On the Grounds at the US Open: Patrick Stephenson with Golf VX

As a passionate golf fan in the Carolinas, attending the US Open at Pinehurst No. 2 feels like a must each time it’s held there. This year, I fulfilled my duty by attending on Friday.

Over the years I have had the opportunity to compete on the famed No.2 course in North & South Amateurs and most recently, the 2019 US Amateur.  Having a good idea of what the players would be facing, excitement was an understatement of what I was feeling to see how the best players in the world would deal with the same challenges that I have faced in the past.

I started my full-day journey by entering the gates at 6 AM with a couple of my friends with hopes of catching Scottie and Rory on the range before their early 7:29 tee time.

The USGA has made the Cradle, the resort’s par 3 course, the driving range for the week.  Sitting on the bleachers watching Scottie and Rory warm up for their rounds with the sunrise over the longleaf pines was easily my favorite part of the day.

Scottie hit shot after shot with mid to long irons into an area that you could lay a blanket over and Rory appeared to be a superhero from the angle we were looking, ready to win his first major in ten years.

As the weekend approaches, the field should keep an eye on Rory, who currently has exceptional control over his ball. From our side view, we could see his effortless command over the trajectory with his driver, seamlessly alternating between lower and higher ball flights and varying speeds. It was like watching an artist create a masterpiece.

Heading onto the course, we started by catching the Rory, Xander, and Scottie group on the twelfth green, their third hole of the day.  Xander’s approach shot caught one of the many false edges on the green feeding it off back into the fairway; a fitting way to start the day watching as the turtle back greens are the largest challenge at Pinehurst.

After a while of making our way around the course and fighting the sandhill heat, we landed on the 235-yard par-3 sixth hole to watch Tiger play what I think is the hardest hole on the course.  I have never seen Tiger in person before so this was a bucket list item. 

He did not disappoint, landing his long approach shot within 20 feet to the delight of the gallery, though he narrowly missed the putt—a recurring theme for him this week. We also saw him later on the 17th and 18th holes, where he needed to go birdie-birdie to make the cut.

After missing the green and landing short-sided on the downslope of a bunker, he hit the best bunker shot I’ve ever seen in person. Short-game is my forte, and I didn’t think such a shot was possible. Unfortunately, it came up 13 inches short, right in the middle of the hole, effectively ending his hopes of making the cut.

After his 18th tee shot, the gallery in the bleachers gave him a standing ovation, which he acknowledged with a tip of his cap.

I ended my day following a few holes of Zac Blair, who is quickly becoming my favorite player on tour. Being late in the evening, we were the only ones following his group, which was a refreshing change after dealing with large crowds all day.

Zac is statistically the shortest player on tour, making his tied-for-ninth position heading into the weekend remarkable. He’s more renowned for his course design than his play, most famously as the founder and designer of The Tree Farm, a new modern layout in Aiken, South Carolina.

Sporting no sponsors on his bag other than a Tree Farm tour logo, he competed with the relaxed demeanor of a mid-amateur in the largest tournament of the year. 

“Aspirational” best describes his pace of play. He decisively chose a club and shuffled back and forth over the ball to find alignment before pulling the trigger. In an era where the game often drags on, he should be touted as a poster child for pace of play. He took half the time on each shot compared to his playing partner, Aaron Rai.

I’m excited to see what the USGA does with the course heading into the weekend. The greens were quick but softer than expected. Late in the evening, I saw maintenance crews hand-watering some distressed areas on the greens to ensure the course remains playable.

The test is proper, the course is challenging, and watching the best players in the world navigate it was an amazing experience.