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Looping for a Legend
By Paul Pugmire
It all started simply enough. A quick call to my friend, Sue Nyhus, congratulating her for qualifying for the US Senior Women’s Open at Pine Needles Golf Club in Pinehurst, North Carolina. But when there’s a USGA national championship involved things rarely stay simple.
Sue told me about the qualifier in Denver. A brutal affair played in Winter Olympics conditions. She told me about the test of perseverance the qualifier was, the endurance and patience it exacted. We laughed at how wet towels froze solid and made a hammer-like thunk when hit on the cart path. Of course, we reveled in the enormity of her history-making run of qualifying for every USGA national championship, beginning with the US Junior all those years ago.
Then a benign question, born mostly of idle curiosity. “Who’s on the bag, Sue?”
After a moment, Sue went back to a conversation she and I had shared in parts and pieces over the past year about her father’s recent death. But now she added that only two nephews remained with the Billek name, Sue’s maiden name, her father’s name. For this last USGA national championship, for this one that completes the most unlikely of treks through the peaks of golf accomplishment, Sue wanted her nephew, Mike Billek, a good golfer and former professional baseball player, to share the walk with her. What a fitting and lovely touch to honor her father.
Then her voice changed. “There’s a problem, though. Mike can’t be there during the practice rounds.”
Now it was my turn. “That’s no problem at all, Sue. I’ll take the bag for the practice rounds. I’ll help you get ready.”
Getting off the plane in the Raleigh-Durham Airport it was pretty clear that this was different. The USGA was in town, baby, with signage and a player concierge to greet and assist the competitors.
I grabbed a rental car and pointed it towards Pinehurst. Now, we all know that word, Pinehurst, but it has many different meanings. There’s Pinehurst No. 2, one of the greatest of championship courses. But there’s also the Pinehurst Resort with nine courses. Wait. Make that ten. More on that below. And then there’s the Village of Pinehurst, an incorporated North Carolina municipality that encompasses 17 square miles, 13,000 people and a tasty menu of great golf courses.
This was a work trip, but I just couldn’t resist checking out the Pinehurst Resort and its new par 3 course, The Cradle, a Gil Hanse design that opened last year. It was drizzling rain so I was able to walk on and the green fee included the use of a set of Vokey wedges and a Scotty Cameron putter so it was just like I’d brought my own. It was spectacular fun!
On to Pine Needles, less than 15 minutes from the Resort. I checked in, got my caddy credentials and yardage book, grabbed my laser rangefinder and a ball and headed out to walk the course and take notes.
Pine Needles is a Donald Ross design and it is stunning. As you might expect, it was in perfect condition. And I do mean perfect. Even the needles that drop from the thousands of hundred-foot-tall pines seem meticulously placed one-by-one for maximum aesthetic appeal.
Going from hole to hole, confirming numbers in the yardage book and shooting numbers I thought Sue would need, some patterns started to emerge. First, there was no rough. Odd for a USGA national championship, I thought. I couldn’t find a long blade of grass anywhere. And the fairways are wide, no less than 30 yards in just a few places and sometimes up to 80 yards. There were well placed and beautifully gnarley fairway bunkers but they could easily be avoided.
Then there were the green complexes. Whoa, Nelly, those green complexes. The greens weren’t unduly fast — we happened upon a USGA official with a stimpmeter and he said they were rolling at 11 — but holy cow they were tough. Lots of undulations. False fronts and false sides were common.
Walking up to each green I scanned for general pitch and looked for the low spot on the green. Then I rolled the ball in my pocket underhanded up, across and down each quadrant of the green, noting the break patterns and tendencies. A frightening trend emerged. Shots hit into the greens, even some good shots, could be sucked off the greens, down the smooth-cut slopes around the greens and up to 20 yards away. Less than perfect chips would face similar fates. Sloppy or overly assertive putts, the same.
Sue arrived in North Carolina that evening and at dinner that night I told her, “You’ll hit the fairways. Everyone will. The challenge will be the discipline to hit to the middle of the greens.”
The next morning was beautiful. Warm, slightly overcast, only a hint of a breeze. We all know that events like a USGA national championship feature premium balls on the range, but you really can’t imagine how cool it is until the range attendant asks, “Would you like Pro V1s or Pro V1xs?”
