PINEHURST, N.C. - In 1999, Donald Ross' legendary No. 2 Course at the Pinehurst Resort hosted the U.S. Open for the first time. That's right, the first time.
Somehow, for nearly a century, golf's most American major eluded one of America's best golf courses.
Pinehurst No. 2 isn't blessed with the setting of a Pebble Beach or Pacific Dunes. Nor does it have the scenery of a Kapalua Plantation Course, or Cypress Point. Yet through the years, Ross' pet project has steadily clung to it's ranking as one of the ten best golf courses in the U.S., if not the world.
Golf Magazine says No. 2 (pictured) is the sixth best course in the country, and the second best available for public consumption. GolfWeek lists No. 2 as the eighth best classic golf course in America, and Golf Digest has it at No. 9 on its "100 Greatest Courses" list.
No. 2 has hosted the Tour Championship in 1991 and 1992, and the U.S. Senior Open in 1994, and countless other amateur tournaments, but no U.S. Open for 98 years? What gives??
"It's hard to compare No. 2 to the other U.S. Open sites," says Massachusetts-based golf course architect Brian Silva, who has had a hand in restoring over two dozen Ross-designed courses. "If you put another set of greens in there, it is not the same course, and it would never be able to protect par against those guys."
Those guys, of course, are the PGA Tour players. And when Tour players talk about the golf courses they play, sometimes you have to wade through all the public relations babble and read between the lines to find out what they really think of the course.
Or, in the case of No. 2, you can just ask Raleigh, N.C. native and former Wake Forest standout Scott Hoch.
"One thing about Pinehurst No. 2 is that you can hit really good shots and not be on the green. There's a lot of goofiness to it," Hoch was quoted as saying just days before the 1999 Open.
Could it be that the United States Golf Association withheld its championship from one of the best golf tracks in the country for 98 years because the players simply didn't like it? Coincidence? Maybe not.
Consider this: week after week on the PGA Tour, players hit approximately 63 percent of the greens in regulation. At No.2, that number dropped as low as 42 percent during the Open round, and never returned to an "acceptable" level. No player came right out and said it, but when GIR's drop 20 percent, rumblings about the fairness of the golf course aren't far behind.
In this case, many of the players didn't even feel the need to temper their comments with the usual politically correct responses.
"I've been asked many times what's the hardest golf course I ever played," defending champion and two-time Open winner Lee Janzen told reporters after the third round. "Now I have the answer."?
"The pin placements' were borderline sadistic," said Scott Verplank.
"Augusta on steroids," said Brandel Chamblee.
José Maria Olazábal, carded a 75 in the opening round, went back to his hotel, punched a wall, injured his hand and had to withdraw. John Daly finished last in 1999 among those that made the cut, in no small part because he hit his ball while it was still moving after his pitch shot failed to clear a knoll and started rolling back at him.
These are not the words and actions of men that adore the course they are playing.
But what about the players of yesteryear, like Hogan, Sneed, Jones and Nelson? Did they feel the same way about No. 2 when they played it? And if so, was USGA really so empathetic that it avoided Pinehurst all these years??
"During that period, there wasn't as much focus put on golf course architecture, so you didn't have guys like Hogan and Nelson commenting on design so much," says Greenville, S.C.-based golf course architect John LaFoy (pictured), who has remodeling 13 Ross courses.
Bobby Jones once described No. 2 as the "St. Andrews of the United States," but other golfing greats have remained somewhat quiet about the course.
"A lot of the pros back then might not have known who designed the golf course, and not as many of the players considered themselves designers after winning a couple tournaments and putting their signatures on scorecards," says LaFoy. "My guess is you would have heard complaints from those storied players about the course if they really didn't like it."
When presented with the "players dislike Pinehurst No. 2" conspiracy theory, LaFoy chuckles. The reason for the USGA's snub of the course as an Open venue is much more practical (read: reasonable) in his eyes.
"Traditionally, a lot of the folks from the USGA are from up north, and they and the golfers prefer to play on bentgrass greens," LaFoy says. "At the time at which the Open is held (in June), maintaining bentgrass is hard to pull off. Now, there are more heat tolerant bentgrass, like the G-2 on No. 2."
Indeed, only two U.S. Opens have been held in the south - Pinehurst No. 2 in 1999, and the Atlanta Athletic Club in 1976. But the USGA didn't waste anytime in awarding Pinehurst with the 2005 U.S. Open - a six-year turnaround that is the quickest the USGA has awarded a U.S. Open to the same course since the 1940s.
"I think almost to a man, the players love the course," LaFoy says. "Now, the way the USGA set up the greens, that could have led to the players comments. They are some of the most difficult greens in the world, normally, but when they are firmed up and cut short, they become diabolical."
Diabolical, say, like a conspiracy theory that professional golfers don't revere one of the greatest golf courses in the world?
"Yes, that diabolical," adds LaFoy.