PINEHURST — Four days and 72 holes.
When the final putt is sunk Sunday night, the latest U.S. Open champion will have earned his right to lift the trophy in the air and give it a quick smooch.
USGA executive director Mike Davis is happy with how the course has responded to the major overall it underwent under the direction of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw.
“We couldn’t be more pleased with where we are right now. And we maybe get this way once every five years for a U.S. Open, where you come in and then it’s just down to really three things, you’re managing your mow heights, so in this case we’re watching green speeds very carefully,” Davis said. “They’re basically where we want them to be right now. We’re managing the mow heights out in the closely mown. Believe it or not, we’re talking about almost hundreds of an inch can make a difference. We want the players to have a choice of putting, hitting a bump-and-run, or a pitch shot. And if it’s cut too short, they’ll all putt. If it’s cut too long, nobody will putt. And I think we’re pretty close to having it the way we want to that. If you’re lucky enough, you manage the water. Assuming you don’t get rain the next few days, there is a chance of the thunderstorms, but there’s been a chance for the last three weeks and we haven’t gotten any. It allows us to manage the water, which is really a little bit — it’s a lot science, but it’s a little bit art, too.”
The previous two U.S. Open contested on Pinehurst No. 2 have been decided by three total shots.
In 2005, Michael Campbell fired an even-par 280 to best Tiger Woods by two strokes.
And in one of the most memorable finishes in recent U.S. Open history, Payne Stewart drained an 15-foot par putt on the 18th green to beat Phil Mickelson by a shot in 1999.
“But this place here specifically, obviously I have a lot of very fond emotional memories, from the ‘99 experience with Payne Stewart and coming so close and now my daughter who is going to be 15 and we just started teaching her to drive and it’s just amazing how much time has gone by to hear that this is my 24th U.S. Open,” Mickelson said. “I don’t feel that old. I guess I look it, but I don’t feel it. Pinehurst here has so many great memories for me, even though it’s not a place that I have won a national championship, I’m certainly trying to change that this week.”
The victory this week would give Mickelson the personal Grand Slam. Only five players since the Masters was added to the mix to win all four majors — Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Gene Sarazen and Woods. Mickelson has finished second in this tournament six times, including last year at Merion Golf Club.
“I feel like the five players that have done that, have separated themselves from the other players throughout all time,” he said. “It shows that is they have a complete game. If I’m able to do that, I feel that I would look upon my own career differently. That’s why it would mean so much, in addition to the fact it’s our national championship. Growing up here in the United States, this is a tournament that I’ve always felt this patriotism to and would love to win, plus with all the close calls.”
Mickelson isn’t the only one with his eyes on the U.S. Open Trophy. Justin Rose would love to be the first since Curtis Strange in 1988 and 1989 to win back-to-back championships.
Rose said he has allowed the idea of winning in consecutive years creep into his mind.
“I’ve allowed myself that thought for sure. Obviously that’s the plan this week,” Rose said. “If I look at it, I felt like I had a good opportunity in 2012 at Olympic Club, too. I played really well there. I finished six back but as a player sometimes it’s a lot closer than that. I feel like the U.S. Open test suits me. It’s a matter of just going out there. And for me being defending champion, I don’t even like that word, defending, because it puts you in already behind the eight ball. You don’t want to be out there being defensive at all. So I’m just really excited about the opportunity this week presents. Obviously, it is only one guy who has the opportunity to repeat, and but I’m seeing that as a pressure-free situation. Like you said, these tournaments are so hard to win, I’m just going to enjoy the challenge of trying to do that.”
Looking to add his third major title to his belt and second this season, Bubba Watson. The long-hitting lefty said he will actually pull back on his aggressiveness off the tee and try to place his drives to have the opportunity to reach the greens in two.
“Well, it’s a tough test of golf. For me personally it’s going to be — it’s all about the tee shots,” Watson said. “I’m going to try to lay farther back than normal, because it’s still iffy hitting in that — I don’t know what they call it, rough, dirt, sand, I don’t know what they’re calling it. But it’s going to be iffy, you don’t know what kind of lies you’re going to get. So I’m going to lay back and have a lot longer shots into the holes. So for me it’s the second shots what’s going to matter the most. I don’t see too many birdies around here, especially if they put the pins in the corners. Some of these par-3s are 200-plus yards just to the front, which makes it very difficult. Again, you can’t look at par or a number, you have to look at just finishing. So for me, I mean, yeah, it’s going to be a tough test of golf. In four days I’ll tell you how much I really like it or how much I really hate it. And hopefully it’s four day, hopefully it’s not two days.”
The No. 1 player in the world, Adam Scott, will be looking to reverse a trend of playing poorly in the U.S. Open. Scott hopes his recent good play might translate into his first championship.
“Certainly I haven’t had the best record at the U.S. Open. It’s hard to put a finger on a lot of it,” Scott said. “I’ve talked to you all about 10 years of playing pretty average, by my own expectations in majors, and tried to improve that the last few years, and I think I’ve done a good job. But maybe not quite as good at the U.S. Open. However, I felt, at Olympic, I played very well the last 60 holes or so, after a really bad start on Thursday. And the confidence grew last year. I battled a little bit, maybe it’s coincidence that I haven’t had my best stuff at a U.S. Open. But I certainly feel like where my game’s at now, and the past few years, I should be able to compete here. I’m trying to build a game that can play anywhere. So it’s a good week for me to kind of turn the corner and get in contention. I think this course sets up well to me.”
Reach sports editor Shawn Stinson at 910-997-3111, ext. 14 or on Twitter @scgolfer.