Pinehurst is overrated.
Let’s take the USGA at their word, their oft-repeated word: ““We’re not trying to embarrass the best players in the game, we’re trying to identify them.” Thus spoke Sandy Tatum, longtime member of the USGA Executive Committee, several years ago in discussing a controversial decision to hold the U.S. Open at yet another renovated, tricked-up, romanticized, and over-rated course, and his words are still understood among the cognoscenti to reflect the essence of the USGA’s approach to the U.S. Open.
Next, let’s take a look at not just the list of winners through the years, but the leaderboards. Let’s look at this year’s leaderboard. Unless you take the position that the rest of the PGA tour calendar does NOT identify the best golfers, then this year’s Open venue, like way too many other Open courses, represents a failure on the part of the patricians at the USGA, as Pinehurst, like so many other Open courses in previous years, has mostly been led by inferior players. The winner, Martin Kaymer, is a nice player, but he is no Phil Mickelson or Tiger Woods and in fact is one of the 7 players out of the top 10 Open finishers who are not in the top 10 of the Rolex world rankings.
Why is Pinehurst a failure? Because it allows luck (chance, improbable events, etc.) to play too big a part in the outcome. Indulge me in an example. One of my regular home courses, an Arnold Palmer design, drives me nuts because there are way too many holes on which there is no place where you can hit a good drive and be reasonably certain of getting a level lie, or even a predictably uphill, downhill, or left- or right-sidehill lie. There is literally no correct place to which to hit your tee shot. You can hit a career drive, dead center of the fairway, and, depending upon where it ends up on one or another of the bull-dozered mounds and design features, you can end up with a terrible lie. And there is no way to avoid that risk, as the entire fairway is made up of fake contouring. Yes, I know golf is a game that is always affected by luck, but when too much of the game becomes a matter of chance rather than skill, you are not identifying the best player, you are identifying the luckiest one. Unless there is an identifiable and attainable best target, the premium on skill is diminished. And that, to me, is the new Pinehurst. Yes, there are many places it is better to avoid, but too many good shots wind up in terrible places.
Not only that, the aesthetics of the remodeling job are suspect, both as an effort to exploit the naturally gorgeous North Carolina countryside and as an effort to channel the course’s inner Donald Ross. It is one thing to allow pine needles to remain at the base of trees rather than removing them, but it is quite another to spread sand everywhere that is not fairway and to plant random weeds as though they were indigenous to the area. To someone (such as I) who played the course decades ago, before people decided it was iconic, the place now looks like a Phoenix slum, or maybe a plain girl after a nose job – kinda sorta looks the same, features look more conventional, but the essential personality is lost. What you get is an ecofreak’s vision of what America should look like: ugly but low-maintenance weeds thrown around at random (one would hate to think the placements were actually intentional), no need to water the lawn or mow it, an unkempt back-to-nature look, etc. Everything but the un-collected trash. You know, the there goes the neighborhood school of revolutionary landscaping. The look that is supposed to represent golf for the masses.
Personally, my idea of golf for the masses is Top Golf, where you can get drunk, make a social connection for the evening, listen to loud music, and hit a lot of balls at large targets while laughing at the whole idea. I like it a lot more than Pinehurst.