Editor’s note: Reporter Zach Despart went to the final three rounds of the 114th U.S. Open in Pinehurst, N.C., this past weekend.
PINEHURST, N.C. — It’s ungodly hot here. Like, can’t-stand-in-the-sun-for-more-than-half-an-hour hot, drink-beer-at-your-own-peril hot. That the golfers here at the U.S. Open withstand the conditions for four hours every day — in long pants — is in itself an accomplishment.
The Pinehurst No. 2 course is beautiful — Carolina pines line the fairways and gentle hills punctuate the otherwise flat landscape — but torturously hard. Course officials have moved the tees back as far as possible (at the 12th, the tee box is practically in the parking lot). The sunbaked greens play like polished marble and the manicured rough has been replaced with natural growth — a mixture of sand, rocks and pine straw broadcasters took to calling “the stuff.”
In short, the course is markedly different than the last two times Pinehurst No. 2 played host to the national championship.
Of the 69 players that made the cut, just three finished under par. But boy, was it something to watch.
There’s no greater difference between watching a sport on television compared to in person than in golf. On TV, you never miss a shot. In person, you’re only able to follow one group at a time. The only hint of how the other players on the course are faring are bursts of cheering in the distance.
There’s an old-fashioned feel to the tournament. The leaderboards, spread out across the course, are hand-operated. The players and their caddies, as in all PGA Tour events, navigate the course without the aid of a golf cart. Spectators are banned from bringing phones or radios onto the course.
Because you see so many players only from a distance, you’re left to identify them by their noticeable physical attributes — the short stature of Rory McIlroy, the waddling gait of Angel Cabrera, the stooped posture and hooked nose of Jim Furyk, the enormous shoulders of Ernie Els, the bronze skin of Phil Mickelson, the impressive girth of Brendon de Jonge.
For the second and third rounds, we — my father, brother and I — wandered around the course, but on Sunday we camped out under a magnolia tree by the 9th hole. It was a prime spot, because it both offered a respite from the sweltering heat and afforded a great view of the 8th green and all of the 9th, a par 3.
MARCEL SIEM PUTTS for par on the 8th hole during the final round of the U.S. Open in Pinehurst, N.C. Independent photo/Zach Despart
German Martin Kaymer began the day at eight under par, five shots ahead of Rickie Fowler and Erik Compton. The lean and muscular Kaymer, 29, began the tournament by shooting back-to-back 65s, and led the field after every round.
For Kaymer’s challengers, the unforgiving Pinehurst No. 2 became their undoing. On the par 4 8th, Kevin Na’s approach landed in the brush 10 feet from where we were standing. His chip shot landed softly on the green but rolled off the other side, leaving Na to throw his arms up in exasperation, and the gallery to collectively sigh. He bogeyed the hole.
Word spread through the growing crowd of spectators under the magnolia tree that Fowler was deep in the woods on the fourth. The worst was confirmed when a fat, ugly 6 appeared on the leaderboard near the 8th green next to Fowler’s name — a double bogey.
Now it seemed that Compton, the 35-year-old recipient of two heart transplants who was making his first-ever appearance in a major, was the only player who could possibly catch Kaymer.
Compton’s approach on 8 landed in the middle of the green, and as he walked up the fairway the crowd cheered louder than it had all afternoon. After partner Henrik Stenson missed his par, Compton sank his birdie putt that brought the gallery to its feet. Compton retrieved his ball from the cup and tipped his cap to them. He was now at 4 under, four shots behind Kaymer.
But the euphoria would be short lived, as Compton’s tee shot on the 9th landed on the green, but agonizingly rolled into the front bunker.
But even though Compton was in trouble, the crowd wasn’t ready to give up.
“I think he can chip this one in,” a man in front of me said to his friend. “Wouldn’t that be somethin’?”
But it wasn’t to be. Compton got up and down, but missed his par putt by inches.
By the time Kaymer, playing in the final group, reached the 9th hole at around 5:30 p.m., every conceivable space underneath the magnolia tree was occupied by a human being; the rope separating the cart path and the fairway bulged from the masses.
Paired with fan favorite Fowler, the stoic German didn’t receive the same cheers as a tournament leader normally would.
Fowler shot first, and like so many others that afternoon, found the front bunker. But Kaymer, who seemed like the only player to have figured out the course, dropped his ball 12 feet from the pin. Even those who were pulling for Fowler (and had chanted “USA, USA!” as the pair approached the tee) applauded Kaymer as he coolly strolled down the spectator-lined fairway to the green.
MARTIN KAYMER WALKS down the 9th fairway. Independent photo/Zach Despart
Fowler chipped out and two-putted for bogey, ending his chances of winning the tournament. Kaymer sank his birdie putt to drop to nine under, putting the tournament out of reach for his challengers.
“Well, (bleep),” the man in front of me said. “He earned it.”
Now that there were no other golfers on the hole, the crowd filed out from underneath the magnolia tree and headed for the 10th tee. We considered cutting ahead of the leaders at the 13th or 14th, but the massive crowds on each of the remaining holes convinced us to call it a day.
With two birdies and two bogies, Kaymer played the back 9 even, good enough to win the U.S. Open by an impressive 8 strokes and become the first continental European champion.
Kaymer made more birdies than anyone else in the tournament. Through 72 holes, he never trailed. He earned it.
After three days of the North Carolina heat and humidity, standing all day, weaving through the throngs, hustling between holes and craning our necks for the chance to see what could be a great shot, we felt like we earned it, too.