At Pinehurst in the days before the US Open, players are stressed – just as the USGA would hope in the lead up to their championship. But it’s not the general sense of anxiety that makes this week at Pinehurst No.2 unique, it’s that players are all worried about the same thing: the greens. More specifically, putting balls off the green.

No, we’re not talking about players’ club selections around Pinehurst’s domed surfaces (though that is a point of concern as well), we’re referring to the near certainty that some players will hit solid approaches and putt the ensuing 30 or 40-footer off the green.

Not buying it? Here’s what Tiger Woods said during his Tuesday press conference:

“The past few days playing practice rounds – I’m guilty as well as the rest of the guys I’ve played with – we’ve putted off a lot of greens. It depends how severe the USGA wants to make this and how close they want to get us up to those sides. But I foresee just like in 2005 watching some of the guys play ping-pong back and forth. It could happen.”

Photo: Andrew Redington

Coming off a third-place finish at the PGA Championship at Valhalla, Viktor Hovland agrees:

“I miss it maybe a foot low side, with just a hair too much speed, the ball is off the green. It doesn’t just roll off the green, sometimes it rolls off the green and into the brush. Seems to me that some of those pins are a little bit close to the drop-offs.”

Reigning PGA champion Xander Schauffele sees getting on the green as only half the battle at Pinehurst:

“Leaving yourself in a really good position is A-1, but even when you do leave yourself in a good position, the hole is not over yet. It’s sort of half the battle.”

That players – nearly unanimously – agree on the danger of putting balls off the green dismisses the possibility of one or two curmudgeons are exaggerating the difficulty. So, why are they so worried about it at Pinehurst? Ralph Bauer, a top PGA tour putting coach, says that it’s a combination of severe slopes and the USGA’s willingness to place hole locations on the edges of those slopes.

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“This place is like if Augusta National and Royal Melbourne had a baby,” Bauer says. “There are slopes of more than 3 percent everywhere, and the USGA has no problem putting pins on them.”

Photo: Ross Kinnaird

Bauer explained that 3 percent slopes are a “little crazy” and “regular PGA Tour events are not going to use too many 3-percent slopes. They’re going to stick to 1s and 2s.”

At Pinehurst, however, the USGA may place hole locations on those 3-percent slopes, but even more difficult is that if players get their balls rolling on the wrong side of the hole, the slopes are even more severe, which is how you’ll get players putting balls off the green. Take the first hole, for example.

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During the final round in 2014, when the US Open was last held at Pinehurst, the hole location was roughly in the front-middle of the green. As you can see from the Stracka Line yardage book below, the hole was located where the green portion (2 to 4-percent slope) meets the red (more than 4-percent slope). This, essentially, is an extreme false front, with the hole located just feet away from the drop-off.

For reference, balls that find the red portions of the green will most likely fall off the green entirely – the slope is too severe. A putt, say, from the middle of the green that is carrying a little too much speed will hit that red portion of the slope and repel off the front.

As another example, let’s look at the second green, one of the most severe on the course. In 2014 during the second round, the hole was cut 23 paces on and 11 from the right. On paper, that’s a generous pin, but let’s look closer at the Stracka Line heat map. A putt from the middle of the green that breaks a little too hard can quickly catch that 5-percent slope the right of the hole and filter off the green.

The trick that players will use to avoid de-greening themselves? All week, you will see them opting for the highest line possible, with the ball dying at the hole. That’s essential, Bauer says, because putts that stay on the high line will roll out less.

“I’ve done a bunch of testing with Foresight, and one of the cool things that I found is if you hit two putts equally hard – one high and one low – the low one is going to run out much more,” he said. “The high one is going to be fighting the hill, and it’s not going to roll out as much. This low one is going to find that slope and run out. Both of those putts can be hit the same speed, but there can be a foot difference very easily based on the line you take.

“If we want to lag something, just take a higher line and then die it in.”

At times, it may look excessively conservative or even defensive, with balls struggling to get to the hole, but it’s a key strategy players will use to avoid the worst possible outcome.

“Normally you’re not more than four or five inches outside the cup on most greens,” defending champion Wyndham Clark said. “Here you’re maybe playing 10 to 12 inches just so that you’re not getting below the hole and having it run away.”