Pros are confused by Pinehurst’s greens. Here’s what’s vexing them

Tiger Woods and his son Charlie at Pinehurst

Tiger Woods practices short game shots during the first few days of the U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2.

getty images

PINEHURST, N.C. — For years the greens at Pinehurst have been described as turtle backs. On Monday, Golf Channel’s Rich Lerner likened them to upside-down cereal bowls. On Tuesday, a reporter offered a new shape during a question to Jon Rahm: inverted plates.

Clearly, the greens at Pinehurst No. 2 were the talk of the 124th U.S. Open long before Wyndham Clark grabbed the mic. But after Clark, they became everything, potentially even controversy. His word for the greens at Pinehurst? “Borderline.” 

Clark didn’t add much of a qualifier to that word, but the implication was clear. The greens are borderline unfair, borderline too fast, borderline too undulating for the firmness they’re playing at. At least for the defending champion. Not even 24 hours into the week and we’ve got a complaint. Welcome to the U.S. Open. 

Tour players are most comfortable in an ecosystem of groupthink. (See: Shinnecock Saturday, 2018.) When one of their colleagues suggests a course’s rough is too thick, they are bound to agree. Not enough depth in the bunkers? Same deal. So hearing the reigning U.S. Open champion moan about the conditions the greens at Pinehurst means two things in specific: (1) more pros will follow, and (2) we’re in for a helluva week.

Clark called them shiny, and said the typical putt on Tour that might break four or five inches is breaking 10 or 12 inches this week. When putting down grain — in the same direction the grain of grass is growing — putts at Pinehurst feel like they’re running a 15 or 16 on the Stimpmeter, Clark said. The typical Tour test is about an 11 or 12.

“I find myself hitting uphill putts six feet by,” Clark said. “It was a common theme in our group. I mean, multiple guys putted off the green. Multiple guys hit putts, they’re like, Oh, my gosh.

The nature of an early-week complaint like Clark’s clears the runway for all kinds of follow-ups. Tell us more, please. Next up was Viktor Hovland, who ironically called the greens soft, given the Sunday night rain. He did not think grain or shine or Stimpmeter numbers. He went straight to hole locations.

“Not to throw my caddie under the bus,” Hovland offered Tuesday, “but if he’s putting the pins in the right locations where the pins were last time, then there are just multiple spots where hitting a putt to a disc, I miss it maybe a foot low side, with just a hair too much speed, the ball is off the green. It doesn’t just roll off the green, sometimes it rolls off the green and into the bush. Seems to me that some of those pins are a little bit close to the dropoffs.”

When the best players in the world revisit major championship venues, the best caddies in the world know where the pins were located last time ‘round. Tiger Woods’ manager, Rob McNamara, suggested at the PGA Championship last month that they can roughly chart out every hole location on 15 or 16 of the holes on property. Only an ounce or two of surprise shows up once the tournament starts. So caddies spend these practice rounds placing tiny discs in specific places during practice rounds and tell their players, Have at it. This is what you’ll see come tournament time. If Hovland’s caddie, Shay Knight — widely regarded as one of the best loopers out here — does his job well, then Hovland is suddenly a bit more worried.

“If they were, in my opinion, borderline yesterday when the greens were soft,” Hovland said, “what if it starts blowing up a little bit and the greens just keep getting firmer and faster? It’ll be just interesting to see.”

Interesting is one word for it. But that is the crux of what you get with firm, undulating, wickedly fast, turtle back, upside-down cereal bowl greens. You will miss them with wedges and mid-irons and long-irons, no doubt. But what awaits you after that is supreme difficulty in getting back on the green and close to the hole. Scrambling looks different here than it did last month at Valhalla. Just ask Tom Hoge. 

The first viral clip of the week makes Hoge look like a 12 handicap as he putts from a collection area left of the 1st hole. His first putt bumps through the surrounds and trickles six feet onto the dance-floor before slowly retreating back to his feet. His caddie stood behind the ball, frozen, watching. Hoge’s second putt creeps a bit further up the platform, pauses, and then rolls down the ramp back to his feet. Finally, his third putt crests onto the green, maybe eight feet on this time, and for a second it sits there, safely aboard. Were this a competition round, he’d be racing up to mark it. Instead, he hangs his head, scoops his other ball and catches his final, failed attempt halfway during its roll down the hill. 

“The last few days playing practice rounds,” Tiger Woods said with a surprising bit of vulnerability, “I’m guilty as well as the rest of the guys I’ve played with — we’ve putted off a lot of greens. It depends how severe the USGA wants to make this and how close they want to get us up to those sides.”

Woods said the week will be a “war of attrition” and thinks we could see some ping-pong-ing back and forth from the collection areas, akin to how the 2005 championship played out. The kind of golf pain that circulates on social media. In 2005, Woods finished solo second behind Michael Campbell, with the winning score of even par. That in itself presents a mental battle for the best in the world. They’re not used to even par winning golf tournaments. They’re not used to putting off greens. They’re not used to balls rolling down ramps into native areas. They’re definitely not used to spending the entire day (maybe the entire week) aiming for the center of the green. And Bryson DeChambeau is definitely not used to invoking the approach of a 50-year-old former Tour pro, but here we are. 

“This is a ball striker’s paradise,” DeChambeau said. “You have to hit it in the middle of the greens.  And this is a Boo Weekley quote, but ‘The center of the green never moves,’ so I’ll try to focus on that this week.”

Sean Zak Editor

Zak is a writer at GOLF Magazine and just finished a book about the summer he spent in St. Andrews.

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