PINEHURST, N.C. — The return to Pinehurst No. 2 always held the promise of being different.
Just not to this degree.
Five years ago, when the USGA announced its radical plan of staging the U.S. Open and the U.S. Women’s Open on the same golf course in consecutive weeks, no one would have imagined that the only player named Woods competing at Pinehurst No. 2 would be Cheyenne, not Tiger.
Cheyenne Woods qualified for her first Women’s Open on the same day her uncle, Tiger Woods, withdrew as he recovers from back surgery.
Phil Mickelson has an emotional connection to Pinehurst No. 2, the first of his record six runner-up finishes in the U.S. Open. He has been pointing to this ever since he won the British Open last summer. Just his luck, there has been more attention on Clorox stock than his bid for a career Grand Slam in the last week. Mickelson has been linked to an insider trading investigation, complete with a surprise visit from the FBI after he walked off the golf course in Ohio.
“I’m just trying to win a U.S. Open,” Mickelson said. “Right now I’m just trying to get my game ready to finish off that Grand Slam, and I’ve got seven to 10 days to really get my game sharp and ready. That’s all I can worry about for now.”
As for the golf course? Not even the Donald Ross masterpiece is like anyone remembers it.
Shortly after Pinehurst No. 2 was awarded its third U.S. Open in 15 years — the most for any golf course in more than a century — the USGA signed off on a project to restore the course to its natural look, with sandy areas of wiregrass bushes and natural vegetation where there once was gnarly rough.
A U.S. Open without rough? That sounds as strange as a British Open without pot bunkers.
“It’s what they want to call undergrowth. I call it weeds,” said two-time U.S. Open champion Curtis Strange, who played the course last month to prepare for his duties as an ESPN analyst. “It’s still going to be penal, and still going to be playing tough if you miss the fairway.”
The project required more than 35 acres of turf being removed, and only 450 of the 1,150 sprinkler heads remain.
If all that wasn’t enough, this will be the last time Johnny Miller gets to call the shots from the television tower. The USGA signed a 12-year deal with $1 billion with Fox Sports that starts next year.
Golf is getting used to not having Woods around. He hasn’t played in three months and already missed the Masters for the first time in his career. The notion of Mickelson winning a U.S. Open at Pinehurst — any U.S. Open, for that matter — is more than enough to fill the void.
Lefty is trying to become only the sixth player to win all four majors since the Masters began in 1934.
“I would look at myself — I would look at my career — in a whole different light if I were able to get that fourth one,” Mickelson said.
The odds are stacked against him, though. Mickelson hasn’t won since the British Open, and this is the first time since 2003 that he has gone this deep into a season without having won a tournament anywhere in the world.
“You don’t go to the U.S. Open and find your game,” Strange said.
Then again, few players are more unpredictable. He won at Muirfield last summer in a major not even Mickelson thought he would ever get. When his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009 — and Mickelson’s mother was diagnosed a month later — he nearly won the U.S. Open at Bethpage Black.
He has been coping with arthritis for the last four years. And the only headlines he has made in the last month were reports tying him to activist investor Carl Icahn and Las Vegas gambler Billy Walters over timely stock trades of Clorox.
Then again, such a distraction could be what he needs to alleviate the pressure of trying to win the major that has frustrated him for more than 20 years.
“If you look at Mickelson’s career, whenever the focus has really, truly been on Phil, he’s always struggled,” former PGA champion Paul Azinger said. “When he’s trying to win the U.S. Open or when he’s trying to become No. 1 in the world or whatever it is, it’s always been difficult for him. So when he’s spotlighted, it seems to never go completely like he wants or like it’s expected. When he kind of slips under the radar, things are always better.”
Justin Rose is the defending champion, the latest player to have a chance to join Strange as the only back-to-back U.S. Open champions in the last 60 years. Bubba Watson, the Masters champion and No. 3 player in the world, is the only player capable of the calendar Grand Slam. The story lines haven’t changed much this year.
Pinehurst, however, is still the main attraction for this U.S. Open.
“Someone could put you in the perfect place off every tee and it’s still one of the hardest courses you’ve ever played,” past U.S. Open champion Geoff Ogilvy said. “The course will be the star. There are always 50 stories at a U.S. Open. By Thursday, the real story starts.”