CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Phil Mickelson, often referred to as a man of the people, might need the people to clear out before he gets his first look at Pinehurst No. 2.
Mickelson is in North Carolina for the first of two big tournaments, one weighted a little more than the other. In what amounts to the second stage of the season, he tees off Thursday in the Wells Fargo Championship on a Quail Hollow course that has new greens and an exciting new finish.
Six weeks later, he’ll be two hours east at Pinehurst No. 2 for the U.S. Open.
This would seem like a good time for Lefty to sneak over to Pinehurst for his first look, except for one small problem.
“I’ve tried to get down there three times now, and the course has been booked all three times,” Mickelson said Wednesday. “So I don’t know when I’ll get down there.”
Jonas Blixt, a runner-up at the Masters, played Pinehurst No. 2 on Tuesday. But he was able to get around in relative peace. Mickelson prefers to take his time when he starts studying for the U.S. Open test, and the Donald Ross design is getting plenty of action in the final weeks before it closes ahead of the U.S. Open.
Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw restored the old look to Pinehurst by eliminating rough with sandy waste areas dotted with wire bushes, giving it a rugged, natural look. Mickelson might as well wait. After a brutally cold winter, the idea is to let the grass grow. The day Blixt played, the greens were on the slow side and even the tightly mown collection areas were a bit hairy.
“Over par will win,” Blixt said with a smile when he was leaving.
Besides, Mickelson is very interested in this Carolina event at Quail Hollow. The course took a beating last year when a combination of factors – maintenance and management demands – about killed the greens. All of them were bumpy and most of them had large patches of mainly dirt.
Quail Hollow is getting the 2017 PGA Championship, and the private club began an ambitious project to redo the greens right after last year’s tournament. Bent grass has been replaced by Bermuda, and the contours and sharp edges have been softened.
And that’s not all. The short par-4 eighth hole was redone (again), the 12th green is no longer so severe and the start of the three-hole finish called the “Green Mile” is significantly different. The green on No. 16 has been shifted 80 yards to the left so that it sits on the edge of the lake. The fairway used to be on the right side of a large oak tree. Now it’s on the left side of the tree.
The 221-yard 17th hole has a straighter – but no less intimidating – shot over the water to a green with water on three sides. And even the tough closing hole is a little longer. Even so, the biggest change is the fresh greens. And Mickelson is excited about them.
“This has become one of my favorite courses anywhere in the world, and I think one of the best courses anywhere in the world,” Mickelson said.
He might love it even more if he could win.
Mickelson had a one-shot lead with four holes to go until he failed to get up-and-down for birdie from a bunker on the par-5 15th, missed a 6-foot par putt on the 16th, three-putted from long range on the 17th and missed a 20-foot birdie on the final hole to finish one shot out of a playoff.
Derek Ernst wound up beating David Lynn for the title.
Mickelson was asked how much he’d like to add this tournament to his list of victories.
“It’s certainly up there,” he said. “There’s another one right down the road that means a lot as well. But this really is one of the premiere events we have on the PGA Tour and one of the premiere courses, and I’m so excited about how the greens turned out.”
Still, the field is not as strong as usual. Mickelson (No. 9) and Justin Rose (No. 10) are the only players from the top 10 in the world. It was in 2007 when Quail Hollow attracted the entire top 10 and 27 of the top 30 in the world.
Mickelson believes that will change.
“The first year, you’ve got to cut it a little bit of slack because the greens are going to be new and not as receptive,” he said. “But still, they were just fabulous, and as time goes on, it’s going to be better and better.”