Golf: US Open - Why the No 2 is number one

Pinehurst's defences have passed their test. By Bruce Critchley
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The Independent Online
PAR IS sacred to the United States Golf Association and anyone who beats it in their national championship must always be totally in control of both game and temperament.

Each of golf's major championships has its own identity and the US Open's is simply to test the world's best golfers to destruction. While the Masters may be a garden party and our Open only becomes a war of attrition when the wind blows, the US Open's aim is always to sort out the weak from the strong right from the start.

Like the custodians of the other majors, the USGA knows the importance of age and tradition, and so takes its championship to classic old courses around America. But much like the Royal & Ancient, with its established links venues, they now find it increasingly difficult to set an examination that tests the best and produces winners of the highest quality. Advances in technology, increasing player fitness and practice regimes unimaginable 30 years ago have blunted the subtleties of fine old courses on both sides of the Atlantic.

The USGA's standard solution has been narrow fairways, deep rough and concrete greens. On occasions they have even insisted on putting their own man in to redesign the course. Oak Hill in Rochester, New York, Congressional in Washington and Oakland Hills in Detroit - all sites of the US Open in the 1990s - have been altered to the point that only the general layout remains the same.

Last year, the Olympic Club in San Francisco was regarded as too venerable to tinker with and in a desperate defence of Old Man Par, the fine line between difficult and unplayable was almost breached. The sight of Payne Stewart missing from eight feet on the 18th green and seeing his ball wander 20 yards back down the slope prompted an apology from the executive director David Fay. It also caused a rethink for this year.

Pinehurst is another course too sacred to alter. Even so, fairways have been left wider than usual and the rough is as short as it has ever been for a US Open in recent years. Length has been added to most holes, but greater distance is no longer recognised as a weapon with which to tackle today's experts. Greens are still firm and fast, but those in charge have generally put their faith in the century-old design of Donald Ross.

The great conundrum this week has been whether this old masterpiece can look after itself in the face of the best golfing artillery in the world.

Heavy overnight rain before the first round and not a breath of wind on the day left the course as benign as it could be and 23 players broke par. It was too many for the USGA's peace of mind but the best were only three under and when the sun shone and the course dried out on Friday, Pinehurst No 2 hit back. At the halfway stage only seven players remained below par and three under still led.

The cornerstone of Ross's design are raised greens with severe slopes on all sides. He came from Dornoch in north-east Scotland and his source of inspiration is not hard to find.

The fun this week has been to see the variety of methods used to cope with the problems of getting up and down around the greens. No one should be surprised that Phil Mickelson has done well. He has always had a magical short game and is one of the few with the skill and confidence to throw the ball in the air and stop it by the pin.

The winner and winning score are not yet known. Par may not be good enough but few will beat it. The USGA's experiment has been a success and future US Opens will benefit accordingly.