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Mounds Of Misery The player who wins next week's U.S. Open will be the one who conquers Pinehurst's uniquely shaped greens with the most basic shot in the game

June 14, 1999
June 14, 1999

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June 14, 1999

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Mounds Of Misery The player who wins next week's U.S. Open will be the one who conquers Pinehurst's uniquely shaped greens with the most basic shot in the game

The chip is the simplest shot in golf. It calls for a short,
uncomplicated swing, which is why the chipping motion is the
first thing taught to beginners. When a golfer is in doubt about
what kind of shot to play from around the green, either his
caddie, his partner or the Greek chorus in his head will tell
him, "Just bump a little seven-iron up there." A player can't go
too far wrong with a chip, which is why the shot is the
1-800-FLOWERS of golf.

This is an article from the June 14, 1999 issue

The U.S. Golf Association has always had a condescending
attitude toward chipping, as if that aspect of the game is too
rudimentary to be a part of the mighty U.S. Open. The USGA
prefers to grow heavy rough to punish wayward drives and
approaches, which has taken the greenside chip shot out of the
Open. Even the greatest short-game shot in the history of the
championship--Tom Watson's holeout from left of the 17th green
at Pebble Beach in 1982--was really more of that USGA staple,
the semi-explosion from long grass with a sand wedge, than a
chip-in, although Watson's shot is often referred to as a chip.

This year, though, the Open is being held on the No. 2 course at
Pinehurst (N.C.) Resort and Country Club, a course that defies
the USGA model and guarantees that the championship will look
different from those conducted at tree-lined, rough-choked Open
factories such as Oak Hill, Oakland Hills or Oakmont. What will
make next week's tournament unique is chipping.

Pinehurst is to chipping what Battle Creek is to cornflakes.
Pinehurst is the ultimate examination of chipping. At Pinehurst,
chipping is complicated. During the Open, competitors will bump
plenty of little seven-irons, but when they do, the ball won't
be sitting up on a tuft of grass, and the shot won't be played
from a flat lie onto a flat green. Instead, the ball will be
nestled in a hollow, hugging firm, tight turf mowed to a height
of 1/4 of an inch. A few feet or yards ahead will loom a sudden
upslope where the green begins. All of No. 2's greens are about
a yard higher than the fairway, and all the edges on their
perimeters slope off to the fairway. Carolina golfers call them
turtle-backed greens, and while they may be large, they all have
ridges and swales that leave only about 40% of the putting
surfaces flat enough for pin positions. The greens will be firm
and fast, running about 10.5 on the Stimpmeter, and the holes
will almost certainly be cut close to the outer extremes,
causing golfers to deal with the feeling that any chip hit too
hard will roll off the edge of the world.

Besides inducing doubt and fear, these conditions will, first of
all, eliminate the lob shot, which on Tour is hit with a
60-degree wedge. Pinehurst's greenside lies will be too tight
for anything less than a perfectly struck lob, which is too
risky a proposition, even for the world's best players. Phil
Mickelson, the master of the flop shot, likes to hit slightly
behind the ball with his L wedge to produce the softest-landing
shot, but at No. 2 any contact behind the ball will result in a
feeble chunk or a drop-kicked skull.

At Pinehurst the greenside shot will have to be played low to
the ground with a less lofted club or even with the safest club
of all, the putter. This is the type of shot a U.S. pro almost
never needs on Tour, and that brings all sorts of variables into
play: Where should he land the ball--in front of the rise, into
the rise or over the rise? How hard should he hit the ball? How
much backspin should he apply? Which way will his ball kick?
What club should he use?

What makes the pros uncomfortable is that there is no standard
shot and neither a right nor a wrong club. There is only
improvisation and execution, the province of the artist, not the
artisan. "You skip it, hop it, bump it, run it, hit under it and
on top of it," was how Doug Sanders, the artist, described the
conundrum at a long-ago British Open. "Then you hope for the
right bounce."

Even the perfectly executed shot won't always wind up close to
the hole. Because of the many humps in the greens at No. 2, from
certain angles it is simply impossible to stop a shot around the
hole. In those cases, it's up to the golfer to deduce that his
target really has a radius of 15 feet--or more.

At Pinehurst, a lot can go wrong on a chip shot. The enduring
image of this Open will be balls rolling back to a player's feet
or past the pin and off the green. At this Open a player will be
more likely to chip into a bunker than to chip into the hole,
and don't look for anyone to take the pin out before chips. A
two-chip--not the T.C. Chen double hit--will be feared more than
a three-putt. That figures to drive many of the players crazy.
After a few mishits, their confidence will erode and their small
muscles will get twitchy. No. 2 will induce more than a few
cases of chip yips. In anticipation of time-consuming carnage,
the first two rounds of the tournament will start half an hour
earlier than normal.

Because chipping will be such a dangerous business, the fallback
club from off the green will be the putter. The hoary axiom,
your worst putt is better than your best chip, has always been
part hyperbole, but it holds some water at Pinehurst. Using the
putter is a compromise that won't produce brilliance, because
judging pace from higher grass to shorter grass is always a
guess, but it will be the safe shot.

A chip at Pinehurst is a multiple-choice exam in which all of the
above usually seems like the correct answer. "At Pinehurst, the
most important thing is to commit to the shot," says Phil
Rodgers, one of the game's great chippers and Jack Nicklaus's
short-game guru. "If you doubt your choice, you're in trouble."

