By Michael A. Boslet
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be? Paul Jett ponders the question. Sitting in his cramped office at a desk that looks like it has been around since the Roosevelt administration – Teddy’s, not Franklin’s – Jett rolls his eyes upward, slightly wrinkling his smooth forehead. The pause grows into an awkwardly long silence, prompting Jett’s inquisitor to think about offering suggestions.
Finally, Jett says what should have been obvious to the visitor who had spent the past hour digging into the personal and professional life of the superintendent of Pinehurst No. 2: “I’m very happy with who I am.”
Scratch golfer, cancer survivor, devoted father of two young sons, recently married a second time to a woman who, luckily for him, plays golf, and now two-time host superintendent of the U.S. Open, Jett indeed is the picture of contentment. There is not a hint of anxiety about him as he leads course preparations for the Open June 16-19.
And why should there be? It’s been only six years since the Open was held at No. 2, Donald Ross’ most cherished piece of work, and Jett handled the setup – and himself – masterfully despite a health crisis and being without an assistant.
Jett, 40, now is over his bout with testicular cancer, which he dealt with during the ’99 Open, has an experienced assistant and by all accounts is supremely confident that No. 2 again will enthrall the golf world.
But the ’99 affair will be a tough act to follow. There was that personal drama between Phil Mickelson and a baby beeper, and, of course, the Heisman Trophyesque pose by Payne Stewart on the 72nd hole.
Jett takes considerable pride in how the course played in ’99, when Stewart’s 1-under total (279) nipped Mickelson by one stroke.
“For the winning score to be 1 under par – and I don’t think the course could have played much easier – was a testament to the design and maintenance practices,” he says.
Did he say “easier?” No. 2 played to a 74.55 stroke average in ’99. By comparison, Shinnecock Hills Golf Club yielded a 74.08 scoring average for last year’s Open, with a winning total of 4 under par. Yet it is Shinnecock, not Pinehurst, that is vilified as the U.S. Golf Association’s maniacal obsession with defending par.
Perhaps that’s because Pinehurst No. 2, ranked 10th on the Golfweek America’s Best list of top 100 Classic Courses, needn’t be dried out to exact revenge on less-than-perfect play. Although the course has been lengthened by 39 yards – to 7,214 yards (tying Bethpage Black as the longest Open venue) – and the fairways have been narrowed to 24-28 yards, Jett says the domed greens remain No. 2’s best defense of par.
Stay tuned for an encore.
Looking over this year’s field, Jett picks reigning Open champion Retief Goosen as his favorite to win. “His temperament suits the Open,” he says.
Coincidentally, Jett shares some common characteristics with Goosen. Both have quiet, confident and steady personalities.
Friend Jeff Connell, superintendent at Columbia (S.C.) Country Club, says when Jett plays golf he conducts himself like a PGA Tour pro: He is all business.
Which might explain how Jett once shot a personal-best 3-under 69 on No. 2, which will play as a par 70 for the Open.
As the superintendent of No. 2, Jett feels an obligation to protect and preserve Ross’ design, often wondering, “What would Ross do?” when considering changes to the setup.
“I think we open up ourselves to so much scrutiny if we start redesigning or moving stuff around,” he says. To that end, Jett says talk of relocating fairway bunkers to bring them into play for this Open gave way to reason.
“Ross put them where they should be,” he says. “Other than one week of the year, the bunkers come into play every day.”
Brad Kocher, CGCS and senior vice president of golf course maintenance for ClubCorp, which owns Pinehurst Resort, lauds Jett for his loyalty to preserving Ross’ intentions.
“He knows he’s responsible for something really special,” says Kocher, who has been at Pinehurst since 1984.
“Responsible” and “serious” are adjectives often used in describing Jett.
Superintendent Larry Smith remembers when a teen-age Jett came to work for him during summers at the Country Club of Lexington (S.C.). Jett’s father, Paul K. Jett, was the greens committee chairman at the time.
“You could tell from the first day he worked with us his heart was in it,” recalls Smith, who has been at the club 36 years, 26 as superintendent. Smith says Jett quickly impressed him as more than the usual high school kid.
“I think he was more on the serious side,” he says. “He was never late for work. He never stayed out and partied all night. His work ethic was 100 percent. He took his responsibilities very seriously.”
So seriously that when he went off to Clemson University to study horticulture, Jett quit the Clemson golf team, which he made as a walk-on, so he could concentrate on his lab work.
In 1986, Jett went straight from Clemson to an assistant position at Pinehurst Nos. 1 and 4. His professional start was purely happenstance, he insists.
He says a Clemson turf professor had just received a call from Pinehurst: An assistant’s job was open. Spread the word. Jett believes he was the first graduating senior the professor saw after getting the call, and, for all he knows, maybe the only one to interview for the job. He’s joking. Or is he? With Jett, it’s hard to tell.
He started on July 4. Two years later, he was promoted to superintendent of Nos. 1 and 4. It was during those years that Jett started gaining notice. And it wasn’t long before he was courted to go elsewhere.
Ed Ibarguen describes Jett as meticulous. Ibarguen is the general manager of Duke University Golf Club, where he brought Jett to work in 1990.
“He was very serious,” Ibarguen recalls of working with Jett. “And his desire was to make the golf course the best it could be seven days a week.”
Jett was at Duke in 1992 when Rees Jones began a complete renovation of the course, which originally was designed by his father, Robert Trent Jones Sr. Three years later, Jett was lured back to Pinehurst to prepare No. 2 for its first major since the 1994 U.S. Senior Open.
Since the ’99 Open, the longer and straighter-flying golf ball has drawn close scrutiny for its perceived threat to classic layouts like No. 2. Jett thinks the controversy could be easily solved.
“I can’t understand why there can’t be a ball for tournament play and a ball for the rest of us,” he says.
Still, if the trend in golf equipment technology continues unchecked, No. 2, which has been stretched as far as space will allow, would not be rendered obsolete, he says. Ross’ greens will stand up to the game’s future, just as they have since 1907.
On this Jett is confident.