Restoration leaves Pinehurst better than ever
Tuesday, April 12, 2011
PINEHURST, N.C. – Every once in a while you find a place that reminds you why golf is so special and why golf courses are the most beautiful of all sports fields. Pinehurst No. 2 used to be one of those places, back in the 1920s through the late 1950s.
But it hasn’t been for a while. The village center always has been enchanting, but the course itself lacked a certain appeal. It wasn’t scenic. The holes looked too similar. The fairway bunkers hardly were a factor. And the demanding greens were more hard work than charming. It was an exacting test, but not an aesthetic joy.
That’s all changed now.
Donald Ross’ most famous design from a century ago has been utterly transformed through a restoration by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw that is as radical and path-breaking as any in the history of golf-course architecture. The result is stunning. Pinehurst No. 2 is strategically more compelling than ever – and a whole lot more fun, too. Golf here used to be about the greens and surrounds. Now it’s about every shot.
Few resorts outside of a links setting would have dared introduce so much scruffy sand waste. Some guests might perceive the resulting course to be less “attractive” than the resort layout’s acquired look of lush green and flawless manicuring. The course also is wider to play and therefore seems easier, though in fact it now offers more diverse angles of play and greater variety of tee shots and lines of approach.
No championship venue ever has undergone such a radical retro move in the middle – or on the eve – of an upcoming major. The much-heralded restoration work of The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., for the 1988 U.S. Open may have started a trend, but the work at Pinehurst far surpasses it in scope and ambition. The course, which is slated to hold the U.S. Open and U.S. Women’s Open on consecutive weeks in 2014, has kept its routing but otherwise bears scant resemblance to the layout that was home to U.S. Opens in 1999 and 2005.
The folks running the Pinehurst Resort took a big risk. Credit Pinehurst president Don Padgett II and owner Bob Dedman Jr. Kudos also go to the U.S. Golf Association, which has an inherent stake in the place as a recurring championship site for Opens and the U.S. Amateur. USGA president Jim Hyler and executive director Mike Davis – then senior director of rules and competition – didn’t initiate the restoration last year, but they backed it fully, including the really radical part of the plan: expanding the fairways to their original width while eliminating the roughs.
Prior to the restoration, the fairways and roughs comprised a total of 85 to 90 acres of managed turf. The course now consists of 50 acres of turf, all maintained at fairway mowing heights, essentially eliminating the higher rough. The rest of the marginal areas were transformed into irregular, sandy ground dotted with wispy, unpredictable wiregrass. Bunkers that had been grown over also were reclaimed, while some existing ones were tugged and extended into lines of play.
There’s more to deal with on every shot. The simplest way to explain what has happened is that tee-shot landing areas got wider but more strategic, and approach lines got nipped a little so that incoming shots must deal with more trouble along the way – whether delivered aerially or along the ground. The change is evident on the opening tee shot, where the fairway on this 406-yard par 4 feels football-fields wide for drives up to 240 yards, but then gets pinched by a second and third wave of bunkers starting about 120 yards from the green. Big hitters who once could drive with impunity and nearly reach the green downwind on dry turf now will have to think carefully before hitting away.
In some cases, the far side of the driving area has been squeezed. On the notoriously awkward, dogleg-right seventh hole, the goofy symmetrical mounds on
the inside of the dogleg have been removed, replaced with swept-up bunkering; now the key here is that the far side of this landing area has been bunkered, giving pause to anyone hoping to blast a tee shot over the bunker corners. The addition of a new back tee brings this par 4 to 431 yards and reduces the likelihood that a long hitter simply will bomb it over the trees.
When you take out acres of rough, you get a whole new feel. At the 385-yard par-4 13th hole, a mindless carpet of turf on the far left side has been replaced with sandy waste and wiregrass. Previously, a player could try to drive the ball over the right corner bunker, and if he tugged it left, no problem. Now one’s ball will wind up in that uncertain, broken waste area and present an uneven lie and an uncertain stance. The area really will come into play during the 2014 U.S. Open, when the hole is played, as it will be at least one day, from the forward tee of 315-plus yards as a drivable par 4.
The yearlong reclamation work that began in March 2010 involved recovering the course’s original playing width. In the process of removing the dense turf cover, underlying contours have been revealed – lovely, crumpled, scruffy and uneven. As long as conditions are kept dry in the marginal areas, the thousands of hand-planted wiregrass shoots will prevent the spread of the dense, uniform Bermudagrass they’ve replaced.
It all was part of a carefully planned effort, based upon meticulous research that included Coore, Crenshaw and their field man for the job, Toby Cobb, scouring the Tufts Archives at Pinehurst for old photographs, maps and irrigation plans showing how the course used to appear. The benchmark era designated for the restoration was 1935-36, when the old “browns” with their sand surfaces were converted to grass greens, and when the current incarnation of the course routing was finished.
Ross’ own account of the layout, written for the program of the 1936 PGA Championship at Pinehurst No. 2, provided a guiding narrative for the kind of strategic flexibility and options that Coore and Crenshaw looked to bring back. Along the way, they had Pinehurst director of maintenance Bob Farren turn off sprinklers and return to the simplest of irrigation plans – straight down the middle, following the lines of the old steel pipe they traced out in the ground.
From a peak of 1,100 irrigation heads, Pinehurst No. 2 cut back to about 450 activated sprinklers after the restoration. The idea, says Coore, is “to starve the roughs” – to let those areas struggle, giving the grassed areas along the fairway edge and the roughs an off-color, mottled look that blends in more naturally with the restored wiregrass areas.
