June 2014: U.S. Open return recalls Pinehurst memories

By June 2, 2014Thad Mumau

7B4A4935Of the 113 U.S. Open golf tournaments that have been played, one of the best storylines was Payne Stewart’s victory at Pinehurst in 1999. The proud old Open returns to the fabled No. 2 course this year, making history and bringing back fond memories for fans in the Sandhills area.

Pinehurst is hosting the men’s and women’s Opens in back-to-back weeks, the PGA event running June 12-15 and the 69th LPGA counterpart scheduled for June 19−22. No course has ever done that.

In addition, the greatest work ever created by architect Donald Ross becomes the only course to have hosted the U.S. Open, U.S. Women’s Open, U.S. Senior Open, U.S. Amateur and U.S. Women’s Amateur.

In 1999, Stewart caught playing partner Phil Mickelson on the 16th hole, then birdied the 17th for what proved to be the margin of victory. The one-stroke win came on Father’s Day and was Stewart’s second U.S. Open triumph, third major and 11th professional win.
It was also his last. Four months later, while en route to the final event of the PGA season, he was killed in a plane crash at the age of 42.
A statue of Stewart stands behind the 18th green at Pinehurst No. 2, depicting his celebration after sinking the clinching 15-foot par putt at 18 in 1999.

There is ongoing discussion about which of the four majors (U.S. Open, Masters, PGA and British Open) is the most prestigious. While the Masters gets a knee-jerk thumbs up, with all its plumage, Southern Hospitality and Amen Corner of Augusta National, many golfers point to the two Opens.

The Open, which is the actual name of the British Open, is the oldest of the majors. It began in 1860 and is held annually on one of nine links courses in England or Scotland. The United States Open Championship started in 1895 and is also an annual event, with the exception of cancellations in 1917−18 (World War I) and 1942-45 (World War II).

One of the most dramatic tales in any sport was told in the 1913 U.S. Open, when amateur Francis Ouimet won at the Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts, right across the street from the home where he grew up.

Ouimet won in an 18-hole playoff, defeating the British duo of Ted Ray and legend Harry Vardon, considered the two greatest golfers in the world. Ouimet’s astonishing triumph was credited for catapulting golf into prominence in America and signaled the beginning of the end of European dominance. A book and a movie, both titled “The Greatest Game Ever Played,” celebrate Ouimet’s stunning upset.

British and Scottish golfers had owned the sport of golf in its early years in this country. Illustrating the fact is that in 1911, John McDermott became the first American to win the U.S. Open. He remains the youngest (19 years, 10 months, 14 days) Open winner. The oldest is Hale Irwin (45 years, 15 days), who did it in 1974.

Jack Nicklaus, Ben Hogan and Willie Anderson all won the U.S. Open four times. The tournament has been known for providing the toughest test on the pro golf circuit, frequently challenging the field with difficult pin placements and high rough.

The U.S. Open is the only one of the four majors that requires an 18-hole playoff the Monday after Sunday’s regulation finish. If there is still a tie following that, a sudden-death playoff begins on the 91st hole. There have been three sudden deaths in Open history, in 1990, 1994 and 2008. Tiger Woods defeated Rocco Mediate in the most recent of those.

The largest margin of victory in a U.S. Open is 15 strokes by Woods in 2000 at Pebble Beach. Rory McIlroy’s 16-under 268 in 2011 at the Congressional in Bethesda, Maryland, represents the most strokes under par for 72 holes.

The past two Open winners— Justin Rose in 2013 at Merion Golf Club in Pennsylvania and Webb Simpson in 2012 at Olympic Club in San Francisco—both finished one over par for 72 holes.

In 2005, the last time the U.S. Open was played at Pinehurst, New Zealand’s Michael Campbell, who had to survive sectional qualifying just to make the field, ended at even-par 280 to beat Woods by two shots.

Campbell entered the final round four strokes behind Retief Goosen, who collapsed with an 81 on the last day. Woods matched Campbell’s closing-round 69, but had bogeys at 16 and 17.

Rose, from England, earned $1,440,000 for last year’s U.S. Open win. That was from a purse of $8,000,000, which is listed as this year’s total payout as well.

As for Pinehurst No. 2, which opened in 1907, Ross called it “the fairest test of championship golf I have ever designed.”

Jack Nicklaus said, “I have always thought Pinehurst No. 2 to be my favorite golf course from a design standpoint. I have enjoyed going out on No. 2 and seeing a totally tree-lined course without a tree coming into play.”

Sam Snead once said, “Almost all of the great golf courses have at least one relatively weak hole. Pinehurst No. 2 does not have one weak hole.”

Email Mumau at rutabega12@aol.com.