The emphasis on chipping is precisely what Donald Ross had in
mind when he designed No. 2 in 1901. Ross was the Professor
Charles Kingsfield of chipping. He grew up in Dornoch on the
northern tip of Scotland, where the raised, firm greens
(designed to encourage natural drainage) made shots around the
green the most delicate in links golf. When Ross came to
Pinehurst as its manager of golf in 1900, the climate and soil
couldn't accommodate short grasses, so the greens were made of
sand. But in 1934, Ross found a strain of Bermuda that would
grow (the greens are now a bent-grass hybrid called G-2), and
that loosed a storehouse of ideas that had been percolating in
his mind for years. Ross built green complexes defined by humps,
hollows, swales and runoffs. The porous ground in the North
Carolina Sandhills precluded the drainage problems that would
plague such configurations in other parts of the country, and
Pinehurst became a unique challenge in American golf. Ross was
an accomplished player--he finished fifth in the 1903 U.S. Open
and won the North and South Open on No. 2 three times--and knew
how to vex the experts. "This mounding makes possible an
infinite variety of nasty short shots that no other form of
hazard can call for," Ross wrote. "Competitors whose second
shots have wandered a bit will be disturbed by these
innocent-appearing slopes and the shots they will have to invent
to recover."

The player who has to chip the least will have the best chance
at Pinehurst. It's easy to envision a pure ball striker like
David Duval getting on a roll at No. 2 and whistling approach
after approach to the middle of the humpbacked greens for
two-putt pars and an occasional birdie. This scenario could
happen if rain takes the fire out of No. 2.

When the course is fast and firm, though, history argues against
any player dominating it. No. 2's greens are designed to repel
approaches so that chipping, even for the finest ball strikers,
is inevitable. In winning the 36-hole match-play final of the
1959 North and South Amateur, Nicklaus shot 80-81 and remembers
"chipping and chipping and chipping." At the 1991 Tour
Championship the field of elite pros hit 60% of the greens in
regulation, as opposed to the Tour average of 66%. Craig
Stadler's winning score was five-under-par 279.

The course will be set up much harder for the Open than it was
in 1991. It will be firmer and faster and include more severe
runoffs on the greens. (They were installed during a 1996
restoration.) The fairways will be narrower and bordered by
higher Bermuda rough, from where it will be next to impossible
to hold an approach shot unless it's bounced onto the green. The
16th hole, formally a pushover par-5 of 530 yards, will be
converted into a brutish 489-yard par-4, making the course a par
70.

Unless it rains, the chipping wizards will rule No. 2. "The
players who have all the shots around the green will do fine.
The players who don't have all the shots won't," says Paul
Runyan, who along with Raymond Floyd is considered to be the
greatest chipper of all time. Runyon, 90, won the 1930 and '35
North and South Opens.

Who has all the shots? Many players are excellent chippers,
including two-time Open winner Ernie Els and 1997 British Open
champ Justin Leonard. But the truth is, European tour players
are more often confronted with the kinds of shots that will be
de rigueur at No. 2. No European has won the Open since Tony
Jacklin in 1970, but that ignominious streak could end next week.

Nick Faldo has cited Seve Ballesteros, in his prime, as the
virtuoso who would have thrived at No. 2. Ballesteros's mantle
as the chief of chipping has been assumed by fellow Spaniard
Jose Maria Olazabal, who put on a wondrous display of short-game
prowess while winning the Masters in April. Olazabal has never
played Pinehurst, but Augusta is similarly shaved around the
greens, and he handled the tight lies and delicate bump-and-run
shots there with a command that separated him from the field.

One shot in particular resonates on the eve of the Open. Over
the 15th green in two on Saturday, Olazabal was left with 10
uphill yards to the putting surface and 20 more yards of some of
the fastest real estate at Augusta to the hole. Several players
had chipped the same shot into the pond fronting the green, but
Olazabal took a nine-iron and chipped to within an inch of the
cup. Asked to explain how he did it, Olazabal said, "I ran the
ball onto the green at the proper pace." Then he smiled, knowing
there was no explanation for genius.

At Pinehurst No. 2, genius for the simplest shot in the game
will determine the winner.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JIM GUND Chipshape At most Opens the greens are surrounded by thick rough, but at Pinehurst that grass is shaved to only 1/4 of an inch.COLOR PHOTO: SIMON BRUTY Magic touch No. 2 is perfectly suited to Olazabal, a master of all aspects of the short game.COLOR PHOTO: HENEBRY PHOTOGRAPHY Looks easy All of Pinehurst's holes are like the 15th--simple and straightforward until the final yards.

Pelz's Picks for Pinehurst

Dave Pelz, author of the recently released Dave Pelz's Short
Game Bible, says the players most likely to succeed around
Pinehurst's greens are those who can visualize what kind of chip
or pitch is necessary and those with the ability to execute a
wide variety of shots. Here, in order of expertise, are the
players Pelz thinks have the short games to win the Open.

The Gospel According to Pelz

1 Lee Janzen Has it all for Pinehurst: imagination,
variety, skill and, especially, resiliency

2 Jose Maria Best possible course for him to win an
Olazabal Open. Genius chipper

3 David Duval Only weakness is the high lob shot,
which he won't need at Pinehurst

4 Payne Stewart Has the ability to caress the short
shots. Especially good on low,
bump-and-spin wedge shot

5 Justin Leonard His ground game is just right for
Pinehurst and gets better when he's
in contention

6 Paul Azinger One of the best chippers for more than
a decade. Won the Tour Championship
here in 1992

7 Phil Mickelson Has more shots than anyone but must
choose the wisest one more often

8 Bob Estes Good touch and astute judgment.
Excels at leaving himself the easiest
possible shot

9 Greg Norman Grew up running the ball in Australia,
which is why he has played so well
in Augusta

10 Corey Pavin In Mickelson and Olazabal's class for
skill, but can he convert the six-footers?

11 Colin Has a very good short game but
Montgomerie struggles to acclimate himself to the
speed of U.S. greens