Coore and Crenshaw initially did not intend to tinker with the basic contours of the greens. But problems with the existing G2 bentgrass required replacing it with an A1/A4 blend more resistant to contamination by Poa annua. While resodding – not rebuilding – the greens, they mildly tweaked two putting surfaces where excess contours had developed over the years. They softened a right-central slope of the par-3 15th green that probably had built up through years of sand accretion from a flanking bunker and had left that green with fewer “pin-able” areas than any other surface at Pinehurst No. 2. The architects also lowered the front of the par-3 17th green, where so much sand had built up from greenside bunker splashing that the old front hole location no longer was usable. That has been fixed.
Over the years, the greens at Pinehurst No. 2 appeared to have become higher and more pronounced from their original (1935) construction, which had been closer to the surrounding natural grade level. There’s plenty of speculation as to the cause. It’s unclear if it occurred through the accumulation of aggressive topdressing, the steady splashing of sand from surrounding bunkers or even faulty reconstruction techniques that led to the greens acquiring steep out slopes.
Whatever the cause, the result was a set of greens that, far from being characteristic of Ross’ body of work, was in fact unique to Pinehurst No. 2.
That puffiness is now largely gone. It’s as if the greens have been “deflated.” The explanation, says Farren, “is an aggressive dethatching program that brought the greens down about an inch or an inch and a half – plus we floated out the edges into the surrounds and made the transitions less abrupt.”
It helps, too, that Coore and Crenshaw rebuilt the bunkers to their original heights, which in some cases project above the putting surfaces. The result of the higher bunker edges, marginally lower green profiles and less severe falloffs is that the greens now appear and feel as if they are more naturally tied to the surrounding grades.
Coore and Crenshaw’s work at Pinehurst No. 2 is a revealing example of the interpretive skills required of any restoration. There is no going back to some pristine or mythic ideal past moment. There’s always a need for judgment and temperance.
In an era when it appears golf will have to struggle to gain – and keep – market share, artistic craftsmanship and a love of land are proving to be valuable guides. Courses that convey these values always will have something unique to offer.
Pinehurst No. 2 is now among those few special places.
1.) Ease and intimacy of routing: 9
An elegant, meandering, continuous loop, easily walkable, with intimate connections between greens and middle tees and an admirable pattern of having to walk back to the longest teeing grounds.
2.) Integrity of original design: 10
The integrity here is to the 1935 design, when Pinehurst No. 2 finally got grass greens and its current routing, and when it still had width and lots of scrubby sand areas and wiregrass.
3.) Natural setting and overall land plan: 7
Beautiful approach road through topiary and sports lawns, and the resort side of the clubhouse with its Donald Ross Grill is elegant, especially as it spills out to the golf courses on the other side. Pinehurst No. 2 presents a lovely opening sequence along the town road, but then there are a few stretch marks. Among them: some awkward back tees that brush up against other holes or course perimeters; that unfortunate netting for the Maniac Hill range behind the 13th green; and a straight-line roof on the clubhouse behind the 18th green that flattens out what ought to be a welcoming vista as you walk up the final fairway.
4.) Interest of greens and surrounding chipping contours: 10
They’ve been “deflated” just enough and their surrounds tied in so that the legendary surfaces no longer have quite the pop-up, turtle-back gawkiness they had acquired; they now sit closer to grade than before while retaining their elusive character.
5.) Variety and memorability of par 3s: 8
A modest liability has now been fixed. There’s now a bigger mix of shots and clubs thanks to additional teeing grounds and the tweaking of two par-3 greens (15th and 17th), allowing for more hole locations and variance of distance.
6.) Variety and memorability of par 4s: 9
A great mix of long, medium and short par 4s, with wider driving zones bringing the ball closer to lateral trouble and requiring more careful utilization of seemingly wide berths.
7.) Variety and memorability of par 5s: 7
This long has been the bête noire of Pinehurst No. 2. The layout and topography leave the four par 5s all too short from the white tees (440-478 yards) and lacking strategic interest on the second shot. Maybe it didn’t matter, because the domed eighth green was elusive even with a mid-iron approach. New and extended bunkers short of the greens now make those second shots more interesting. From the U.S. Open (gold) tees, the two par 5s, the 569-yard fourth and the 619-yard 10th, are solid, strategic holes.
8.) Basic conditioning: 8
The revised course is in its infancy, but the turf quality is coming along fine. The resodded A1/A4 greens have taken well, which is crucial. The transitional areas at the edge of the Bermudagrass fairways are meant to look scruffy and half-starved, the idea being they are kept alive only by center-line irrigation, with the intent to starve peripheral areas and keep away Bermudagrass.
9.) Landscape and tree management: 8
Tree canopies have been thinned out lightly, mostly for tee shots. The place looks much airier because the playing surface has been widened.
10.) “Walk in the park” test: 10
It’s a dazzling walk, thanks to the recurring juxtaposition of playing textures: green turf and tawny wiregrass make for an attractive palette, more so now that the exposed rough ground shows off the smallest elevation changes and makes them look more pronounced.
Overall vote: 9.2
As with any major renovation, we’ve thrown out the old votes. Pinehurst No. 2, most recently rated No. 17 on the Golfweek’s Best Classic list (8.38 average), should be moving up the list.
• 80 Carolina Vista Drive, Pinehurst, NC 28374
• 910-295-6811; www.pinehurst.com
• Par 72, 7,491 yards (76.0 rating/137 slope)/par 70 for U.S. Open
• Green fee: $329-$410
• Walking allowed with caddie; otherwise, carts required