Pinehurst, N.C. - Pinehurst No. 2, among the world's more revered courses, has managed to become somewhat of a mystery to the world's best golfers as the U.S. Open got underway Thursday.
The recently renovated No. 2 has been shorn of all its rough, but still has its diabolical, turtle-back greens that require a deft putting touch. The combination of new and old makes for a fascinating backdrop for two weeks' worth of national championships – the U.S. Women's Open is next week, also on No. 2.
"We know Pinehurst because of the greens," said Matt Kuchar, a pre-tournament favorite. "But the rest has changed."
Under the direction of course designers Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, nearly 40 acres of Bermuda grass was removed from the course, much of it relocated to athletic fields and parks in the Sandhills area.
The old rough was replaced with sand, wiry grasses and native vegetation that original course architect Donald Ross first installed on No. 2, which opened in 1907 and was what he once called "the fairest test of championship golf I have ever designed."
Playing a course with no rough – the major reason why next week's Women's Open can also be held on No. 2 – poses a unique challenge for players accustomed to Open setups that usually feature thick, tall grass running along the side of narrow fairways and around the greens.
"The U.S. Open is different than anything we ever play," said Masters champion Bubba Watson. "This time they're doing it without rough, but they're doing it with the greens."
Strategies are still being formulated. Hitting out of what are now being called "waste areas" onto Pinehurst's heavily-sloped greens is requiring a new way of thinking.
"You have to look at the best way to attack that hole," said Watson. "And when I say attack, I don't mean attack the pin. I mean, maybe miss the green over here to the right so you can chip up and make an easy par or an easier par."
Phil Mickelson, who has won five major championships but never a U.S. Open, has perhaps the best and most imaginative short game on tour. He's still figuring how he'll approach his approach shots as he pursues a "career slam."
"There's no luck involved with the hack-it-out rough that sometimes we have around the greens (at other U.S. Opens)," Mickelson said. "The challenge of those areas is that you have sand and then you also have kind of a wiry grass. The sand will make the ball come out dead with a lot of spin. The wiry grass will make the ball come out shooting into a flier. So identifying which way the ball is coming out is going to be a big difference."
What hasn't changed are the greens. Their side of the equation remains tricky.
"So the pins are sitting here, going, 'OK, here's the pin, you can hit it here if you hit the perfect shot,'" said Watson. "I just can't hit a 4-iron with a little spin on it and stop it close to the pin. I don't think it's unfair; it's a different mindset of golf. I don't play chess. But it's a chess match."
Said 2013 Open winner Justin Rose: "To come into these greens, you've got to be very precise. Then you are a little bit in that luck of the golfing gods – which way it bounces coming into the green."
There are other changes to the course. The yardage on the par-3 sixth hole was increased by 31 yards to 219 yards, the extra room coming available when a brick restroom was removed. The fourth hole has been switched from a par-4 to a par-5. No. 5 has been switched from a par-5 to a par-4.
"Everyone is going to miss a few more greens this week than they're used to," said world No. 1 Adam Scott, who is also chasing his first Open victory. "So they better be ready for that. And patience will be tested. These chipping areas provide you with a lot of different options on how to play a shot. So imagination is going to be a big thing."