PINEHURST, N.C. — Anyone who has accused the United States Golf Association of being too set in its ways hasn’t been paying attention lately.
Narrow fairways and thick rough are no longer the gospel according to the USGA when it comes to staging its major championships.
Look no further than one of the USGA’s favorite host locations — Pinehurst Resort — as solid evidence that change can be a good thing, or at least an interesting debate.
Five years after the USGA made history in the North Carolina Sandhills by staging back-to-back U.S. Opens in consecutive weeks on Pinehurst No. 2, it will return to Pinehurst Resort next week for more ground-breaking golf.
For the first time in its 119-year history, the U.S. Amateur Championship’s final 36-hole match will be split between two golf courses. Pinehurst No. 4 will host the morning 18 holes of the championship match, with iconic Pinehurst No. 2 staging the final afternoon portion of the match.
“It’s fun to do ‘firsts,’’’ said Pinehurst Resort president Tom Pashley. “Our relationship with the USGA is so long term and we know them so well there is typically not one moment where the phone call is made to say we’re thinking of doing this or that. We have ongoing dialogue on a monthly basis on their goals and our goals and how we can work together to achieve them, and the opportunity to showcase either the best players in the world or some of the best golf-course architecture in the world.
“That word ‘showcase’ can be overused, but I think it really applied in 2014 with showcasing the best women’s players and how they measured up against the best male players on the same course,” Pashley added. “And now this U.S. Amateur gives us an opportunity to showcase two very different styles of golf course architecture that are right here side-by-side.”
Pinehurst No. 2, with its famed crowned greens, is a Donald Ross classic renovated in 2010 by the team of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, and will play at a whopping 7,555 yards and a par-70. The newly re-designed No. 4 by Gil Hanse will also co-host the stroke play qualifying as a 7,227-yard, par-72 layout.
“We tried to build a golf course that was compatible with No. 2,” said Hanse of the new No. 4. “We didn’t want to compete with No. 2 because that would have been a losing proposition. Our thought was to build something within the same context and look at other ways Donald Ross challenged golfers, such as bunker patterns and building items like rectangular greens.”
The final 36-hole match of this test of attrition is set for Aug. 18.
The last U.S. Amateur at Pinehurst was in 2008, with Danny Lee beating Drew Kittleson. Those amateurs advancing to match play in that championship 11 years ago produced quite a group of professional players — Rickie Fowler, Patrick Reed, Billy Horschel and Chesson Hadley, among others — that have combined to win 30 PGA Tour events.
The two Pinehurst courses will provide golfers in the final match two different tests. No. 4 has more risk-reward opportunities and wider fairways, while No. 2 requires golfers to “manage” their games or pay the price around the treacherous green complexes.
However, each share a similar feature that is a relatively new USGA trend — no rough.
“This will be the first U.S. Amateur played with no rough on either of the golf courses,” Pashley said. “I don’t hear players talk about it a whole lot anymore. It was such a novel concept at the time that we did it for the Opens in 2014, but we’re all just gotten used to it.”
One of the favorites heading into the U.S. Amateur will be recent Stanford graduate Brandon Wu. After leading the Cardinal to the NCAA national title, Wu pulled off a rare feat of qualifying for the U.S. Open and British Open as an amateur.
Wu doesn’t necessarily buy the notion that a college or even younger player like 17-year-old Akshay Bhatia, the nation’s top-ranked junior from nearby Wake Forest, N.C., who will turn pro in September, will once again take home the U.S. Amateur top prize.
“The young guys are typically hitting it a little bit farther and that’s how the game is sort of growing, but the way I look at it is the farther you hit it the farther off line you can hit it, too,” Wu said. “But yes, it can make a difference, hitting three clubs down will be an advantage.”
A difficult test over the final 18-hole match will be the collection of par 3s on Pinehurst No. 2, regarded as some of the most intriguing and challenging to score on in all of golf.
“All of them are mid-to-long irons,” Wu said, “So it kind of fits in to what you are seeing on the par 4s and par 5s as well. Some courses you get wedges into all the pars 4s and then all of the sudden you’re teeing up a 4-iron on a par 3 and that really changes things.”
The U.S. Amateur Championship is the oldest golf championship in America, one day older than the U.S. Open. Other than an eight-year period from 1965-1972, when it was contested at stroke play, it has been a match-play championship.
The U.S. Amateur will be the 10th USGA championship staged at Pinehurst Resort. The U.S. Open returns to Pinehurst No. 2 in 2024.
“We like to say that every day is a celebration of amateur golf at Pinehurst,” Pashley said. “Pinehurst exists for those who love and game and we get to witness their endless passion and enthusiasm on our nine courses 7 days a week. It’s a tremendous honor to host a USGA championship and is never taken for granted by any of us in this community.”
David Droschak was an award-winning writer with The Associated Press for 20 years. He was honored with the Sports Writer of the Year award in North Carolina in 2003. He lives in Apex, N.C.