Point of View

At the US Open in Pinehurst, a rough lesson in leadership for lawmakers

June 18, 2014 

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The rough on the 18th hole of Pinehurst No. 2 golf course is thick.

CHRIS SEWARD — cseward@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

For the most part, analogies between sports and larger issues in society are a bit stretched because they usually compare the trials and tribulations of millionaire athletes to the rest of us. And millionaire athletes aren’t like the rest of us. But I will venture an analogy this once because it concerns a more unusual subject: brown grass and weeds.

The United States Open championship is one of the four major events in the lucrative world of golf. The economy surrounding this game of mostly men swinging expensive clubs at white balls happens to create a $68.8 billion economic engine of tourism, real estate, equipment and fashion. In other words, there’s a lot of money at stake.

The U.S. Open is the signature championship in this nation of 24 million players. It is an honor and a remarkable stage for any course – among the 14,000 in this nation – to hold the championship. There would be no expense spared to make the golf course perfectly conditioned down to tolerating no brown grass in the woods, much less the fairways.

Imagine my surprise when I traveled to Pinehurst last week to see the first round of play. Where once your eyes gazed on thick green grass was 35 acres of sandy scrub filled with random weeds. The center of the fairway was green with vibrant grass, but the edges were baked brown from the Carolina sun.

I must confess that I didn’t particularly like what I saw.

I learned, though, that the leadership of the United States Golf Association is making a statement on the future of the game. And that future contains brown grass and weeds. The amount of water consumed by the Pinehurst No. 2 course has dropped from 55 million gallons a years to 15 millions. And the scrub creates a kind of drama that is not present in acre-after-acre of deep rough. It remains striking that none of the leading players complained about the conditions because the course retained its strategic brilliance and fairness despite the changes.

It struck me that I was witnessing a rare example of true leadership. I was being confronted with new, uncomfortable realities by those privileged to lead. Pinehurst, one of the world’s leading golf destinations, was risking its reputation by allowing 650 sprinkler heads to be taken away when architects Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw renovated the course. And the United States Golf Association allowed a classic golf course at its most lucrative championship to be presented in a fashion that confronts golf’s greatest long-term threat: a lack of available water.

This is, oddly, what leadership looks like. No pandering to a spoiled fan like myself. No playing to the prejudices of a truculent base. No cutting deals in back rooms with the rich and powerful who play by different rules from anyone else. No, this was the leading association and resort taking risks to show where the future is actually heading. And the rest of us actually learning to like and appreciate a new reality.

Washington, please take note.

John Sweeney is distinguished professor in Sports Communication in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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