this regard.
“Matt Kuchar said that short sided sometimes here is better,” Kang said. “I mean that’s an odd thing to say, but I walked the course today and I saw some pins today where you were better putting from off the green than being on the green putting.”
4) The yardages will be changed and tinkered with…a lot
The official yardage listed is 6,649 for the U.S. Women’s Open, but if the men are any indication, it’s doubtful the USGA, which historically lovers to tinker with course set up, will play it at that distance. Every hole listed on the scorecard in Thursday’s first round played at a different distance than on the card – some differing as much as 48 yards. Frequently, during the men’s event, the USGA moved tees forward and back on different holes to offer differing looks and adjusted based on a green’s firmness or difficulty in previous rounds. Nos. 3 and 13, for example sometimes played from the back tee, forcing players to hit a hybrid or wood out into a wedge in, but other days, the tees were moved up to entice players into trying to drive the green.
Another example was the par-4 fourth hole, which actually played longer than the par-5 fifth hole on Saturday based off the tees being moved on No. 5 and the way the wind was blowing. They also switched it up on Nos. 7 and No. 9 tee box throughout the week, essentially offering a different hole each day almost. That’s stuff the USGA can learn from the men’s event for the women’s, but Danielle Kang, after playing a practice round on Monday, doesn’t think there will be a ton of tee shuffling or any chance they’re setting up 3 and 13 as drivable holes.
“I don’t think so,” said Kang when asked if we’d see a lot of shuffling in her estimation. “I don’t know where they would put us for it to be drivable on [3 and 13]. I’m not quite sure yet. They did pull up the tee box on 18 today.”
Topics: US Women's Open