SOUTHERN PINES, N.C. — All it takes is one look at the Pine Needles greens to see where the greatest challenge lies at this week’s U.S. Women’s Open.
If you’re looking for flat surfaces and straight putts, find another course. Like most Donald Ross designs, turtleback greens define the Pine Needles landscape.
“One of the cool hallmarks of Donald Ross’ work here is he was always trying to find a side slope or a downslope to place the green sites on,” said Kyle Franz, the architect who, in 2017, restored the course to Ross’ original design. “Then he would collect material from the bunkers and around the greens and raise them up even further. That’s where you get that famous turtleback effect.”
Even for the best putters in the world, these surfaces make life difficult. It’s not just about hitting your approach on the greens, it’s about hitting your approach on the right part of the greens. Miss your spots, and three-putts lurk.
Not only are the shapes and contours of the greens challenging, but so is the grass type. True to form in the Sandhills region, Bermuda grass is the turf of choice at Pine Needles.
The thing that makes Bermuda tricky is its graininess. Not only do players have to judge the slope to get a proper read, they also have to judge the grain — i.e. the direction the grass is growing.
Often, the grain will grow in the direction of the slope; there’s an old saying: “Where the water goes, the grain grows.” But at Pine Needles, that’s not always the case.
“Something I noticed here is that sometimes the green slopes right-to-left, but the grain goes left-to-right,” said two-time major champion Lydia Ko. “That’s a head-scratcher. You would think that the grain would go along with the slope, but that’s not always the case.”
Those calculations will be key in determining a champion.
The computations don’t stop there. The length of the blades of grass on the greens can also have an impact on how the grain will affect the ball. When the grass is longer, and the greens are slower, grain plays a bigger factor in influencing the break.
“The tighter they cut the greens, there’s less surface area of grass to touch the ball,” Ko said. “So it gets affected less.”
It’s also important to take note of the grain around the hole. Knowing which way the grain grows during those last few feet of the putt can be the difference between a make and a miss — and it could very well decide the championship.
“It’s definitely strategic,” Ko said. “But at the same time, everyone is playing the same course, the same green. We all have our work cut out for us.”