Standing on the practice putting green, watching another 20-footer become a 30-footer as the ball kept trickling past, it hit me.
Get the ball on the green, add three, and there’s your score.
Leading up to media day for the U.S. Amateur at Pinehurst No. 2, my plan was to play one ball — no mulligans, no kicks, no tosses, no gimmes, no reloads.
But on that putting green, slick as a table top, I began to shudder. This was going to be a long day.
I went back to my cart for the final instructions for all of us who were allowed on Donald Ross’ hallowed grounds that one day. It was one of those outings where you could tell the strength of the golfer by his shirt. No doubt there were good players in this group. No doubt there were bad ones, too. No doubt that the buffet lunch the USGA had treated us to would never compare to the feast this golf course was about to enjoy.
It got worse before it got better. With more than 20 groups, there was a shotgun start, meaning everybody would be teeing off on different holes to start their rounds.
And my fate? The 431-yard par-4 fifth hole. Toughest hole on the course. Toughest hole at both of the U.S. Opens. One of the toughest par-4s in, well, the world.
Let’s be clear about one thing. I’m not a great golfer. I’m not terrible. But certainly not great. I play 18 about once every couple of months, maybe twice if I’m lucky. My driving range routine consists of half a bucket of balls, mostly drivers, because, for me, if I can hit my driver relatively OK, I can manage my way around the course. The rest are short irons to tell me which way I’m hitting the ball that day. If I tend to pull them a little, I’ll aim right all day. If I’m blocking them, I’ll aim left. That’s the kind of player I am.
As for the putter, well, the shakes on the putting green should tell you all you need to know there.
Having told myself that I was just going to enjoy my first time actually playing this venerable course, I figured I’d just follow my ball around and soak up the experience of No. 2. After all, the USGA’s mandate of graduated rough and 22-to-25-yard wide fairways were in place, ready for the top amateurs of the world.
And even though we were playing No. 2, we weren’t playing the 7,200-yard, par-70 beast from the tips. We were looking at about a 6,500-to-6,600-yard course playing to a par 72.
Still. This was No. 2. And that fairway looked really narrow from the tee.
But something happened standing on the fifth tee to start our round. This was No. 2. My first time playing it tee to green for 18 holes after having covered two Opens there and volunteering for both Tour Championships and the U.S. Senior Open. I can see this course in my sleep, I’ve walked it so much. But, aside from the occasional dodging of rangers while at high school golf practice for a hole here and there, I had never played it.
So I decided to play it. And play it down.
One chance? One ball.
One ball? One chance.
Again, I’m not a great player. I’ll never play in any championship flight of any golf tournament. Ever. You want my handicap? It’s about a 12. I shot 89 last year at Pine Needles for the U.S. Women’s Open media day.
And I stayed true to my routine at No. 2. On the range I was hitting most everything to the right. So I aimed left. That was my preparation.
And then it was time to play. Looking back, it plays like a movie in my head, but one which I can still feel every emotion from every shot, one where I can vividly recall the thought process for every play.
And here it is:
I get through the fifth hole with a drive in the right rough, a punch-out 8 iron to in front of the green, a chip and a two-putt for bogey. But on the green I notice something. This isn’t like the putting green, which was firm and fast. The fifth green, scary as it is, was indeed fast, but it is soft. There are ball marks. A well-played shot would hold on these greens.
I hit 3 iron to 20 feet on the back of the sixth green. Two-putt par. A par on No. 2. How ’bout that?
Another drive finds the rough on 7. Blast out, but the rough tugs my club and I pull it left. Chip to 5 feet, but lip out. Bogey. Uh-oh.
But the eighth hole, a par 4 when the big boys play it, is a par 5 for us. And downwind. I’m on in two with a 6 iron. Downwind, remember. I lag my 40-footer and I’m staring at 3 1/2 feet uphill for a birdie on Pinehurst No. 2.
A birdie on No. 2. My day is made.
Feeling like I may have a good day in me, I stand on the tee at the par-3 ninth and shudder. The pin is tucked in the left corner behind the deep bunker. Dead there. But I need to aim left. No matter. Big block right and I’m in the waste area. Still, I have a lot of green to work with. Too much, it turns out, and after a three-putt from 50 feet, I have my first double bogey.
So there’s my card through five holes: bogey-par-bogey-birdie-double bogey.
Maybe it isn’t going to be my day.
But then it was.
I hit my second shot over the green on the par-5 10th, but somehow nestle a par from the pinestraw behind the green. I drive into the waste bunker lining the 11th fairway, but scoop a nifty 8 iron to 10 feet and make the sucker. Another birdie. Are you kidding me?
After couple of pars, a couple of bogeys, I’m on the 16th tee far in front of the tee where the good guys hit it from. And this is a par 5 for me, too. Drive, second to just in front of the green, chip and putt. Birdie.
Again. Oh my God. Three birdies? What is happening here?
A par on 17, but I lose my mind on 18. I’m only 30 feet from the cup in regulation. But it’s 96 degrees and I know this round has the makings of something special. My mind drifts, and so does the putter. Ten feet past, missed it coming back. Three putt. Bogey. Bad bogey. Baaaaaadddddd bogey.
Somehow, I hold it together — for two more holes. Pars on the first and second holes, two of my best drives of the day. Going to the short par-4 third, I know that, at this point, I should break 80.
On Pinehurst No. 2.
Two weeks before the U.S. Amateur.
On a course set up by the US-Freaking-GA.
On the third tee, I look at my notebook. Only 5 of 12 fairways in regulation. But 10-for-16 on greens. I had just blasted two drives.
And how often have I played No. 2?
I should hit a 3 iron.
But I want the driver.
And I find the woods.
Punch out and then hit my third to the green. But there’s a false front there. Don Ross gets me, and the ball rolls back to my feet. Chip and a two-putt, and it’s my second double of the day.
With only one hole to play, I need a par for a 79. No room for error, and my heart sinks.
The fourth hole is a beauty. The teebox is high above the fairway, making it the best driving hole, the perfect place to watch a well-struck drive soar into the air and down to the green grass below. I’ve been looking forward to hitting a drive here since I first saw this course as a standard bearer during the 1990 Tour Championship.
And I catch it.
But I block it.
It’s off-line, sailing past the right rough and toward a clump of trees near the cartpath. I’m dying inside, knowing I’ve wanted this shot all my life, but also knowing that I need a par. That I want a par.
The ball lands in the rough, bounces and rolls into the pinestraw near the path. I actually have a look at the green, a good one, about 210 yards away.
Hit a little 7 iron, then a wedge, two-putt and I’m home with a 79.
But the ball’s sitting up. I have a full swing at it.
They don’t call ’em Tight Lies for nothing.
I take the 3 wood back, making sure not to think about what I’m doing. Back and through. Back and through. Back and…
The ball jumps off the club. Straight as an arrow. I’m either nauseous or excited, I can’t tell which. One hop and roll. Some 50 feet away on the right side of the green.
I lag the downhill bender and watch as it settles near the cup. It’s a tap-in. It’s a birdie, the improbable fourth of the day.
It’s a 78.
With one ball.
And two double bogeys.
In front of three playing partners.
This was my day. This was my round of golf I can hold with me forever. This was the moment where I realized I would never curse a bad bounce or a lip-out putt again.
Because it all came together on one day.
On Pinehurst No. 2, of all places.