Pinehurst defends its title in no uncertain terms


PINEHURST, N.C. -- After two rounds of the U.S. Open, your leader in the clubhouse is a dead Scotsman.

Donald Ross spun in nearly 60 years ago, but he left behind 413 different courses bearing his design signature, including one of his absolute faves, Pinehurst No. 2. The Donald adored No. 2 so much he almost asked it to Senior Prom. And the USGA might do the same if the 98-year-old layout continues causing the world's best golfers to assume the fetal position.

Exactly five players are in the red. Only 14 players broke par for the day, nine the day before. Everyone else spent parts of their Friday asking for soft hugs.

Pre-tournament favorite Phil Mickelson needs more than a gentle embrace. His 7-over-par 77 was so ghastly that you wanted to send a condolence card. Dear Lefty, we're so sorry to hear about the death of your 2005 Open chances...

It's a good thing Mickelson has that Ford philsonthephone.com promotion because the philsontheleaderboard thing isn't quite working out. Blame The Donald.

"It's a lot different than what I had prepared for," Mickelson said.

No. 2 messes with your head. It promotes facial tics. It mocks your feeble attempts to overpower it. Mickelson can hit a ball so far that it needs a passport, but No. 2's genius has more to do with its subtleties than its yardage. After all, only one hole features water and the course length is a manageable (for these guys) 7,214 yards.

And yet, Lefty bogeyed six of his first nine holes and suffered a case of three-jack fever. Putter Boy, he wasn't.

"I don't know what to say," said Mickelson. "It's a tough course."

It's so tough that Mickelson's swing coach Rick Smith made a prediction. He told reporters that you could take 1,000 golfers with 10-handicaps, move No. 2's tees to within 30 yards of the greens, and still nobody would do better than bogey golf. Thirty yards.

He might be right. The only thing more scary than being on No. 2's greens is being off them.

Ask Olin Browne, who Friday popped a shot out of a greenside bunker, then watched in horror as it rolled all the way across the green and down one of Ross's diabolical swales. As it rolled, caddies rushed over to remove golf bags they thought were safe from the line of fire.

"This course will whip your butt, plain and simple," said Browne in measured tones.

And he's the co-leader of the tournament. Just think how Chris DiMarco, who shot a nifty second-round 82, feels about the place.

Ask Tiger Woods, who looked as if he needed a serving of Metamusil after Friday's round. Woods had all sorts of issues. His shirt was too clingy. Gnats collected near his cap brim. And at times he couldn't figure out The Donald's greens.

After his birdie putt missed right on the final hole, Woods stepped toward the cup, reared the putter back in anger, then settled for a tap-in rather than a full meltdown. Of course, that didn't stop him from slamming his palm against his thigh or, earlier in the round, raking his putter on the ninth green. Woods was so steamed you could have used his forehead to press a closetful of Armanis.

"I was pissed," said Woods, who smoothed down the grain after his brief hissy fit.

There was a lot of that going around. David Toms was atop the leaderboard with two holes left in his round. But that was before he started playing pingpong on Ross' swales and greens, going double bogey and then triple bogey to finish the day. Had Ross been standing nearby, Toms might have given him the famed one-finger salute. A standing-O would have been my choice.

And Rocco Mediate, who also owned the lead for a brief time Friday, will be able to tell his kids about the time he almost sent a shot into the Pinehurst clubhouse. His approach shot hit the 18th green, rolled over the back, down the swale and across a paved walkway before exhausting itself.

The Scotsman would have loved watching the world's most accomplished players mutter to themselves. Ross' No. 2 rewards the patient, Mensa-like golfer, which probably explains why Retief Goosen, who already owns two U.S. Open trophies, shares the lead with Browne and Jason Gore. And why Vijay Singh and Tiger are within easy viewing distance of Goosen & Co.

So No. 2 is doing exactly what it was designed to do: confound, perplex, but most of all, challenge. The USGA has chipped in with some, uh, creative pin placements, but otherwise the pros can't complain about a thing. The rough is shorter than a Goosen post-round transcript. And the weather is Doppler perfect.

"If you think about it," said Woods, "we've had the perfect conditions, very little wind, best players in the world and there's only about four or five guys under par."

Hear that round of applause? That's The Donald.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.