National Sports

At Pinehurst, greens are ‘repelling’ and Day 1 of the U.S. Open is compelling

PINEHURST, N.C. - By midafternoon Thursday, the commentary from the amateur analysts in the gallery had become distressed and repetitive. They watched group after group hit stellar approach shots on the picturesque second hole: beautiful ball flight, dropping from the sky, plopping right on the green.

“Stop! Stop! Stop!” they begged, when the ball bounced.

“Ohhh,” they groaned, when it ignored their pleas.

“It’s gone,” they lamented, when it inevitably trickled off the green.

The torturous greens at Pinehurst No. 2 set a sinister tone in the opening round of the U.S. Open, and those who managed to dodge the dangers were rewarded handsomely. Rory McIlroy, seeking his first major championship in a decade, and Patrick Cantlay, the 32-year old California native, were better than them all and are tied atop the leader board after shooting five-under 65.

“I went through a run there for a while where my starts at major championships weren’t very good,” said McIlroy, who hit 15 greens in regulation. “Probably got myself a little too worked up at the start of the week. … Certainly the major championships that I’ve won or the ones that I’ve played well at, I’ve always seemed to get off to a good start, and it’s nice to get off to another one.”

Ludvig Åberg, the 24-year-old Swede who finished second at the Masters and is playing in his first U.S. Open, is just one shot off the lead, and Bryson DeChambeau, the 2020 U.S. Open champion, and Matthieu Pavon, the 31-year old Frenchman, lurk just two back.


But the real stars on the Pinehurst course were these swelling, undulating greens, alternately described as turtleback or domed or an upside-down cereal bowl. Players muttered more colorful descriptions under their breath throughout the day. Shots that looked great off the clubhead inevitably found the greens, but cheers quickly turned into groans as balls rolled and rolled and rolled.

“This golf course is all about the greens,” Tiger Woods said after his first-round 74. “The complexes are just so difficult and so severe. … It’s hard to get the ball close. In most golf courses you play, you hit shots into where it’s feeding off slopes into flags. Here everything is repelling.”

That second hole - a merciless 508-yard, par 4 - was a tone-setter. More than a third of the field - 61 golfers in all - posted a bogey or worse. Balls rolled off the front, they rolled off the back, they rolled every which way but toward the hole. And when they finally came to a rest, that was often when the thrill ride really began.

“It’s really diabolical out there,” DeChambeau said.

The carnage could be seen all over the course. There was Will Zalatoris on No. 10, where his approach shot rolled off the back of the green. He pulled out his putter but could only watch as his ball slowed near the crest of the hill and made a U-turn, trickling back down.

Imagine Sisyphus with a putter and a Titleist deal.

The same thing happened to Matt Fitzpatrick on No. 11. And Matteo Manassero on 10. And Collin Morikawa on 15.

“This is one of the courses where you literally take your medicine,” said Morikawa, who posted an even-par 70 despite two double-bogeys on his scorecard.

It’s why the approach shots at Pinehurst are so important. At the 2014 U.S. Open here, 70 percent of the field hit the fairways, but only 56 percent managed to hit the greens, according to the USGA. So golfers must have pinpoint precision. The preferred landing area on the green might be only be a few yards in diameter, with birdie and bogey separated by inches.

“I feel like you’re never out of the hole, but you’re also not too far away from making a huge number,” said Scottie Scheffler, the world’s top-ranked player, who carded a 71.

Greens are expected to get firmer and faster - and the scores higher - through the weekend. And players know they’ll need finesse and creativity, turning their bag upside down to help ease the pain. Many are putting from well off the green - much as Martin Kaymer did en route to his 2014 U.S. Open title here - but after reading the grain, they’re also chipping with wedges, short irons, long irons and woods.

“Even if you do manage to hit the green, like two-putts aren’t that very simple,” said England’s Tyrrell Hatton, who shot a 68.

This is all by design, of course. Donald Ross didn’t have these bulging greens all sketched out in his original plans, but they’ve grown over time and make the Pinehurst No. 2 a unique test. It’s why the tree-lined track is among the most iconic courses in the country, the vexing foil in golfers’ fantasies and nightmares.

“It is all about these magnificent upside-down cereal bowl putting greens,” said John Bodenhamer, the USGA’s chief championships officer. “They are difficult to hit, and we need to get the right firm and fast conditions around them. … Our strategy is built around tough but fair. But these are difficult greens, no bones about it.”

Thursday amounted to a gentle introduction for what will surely be an increasingly difficult week, with just 15 golfers managing to finish their opening round under par. While a total of 15 golfers were below 70 in round one at the 2014 U.S. Open on the same course, just three players finished that tournament under par. At the 2005 U.S. Open on Pinehurst No. 2, not one golfer finished under par. And in 1999, 23 players were under par on Day 1, but only Payne Stewart managed to finish the tournament at 1-under.

This year’s opening round featured spectacular golf from some of the game’s top players. Cantlay had four birdies on the back nine. McIlroy played a bogey-free round. Åberg hit 14 of 14 fairways. And Pavon had a pair of eagles. They all made hold-your-breath par-saving putts, surviving the Pinehurst greens more than they were taming them.

“There’s always going to be someone that has the kind of day that hits the ball great, everything goes his way, makes a couple of bombs, and you can shoot it,” said Sergio Garcia, who posted a bogey-free 69. “Are we going to see it consistently? If it doesn’t rain, I don’t think so.”


Wyndham Clark, the defending U.S. Open champion, issued a restrained warning early in the week, saying he was “amazed how fast the greens are.” After a Monday practice round, he said the greens were “glassy,” noting that a putt that usually breaks four or five inches on tour is breaking 10-12 inches at Pinehurst.

“I was joking with my caddie, we should probably get our putter checked. I’ve never swung so hard on my putter for nine holes than I did today, just trying to get up and down mounds,” Xander Schauffele, who shot an opening-round 70, said earlier this week.