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The best view of this U.S. Open? It starts at the beginning

PINEHURST, N.C. — It was still early when Justin Thomas woke up the ghost.

A little after 8 a.m., he walked along the pine straw lining the right side of the third hole at Pinehurst No. 2. The two-time major champion considered his options. Having bogeyed the second hole he was already feeling the heat on a day growing warmer by the minute. Now an errant tee shot on the third left an awkward angle into the green.

With that, Thomas drew back his club and hit a shot that can only be described as … relatable. Something between a dead pull and a violent hook. Perhaps a knot of wire grass near the lie was to blame. Perhaps it was simply a terrible shot. Either way, it was so bad, and so left, that it crossed the entire fairway and entered the native area left of the third green.

It was a spot few visited during Thursday’s opening round of the U.S. Open. The third hole measures under 400 yards. Perhaps the course’s friendliest par 4. A wedge into the green will do — at least for these guys. But Thomas ended up near a temporary fence wrapped in a thick green canvas, the dividing line between the course and the houses lining it. Appropriately, not far from where Thomas’ ball ended up, the fence includes a single opening.

Two swinging doors are held together by a padlock, but allow for access from either side.

There, on the other side of that fence, is Donald Ross’ house.

The Scotsman first moved to Pinehurst in 1900. He was hired to serve as a golf pro and teaching instructor for the area’s two nine-hole horses — courses he ultimately decided to combine into one 18-hole track. Then set out to build a second course in 1907. He shaped the land as he’d learned back home, where golf’s first architects wandered the planes looking for where the sheep created mounds to block the northern wind. That’s where they built their bunkers.

The course Ross crafted in Pinehurst became his muse. So much so he wanted to look after her. So he and his second wife, Florence, built their home behind the third green in 1925. They disagreed on the style during construction. Thus, today, 76 years after Ross’ 1948 passing, if you walk along Midland Road, you’ll see what looks like a Scottish Cottage, while if you walk along back near the third green, you see what looks like a Southern colonial. Every good marriage has a middle ground.

The romantics here say Ross used to sit out back and smoke cigars, watching players come through the third and fifth holes. He’d note how they approached the two turtleback greens, then plot against them. Some claim Ross would wander out to the course at night, checking the contours of that third green and looking after things.

“Ross continued to improve No. 2 long after he finished it,” says Dan Maples, whose father, Frank, came to be a sort of adopted son by Ross, and handled construction and course maintenance for umpteen Ross courses, including No. 2. “It became an extension of himself.”

All these years later, the U.S. Open is being played at Pinehurst for the fourth time. So to understand what both Ross and God intended, where else would you watch it other than Ross’ back lawn?

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Just ask Sam Bennett. The 24-year-old posed with high hands watching his approach into the third. A good one. Settling upon what looked like a flat piece of the green, the shot left Bennett with a 15-20 foot birdie try. But then a wiggle. The ball seemed to consider its options. Then a lean to the left. The crowd moaned. Picking up speed, the ball rolled off the green, through the fringe and somehow settled onto the cut of rough atop the bunker, inches from dropping into the sand for a straightforward bunker shot. Out in the fairway, Bennett doubled over. He then arrived on the green to find an uneasy stance, a tricky chip, and a bogey.

The third could be a postcard for all of Ross’ greens at Pinehurst. It tempts. It teases. It accepts. It rejects. It is crowned, but can hold approach shots and allow scoring. It is short and accessible, but so difficult to get up and down.

Thursday’s pin placement was on the left side of a right-to-left slope. Looking up at it from the fairway, the top of the green cuts a horizon line that turns the backside of the green into a great unknown. Players are well aware of what’s back there, but can be nevertheless unnerved. That’s precisely what Ross was going for.

In the back, the green careens downhill toward a sandy footpath and, if you cross that, all the way to the fifth green. Some are now more aware of this than others.

Dustin Johnson rolled his eyes upon finding his ball sitting in the middle of that dusty path. Then he made bogey on his way to a 4-over 74.

Jason Day tried a traditional bunker shot from the path, but found a compressed patch of sand and thinned a shot back over the green. His up-and-down from 82 feet probably was one of the better bogey saves you’ll see this week.

Poor Cameron Davis found his ball behind the third green and asked a USGA rules official if he might receive relief from the path, as if it were a cart path. Confused by the question, the official responded, only, “No.” Accepting the answer, Davis pulled out a sand wedge, blasted a shot and watched his ball roll to the crest of the green and come to a standstill. Then he watched it roll 50 feet back to him. Davis saved bogey, but finished with a 77.

The third hole wasn’t all spin-outs and evil eyes. Nineteen players birdied it. Every player inside the top eight at days’ end left with par, except two. Bryson DeChambeau and Akshay Bhatia made birdie.

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That is, in many ways, the point. Ross aimed to create courses that could test the best, fairly. Good shots are rewarded. Bad shots are not. Chance is always in play. Add it up and you get a war of attrition. Who can keep aiming at the middle of greens? Who can take their medicine when necessary? Who can keep giving themselves opportunities?

Following an opening 3-under 67, DeChambeau exhaled and said: “From a mental exhaustion perspective, this was probably the most difficult that I’ve had in a long, long, long time. I can’t remember the last time I mentally exerted myself that hard to focus on hitting fatter parts of the green instead of going for flags.”

As for Thomas, his bogey on the third was an early reveal of what was to come. He sure as hell got a scare and finished his morning with a 7-over 77, returning to the driving range afterward to figure out what went wrong.

Ross, you see, is no ghost. He is very alive.

(Top photo of Justin Thomas: Alex Slitz / Getty Images)

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