Sue’s playing partners were Kay Cockerill and Amy Ellertson. You may recognize Cockerill from her work as a Golf Channel announcer, including stints covering the Web.com Tour that brought her to Utah for the Utah Championship. She’s been a guest a couple of times on my radio show, Utah Golf Radio, and it was fun to see her again. I asked if she played her way in or was exempt — there are several exemption categories for this event — and she said US Amateur champs get a three-year free pass. I told her she should get six. She won the Am back-to-back in 1986 and 1987. Her husband, Danny Dann, is Vice President of the San Francisco Giants and was her caddy. Of course, we had to talk a little baseball as we worked our way around the course.
Amateur player Amy Ellertson from Charlottesville, Virginia is an executive at Wells Fargo. I enjoyed thinking about how she certainly has spanked up on the unsuspecting guys in her banking orbit over the years.
Practice rounds are not like regular golf. There is no scoring and most holes are not played out, though people will take a run at a birdie putt when they stick one. Everyone loves birdies, always. Practice rounds are slightly chaotic, sometimes with more than one ball in the air. Players are respectful and safe, but they are there to explore the shots and learn the course. This shows on tee shots on par 3s and especially on and around the greens.
Sue gave me a handful of Titleist-branded plastic discs to simulate holes. They are like 4.25-inch coasters. Arriving at the green, I would check for clusters of old cups and drop a Titleist disc. Or we’d find a place, normally diabolical, where we thought the USGA would stick a pin. The players all then roll 3 or 4 balls around the green at these discs scattered to various potential pin locations while the caddies make break tendency notes in the yardage book. Balls are going in all directions. There’s normally a little good-natured banter.
It soon became apparent that chipping experimentation was as necessary as putting. Every green was ringed with closely-mown, quick fall-off collection areas or run-out spaces. Sue and the others tried high-loft pitch shots, low-loft bump and run shots, hybrid putts, putter putts. Everything you could think of. All shots were on the table. All were hard. Really hard. And I don’t think there was one right answer unless it was imagination and vision laced with touch and commitment to whatever shot was chosen.
Walking Pine Needles was surprisingly tiring. They call it Sandhills Country for a reason. The course was sandy and built on hills. It was uncanny how many of the holes played uphill. And everything, uphill or down, played longer than it carded. Maybe that was our mountain air bias sneaking through, but others from sea level towns said the same.
At dinner we went over our notes. Play to the middle of the greens but the better miss is usually short. Drink water and nibble on snacks as you play along because the course will wear you down. And boy howdy, think through all options on those green-side chips!
Practice round day two was a college coach reunion. Sue’s playing partners were the other two college coaches in the field, Leslie Spaulding of San Diego State University and Michele Redman of the University of Minnesota. Both Spaulding and Redman played on the LPGA Tour. Spaulding hung around for about ten years, made some noise and a good living. Redman won twice and made good showings in the majors. The off-course relationships these players share, together with Spaulding’s effervescent personality and Redman’s wry humor, made for a fun day. I don’t think we really learned anything new in the second practice round, but we sure underscored how important and difficult the greenside chipping was, especially to a tucked pin. (Note: According to the USGA pin sheets for the first two rounds of the tournament, the average pin on Thursday was 7.5 yards from the edge of the green and the average pin on Friday was 6.1. Every pin was tucked.)
Walking around an event like this with somebody like Sue you have to be prepared to stop while people say hi. She has played in so many of these and knows so many of the other players and support people. And they all know her. One of the highlights for me came as we walked off the 18th green after the second practice round. Nationally prominent golf journalist Ron Sirak was waiting there to talk with Sue. I recognized him from his weekly Monday appearances on Morning Drive on the Golf Channel. Earlier that week he was asked if he was going to Bethpage for the PGA Championship. Nope, he said, he was heading to Pine Needles because he thought there were important stories there. Sue was one of those.
Being inside the ropes at a USGA national championship is a great experience, even just for the practice rounds. Everything is top notch and executed with precision. I loved every step. It was a particular honor and pleasure to be there supporting my friend while she made history. It’s still staggering to think that Sue has qualified for every USGA national championship. Amazing. I’m so grateful to have walked with her for even a few steps of her incredible journey.