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Mounds of Misery
Jaime Diaz
June 14, 1999
The player who wins next week's U.S. Open will be one who conquers Pinehurst's uniquely shaped greens with the most basic shot in the game
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June 14, 1999

Mounds Of Misery

The player who wins next week's U.S. Open will be one who conquers Pinehurst's uniquely shaped greens with the most basic shot in the game

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The Gospel According to Pelz

1

Lee Janzen

Has it all for Pinehurst: imagination, variety, skill and, especially, resiliency

2

José María Olazábal

Best possible course for him to win an Open. Genius chipper

3

David Duval

Only weakness is the high lob shot, which he won't need at Pinehurst

4

Payne Stewart

Has the ability to caress the short shots. Especially good on low, bump-and-spin wedge shot

5

Justin Leonard

His ground game is just right for Pinehurst and gets better when he's in contention

6

Paul Azinger

One of the best chippers for more than a decade. Won the Tour Championship here in 1992

7

Phil Mickelson

Has more shots than anyone but must choose the wisest one more often

8

Bob Estes

Good touch and astute judgment. Excels at leaving himself the easiest possible shot

9

Greg Norman

Grew up running the ball in Australia, which is why he has played so well in Augusta

10

Corey Pavin

In Mickelson and Olazábal's class for skill, but can he convert the six-footers?

11

Colin Montgomerie

Has a very good short game but struggles to acclimate himself to the speed of U.S. greens

He chip is the simplest shot in golf. It calls for a short, uncomplicated swing, which is why the chipping motion is the first thing taught to beginners. When a golfer is in doubt about what kind of shot to play from around the green, either his caddie, his partner or the Greek chorus in his head will tell him, "Just bump a little seven-iron up there." A player can't go too far wrong with a chip, which is why the shot is the 1-800-FLOWERS of golf.

The U.S. Golf Association has always had a condescending attitude toward chipping, as if that aspect of the game is too rudimentary to be a part of the mighty U.S. Open. The USGA prefers to grow heavy rough to punish wayward drives and approaches, which has taken the greenside chip shot out of the Open. Even the greatest short-game shot in the history of the championship—Tom Watson's holeout from left of the 17th green at Pebble Beach in 1982—was really more of that USGA staple, the semi-explosion from long grass with a sand wedge, than a chip-in, although Watson's shot is often referred to as a chip.

This year, though, the Open is being held on the No. 2 course at Pinehurst (N.C.) Resort and Country Club, a course that defies the USGA model and guarantees that the championship will look different from those conducted at tree-lined, rough-choked Open factories such as Oak Hill, Oakland Hills or Oakmont. What will make next week's tournament unique is chipping.

Pinehurst is to chipping what Battle Creek is to cornflakes. Pinehurst is the ultimate examination of chipping. At Pinehurst, chipping is complicated. During the Open, competitors will bump plenty of little seven-irons, but when they do, the ball won't be sitting up on a tuft of grass, and the shot won't be played from a flat lie onto a flat green. Instead, the ball will be nestled in a hollow, hugging firm, tight turf mowed to a height of¼ of an inch. A few feet or yards ahead will loom a sudden up-slope where the green begins. All of No. 2's greens are about a yard higher than the fairway, and all the edges on their perimeters slope off to the fairway. Carolina golfers call them turtle-backed greens, and while they may be large, they all have ridges and swales that leave only about 40% of the putting surfaces flat enough for pin positions. The greens will be firm and fast, running about 10.5 on the Stimpmeter, and the holes will almost certainly be cut close to the outer extremes, causing golfers to deal with the feeling that any chip hit too hard will roll off the edge of the world.

Besides inducing doubt and fear, these conditions will, first of all, eliminate the lob shot, which on Tour is hit with a 60-degree wedge. Pinehurst's greenside lies will be too tight for anything less than a perfectly struck lob, which is too risky a proposition, even for the world's best players. Phil Mickelson, the master of the flop shot, likes to hit slightly behind the ball with his L wedge to produce the softest-landing shot, but at No. 2 any contact behind the ball will result in a feeble chunk or a drop-kicked skull.

At Pinehurst the greenside shot will have to be played low to the ground with a less lofted club or even with the safest club of all, the putter. This is the type of shot a U.S. pro almost never needs on Tour, and that brings all sorts of variables into play: Where should he land the ball—in front of the rise, into the rise or over the rise? How hard should he hit the ball? How much backspin should he apply? Which way will his ball kick? What club should he use?

What makes the pros uncomfortable is that there is no standard shot and neither a right nor a wrong club. There is only improvisation and execution, the province of the artist, not the artisan. "You skip it, hop it, bump it, run it, hit under it and on top of it," was how Doug Sanders, the artist, described the conundrum at a long-ago British Open. "Then you hope for the right bounce."

Even the perfectly executed shot won't always wind up close to the hole. Because of the many humps in the greens at No. 2, from certain angles it is simply impossible to stop a shot around the hole. In those cases, it's up to the golfer to deduce that his target really has a radius of 15 feet—or more.

At Pinehurst, a lot can go wrong on a chip shot. The enduring image of this Open will be balls rolling back to a player's feet or past the pin and off the green. At this Open a player will be more likely to chip into a bunker than to chip into the hole, and don't look for anyone to take the pin out before chips. A two-chip—not the T.C. Chen double hit—will be feared more than a three-putt. That figures to drive many of the players crazy. After a few mishits, their confidence will erode and their small muscles will get twitchy. No. 2 will induce more than a few cases of chip yips. In anticipation of time-consuming carnage, the first two rounds of the tournament will start half an hour earlier than normal.

Because chipping will be such a dangerous business, the fallback club from off the green will be the putter. The hoary axiom, your worst putt is better than your best chip, has always been part hyperbole, but it holds some water at Pinehurst. Using the putter is a compromise that won't produce brilliance, because judging pace from higher grass to shorter grass is always a guess, but it will be the safe shot.

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