Back-to-back Opens pose unprecedented logistical challenge at Pinehurst

ldecock@newsobserver.comJune 18, 2014 

  • U.S. Women’s Open at Pinehurst

    When: Thursday through Sunday.

    Where: Pinehurst No. 2.

    Defending champ: Inbee Park, 25, S. Korea.

    Youngest player: Lucy Li, 11.

    Oldest player: Juli Inkster, 53.

    Tee Times: USOpen.com.

— On Monday morning, not 12 hours after the 18th green of Pinehurst’s No. 2 course echoed with the sound of a standing ovation for runaway U.S. Open winner Martin Kaymer, a different noise rang through the air.

As the first U.S. Women’s Open competitors to practice on the course reached the green, they were accompanied by the ping of hammer blows on metal as a small army of workers dismantled one of the large grandstands surrounding the final hole.

The U.S. Golf Association decided to hold its men’s and women’s national championships on the same course in consecutive weeks primarily to offer the same test of golf to both. The simplified logistics were no small consideration – setting up only one set of grandstands, hospitality tents, catering facilities and merchandise pavilions for both tournaments, even if the USGA is likely to only break even financially, Executive Director Mike Davis said Wednesday.

Still, moving from one tournament to another, with no break between, was hardly a simple transition. There was work to be done to the golf course, to the facilities and behind the scenes to get Pinehurst Resort and Country Club ready for a second week of championship golf. The first golfers tee off at 6:45 a.m. Thursday.

“We’re definitely making history this year,” women’s star Michelle Wie said.

Pinehurst may be the 12th course to host both the U.S. Open and the Women’s Open, but none of the others did it in consecutive years, let alone consecutive weeks.

No rest for anyone

Moments after the trophy presentation ended Sunday night, the sprinklers were activated to give the No. 2 course’s thirsty greens their second quick drink since a Thursday night rainstorm. The putting surfaces received three four-minute cycles of water to refresh and soften them for the week ahead. Unlike during the U.S. Open, the greens will be watered nightly during the Women’s Open.

This was the plan: To let the course firm up for the men, then soften it for the women. It was also the ostensible logic for having the women play second, although many female players believed the USGA wanted to ensure the course was pristine for the men. Either way, the greens survived for the week ahead.

“The golf course held up beautifully, agronomically, in terms of its health,” the USGA’s Davis said. “The greens could not be healthier.”

Crews also took the opportunity to clean up storm damage still remaining in the spectator areas from Thursday night’s rain. The priority Friday morning was to get the playable portions of the course cleared, and this was the ground staff’s first opportunity to track back and clean up elsewhere.

For the most part, Pinehurst’s crews and grounds volunteers were grooming the course Sunday night and Monday morning for Monday’s first practice rounds by the women.

“It’s really the same footprint, the same procedure and everything else that we did for the men,” said Robert Farren, Pinehurst’s director of grounds and golf course management. “Or the same procedure had it only been one week of the Women’s Open.”

Monday morning, crews went to work dismantling grandstands deemed surplus for the women, who are expected to draw around 20,000 fans per day, compared to about 55,000 for the men. Several stands on the closing holes were removed, including a large portion of the seating around the 18th green, reducing capacity there from 4,077 seats to 1,560 and overall seating capacity from 21,000 to fewer than 18,000.

While the dual logo for the two tournaments allowed most signage to remain in place, it was changed to the Women’s Open logo in prominent locations such as the main scoreboard and on the tee boxes, while the different tees the women are playing – the course will play about 900 yards shorter for them – required re-roping some holes.

“We spent a lot of time working with each of our vendors and coming up with an individualized plan for what the operation was going to look like during the week of the Women’s Open,” USGA senior director of championships Reg Jones said. “Obviously the grandstands are the most visible change. There’s a lot of equipment involved during the week of the Open that’s not being used this week. For the various vendors that need it in other locations we wanted to make it as efficient as possible.”

A number of concessions stands around the course were also closed, but the USGA and Pinehurst decided to keep both the main and satellite merchandise pavilions open and fully stocked to meet demand – and offer air-conditioned respite from the suffocating heat expected to settle into the Sandhills this week. One of the four first-aid tents on the course was also scheduled to close but will instead remain open.

Ridgewells Catering, which services the corporate, USGA, media and player hospitality tents, was reloading for a second week. The Washington, D.C.-based caterer spent Sunday night and Monday morning doing inventory and unloading a convoy of trucks bringing fresh supplies.

Ridgewells CEO Susan Lacz said her company treated the men’s and women’s tournaments as two separate events, although the same food will be served both weeks. Her staff of about 600 local workers and 100 traveling managers was reduced for the Women’s Open, with only a handful of corporate tents remaining open this week.

“It’s not just us,” Lacz said. “Everybody is downsizing.”

‘Very pleasantly surprised’

The heat hasn’t hurt the golf course, which benefited from rain last Thursday and again Tuesday evening. Its condition and durability were the biggest unanswered questions surrounding the women playing immediately after the men.

From the moment the USGA proposed the idea, the LPGA pros were concerned about what the course would look like when they finally got on it. The primary worries included the playability and viability of the greens and the divots the men would leave in the fairways. Many women’s players felt it made more sense to play before the men.

Despite the considerable trepidation, there have been few complaints since the women arrived at Pinehurst.

“I think we all felt we should have come here first and then the guys should have been here,” Laura Davies said. “But I think that the USGA have got it spot on. Because they have turned the course around in a day, incredibly, and gone from a Sunday of a U.S. Open to having it play really fair at the moment. I’m sure by next Sunday it will be hard and bouncy and we are all going to be complaining like we always do.”

Which isn’t to say there aren’t areas for concern now and as the week wears on. Stacy Lewis noted numerous divots in the lay-up spots on the first and 10th holes where the men and women will both be positioning themselves in similar areas.

Some of the closely mown areas around the greens also suffered from heavy traffic. The USGA protected those chipping areas with mats during the women’s practice rounds, but Lewis lifted one to take a peek.

“The grass was just burned out there, and I think they were just trying to keep what grass is there,” Lewis said. “There are definitely some areas though, around those greens, where you can get in some divots. I hit some shots out of there. It just kind of is what it is.”

Still, given the level of concern coming into the tournament, most women appeared to agree with Wie, who said she was “very pleasantly surprised” by the condition of the course after playing it for the first time Monday, and that the greens in particular were “in perfect shape.”

“The whole switch-over, I don’t know how they do it, from the airport, cars, housing, in and out,” said Juli Inkster, playing in her 35th and likely final Women’s Open. “There have been no little hiccups. It’s impressive.”

DeCock: @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947

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