9 lessons from a hacker playing U.S. Open host Pinehurst No. 2

scenic shot of pinehurst no. 2 payne stewart statue

Pinehurst No. 2 prepares to host the U.S. Open again next week.

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PINEHURST, N.C. — I do not recommend playing Pinehurst No. 2 tired.

I do not recommend playing it hungry.

And I most certainly do not recommend playing it hungover.

But, should you be all three of those things during your round on the 12th-ranked course in the U.S., there is hope for you still. Because I managed to keep my round of golf on the rails on Pinehurst No. 2 despite suffering from all of the above … barely.

The story of my misfortune does not actually involve all that much misfortune. As a member of the golf media, I occasionally receive invites to attend what are called “media days” — essentially golf outings previewing some of the courses hosting major championships. It’s a pretty good gig; a free round of golf in exchange for the assumption that your coverage of the tournament (or, in this case, the championship) will be more informed, incisive, and perhaps slightly more interesting.

The downside of these events is that I don’t get to choose when they occur. Sometimes they’ll be during an open block in my schedule, and sometimes they’ll be, right after my sister’s wedding.

The latter is what brought me to one of my favorite places on earth — the North Carolina sandhills — with my body still recovering from the ill effects of somewhere between eight and 28 tequila-sodas. And it is how I know the lessons I am about to share with you from my round at Pinehurst No. 2 — international golf Mecca and host of next week’s U.S. Open — are good enough for anyone who should they find their way to golf heaven in the coming months.

Lesson 1: Don’t be tired, hungry and hungover

Sorry to beat a dead horse here, but these are all things you can mostly avoid when scheduling a round at Pinehurst No. 2. Let your round on No. 2 be toward the front end of your golf trip so your limbs are feeling plenty limber, make sure you leave ample time before your round to have a meal, and, for the love of god, skip the tequila the night before.

Lesson 2: Skip the driving range

Yeah, yeah, this is a terrible idea for most of you.

In an ideal world, you’d have an hour or more to warm up for No. 2, leaving ample time to make it to the driving range and ensure the swing is grooved. But in the real world, you’ll be getting to the practice area within a few minutes of teeing off, and that means you’ll need to make a few critical decisions about what lies ahead.

And here is the plain truth about what lies ahead: If you’d like to score less than 200, you’re best served spending your practice time at the short-game area and Thistle Due putting green. It is here that you can work out the kind of hardpan chips and squirrely putts that will come to dominate the next four-plus hours of your life, and here that you can set a legitimate strategy for minimizing disaster when you are faced with them.

Seventy-five balls at the range will help you keep it between the goalposts, but ultimately, your score will come down to what happens around the putting surface. Work on that before anything else.

Lesson 3: Distance control

The difference between a 75 and a 95 on No. 2 is almost always the number of shots taken from within 25 yards of the flagstick. If you’re a bad short-game player, learn how to play a hybrid, putter, or 8-iron off the hardpan — and more importantly, learn how far that club goes when you strike it. Leaving yourself in two-putt distance can be the difference between glory and disaster.

Lesson 4: Learn about wire grass

If you’ve seen photos of Pinehurst No. 2, perhaps you’ve learned that there’s nary a blade of rough on the property.

But James, how can a golf course host a U.S. Open without having any rough?

Well, dear reader, because this golf course has tufts of golf’s ultimate risk/reward plant: wire grass.

You can find clumps of wire grass off of nearly every fairway on No. 2, dotted across the sandy landscape. Hit into it and there’s a chance your ball is safely in the sand, leaving a clear shot into the green. But there’s a much bigger chance your ball has gotten caught behind one of these shrubs, leaving a near-impossible chunk out back to safety.

Though it might not look it, the wire grass is the ultimate defense of Donald Ross‘ otherwise wide-open fairways, and it’s sure to raise hell for many of the best in the game come U.S. Open week.

Lesson 5: Forget the photo opp

I’d argue that Pinehurst No. 2 is the most deceptively brilliant golf course I’ve ever played. There isn’t a single “signature” hole. There isn’t really even a single visually stunning hole to photograph.

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But like so many other things in life, the beauty is in the subtlety. If you spend your round looking through the camera lens, you’ll miss all of the tiny nuances that make Pinehurst No. 2 exactly as brilliant as it is: slopes that punish wrong-side approaches and reward right-side ones, bunkering that collects golf balls like hundreds of little vacuums, visual cues that play mind games from the tee box. You’ll be a better golfer when your round is over if you’re not worried about your Instagram first.

Lesson 6: Get a caddie … seriously.

As one of golf media’s many caddie evangelists, I know I come at this from a place of bias, but I seriously cannot recommend utilizing a Pinehurst caddie enough. Those nuances I mentioned above? The caddies at Pinehurst know all of ’em front and back, and their guidance will allow you to appreciate them.

Lyle, who helped me through my round at No. 2, was worth the full freight of his fee if only for the half-dozen or so times he said “whatever you do, don’t miss it here.” The rest of his advice was unheeded for basic performance reasons, but I appreciated every word of it.

Lesson 7: Take the right tees

You may be tempted to test out ol’ No. 2 from the U.S. Open tees, proving your virility and general masculinity to those around you.


No. 2 is a beast from the forward tees. It’s a beast from 100 yards out and sitting in the middle of the fairway. Hell, it’s a beast when staring down 15 feet for birdie! If you’re really hankering to see things from the U.S. Open perspective, take a few minutes — like on the 14th tee box, for example — and walk back to the U.S. Open tees. (And yes, I meant a few minutes, it will take you that long to get back.)

Don’t amplify your degree of difficulty by playing from the wrong tees. You’ll regret it every step of the way, and you’ll have no one to blame but yourself.

Lesson 8: Learn the beauty of the Bermuda lag putt

You won’t make much putting on No. 2. The greens are like glass. But you can two-putt almost anything with the right approach to pace and line. Don’t be an aggressive putter, like yours truly, trying to stuff your putts into the back of the hole — that’s the easiest way to wind up trading your putter for a sand wedge.

Putt with grain and pace in mind, and let the ball do the rest of the work.

Lesson 9: Don’t underestimate

Like all truly great golf courses, No. 2 is more of a mental challenge than a physical one. The course will notice the second you take your foot off the gas, just as it will notice when you’ve been carefully thinking through every shot along the way.

Like with all great courses, the odds of making a birdie throughout your round are good … but not quite as good as the odds of making double-par.

Play well, and most importantly, play fast.

James Colgan

Golf.com Editor

James Colgan is a news and features editor at GOLF, writing stories for the website and magazine. He manages the Hot Mic, GOLF’s media vertical, and utilizes his on-camera experience across the brand’s platforms. Prior to joining GOLF, James graduated from Syracuse University, during which time he was a caddie scholarship recipient (and astute looper) on Long Island, where he is from. He can be reached at james.colgan@golf.com.