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The best view of this US Open? It starts at the beginning



The best view of this US Open?  It starts at the beginning

PINEHURST, N.C. – It was still early when Justin Thomas woke up the ghost.

Just after 8 a.m., he walked along the pine straw that lines the right side of the third hole at Pinehurst No. 2. The two-time major champion considered his options. After catching the second hole, he was already feeling the heat on a day that was getting warmer by the minute. Now a faulty tee on the third left shot an awkward angle into the green.

With that, Thomas pulled his club back and hit a shot that can only be described as… recognizable. Something between a dead pull and a violent hook. Perhaps a knot of wire grass near the lie was the cause. Maybe it was just a terrible shot. Anyway, it was so bad and so gone that it crossed the entire fairway and entered the native area to the left of the third green.

It was a place few visited during Thursday’s opening round of the US Open. The third hole measures less than 400 yards. Perhaps the friendliest par 4 on the course. A wedge into the green is enough – at least for these guys. But Thomas ended up at a temporary fence, wrapped in a thick green canvas, that formed the dividing line between the course and the houses surrounding it. Not far from where Thomas’ ball landed, the fence fittingly contains a single opening.

Two swing doors are held together by a padlock, but allow access from both sides.

There, on the other side of that fence, is Donald Ross’s house.

The Scotsman first moved to Pinehurst in 1900. He was hired as a golf professional and teaching instructor for the area’s two nine-hole horses; courses that he eventually decided to combine into one 18-hole course. He then began building a second runway in 1907. He shaped the land as he had learned at home, where the first golf architects wandered the planes looking for places where the sheep created hills to block the north wind. That’s where they built their bunkers.

The course Ross created at Pinehurst became his muse. That’s how much he wanted to take care of her. So in 1925, he and his second wife, Florence, built their house behind the third green. During construction they disagreed on the style. So today, 76 years after Ross’s death in 1948, if you walk along Midland Road you will see what looks like a Scottish Cottage, while if you walk back near the third green you will see what looks like a Southern Colonial Cottage. Every good marriage has a middle ground.

Donald Ross built a house along Pinehurst No. 2, the most famous golf course in his storied history as a golf architect. (Brendan Quinn / The Athletic)

The romantics here say that Ross used to sit outside and smoke cigars and watch players get through the third and fifth holes. He would notice them approaching the two green turtles, and then plot against them. Some claim Ross wandered onto the course at night, checked the contours of that third green and took care of business.

“Ross continued to improve No. 2 long after he finished it,” says Dan Maples, whose father, Frank, became Ross’s adopted son of sorts, providing construction and track maintenance for numerous Ross courses, including No. 2.” It became an extension of himself.”

All these years later, the US Open will be played in Pinehurst for the fourth time. So to understand what both Ross and God meant, where else could you look at it than in Ross’s backyard?

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Just ask Sam Bennett. The 24-year-old posed with hands high as he watched him approach the third. A good one. Settling on what looked like a flat stretch of the green, the shot left Bennett with a birdie try from 15-20 feet. But then a nod. The ball seemed to be considering its options. Then a slope to the left. The crowd groaned. The ball accelerated, rolled off the green, through the edge and somehow landed on the rough cut on top of the bunker, inches away from dropping into the sand for a straight bunker shot. On the fairway, Bennett doubled. When he arrived on the green, he discovered an awkward position, a tricky chip and a bogey.

The third could be a postcard to all of Ross’s greens at Pinehurst. It seduces. It teases. It accepts. It rejects. It is crowned, but can hold approach shots and allow scoring. It’s short and accessible, but so difficult to get up and down.

Thursday’s pin placement took place on the left side of a right-to-left slope. Looking at it from the fairway, the top of the green cuts off a horizon line that turns the back of the green into a vast unknown. Players are well aware of what’s going on behind them, but can still be nervous. That’s exactly what Ross was going for.

At the back the green slopes downhill towards a sandy footpath and, if you cross it, all the way to the fifth green. Some are now more aware of this than others.

Dustin Johnson rolled his eyes when he saw his ball in the middle of that dusty path. He then made a bogey on his way to a 4-over 74.

Jason Day attempted a traditional bunker shot from the path, but found a compacted patch of sand and diluted a shot back over the green. His up-and-down from 80 feet was probably one of the better bogey saves you’ll see this week.

Poor Cameron Davis found his ball behind the third green and asked a USGA rules official if he could be exempt from the path, as if it were a cart path. Confused by the question, the official simply replied, “No.” Davis accepted the answer, pulled out a sand wedge, took a shot and watched his ball roll to the top of the green and come to rest. Then he watched it roll 50 feet back toward him. Davis saved bogey, but finished with a 77.

Scottie Scheffler plays a shot from the greenside bunker at No. 3. (Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

The third hole wasn’t all spinouts and bad eyes. Nineteen players made birdie. All but two players in the top eight left with par at the end of the day. Bryson DeChambeau and Akshay Bhatia birdied.

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In many ways that’s the point. Ross wanted to create courses that best tested fairly. Good shots are rewarded. Bad shots aren’t. Coincidence is always involved. Add that together and you get a war of attrition. Who can keep aiming for the middle of the greens? Who can take their medications when necessary? Who can continue to give themselves opportunities?

After an opening 3-under 67, DeChambeau exhaled and said, “From a mental exhaustion perspective, this was probably the hardest I’ve had in a long, long, long time. I can’t remember the last time I mentally pushed myself so hard to focus on hitting the thicker parts of the green instead of going for flags.

As for Thomas, his bogey on the third was an early revelation of what was to come. He was shocked and ended his morning with a 7-over 77, after which he returned to the driving range to find out what went wrong.

Ross, you see, is not a ghost. He is very alive.

(Top photo of Justin Thomas: Alex Slitz/Getty Images)