I give everyone involved with the renovation of Pinehurst No. 2 a lot of credit: They took a top 10 public course in the country--one of the most unique golf experiences in the world--and by going back to the way it used to be, they made it better.
On Friday, in preparation for my psychological scuffle with the latest version of the ultimate Donald Ross design, I covered my plate with fresh biscuits and sausage gravy at the Carolina Hotel’s famous buffet. Thankfully my plate wasn’t crowned like the greens I’d be putting on in less than an hour.
As I scanned the room, I saw Rees Jones, the “Open Doctor” who was in town to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of Pinehurst No. 7.
I interrupted a veteran of architecture reading his newspaper to ask his thoughts on the changes to No. 2. “There’s more definition now,” Jones said. He admitted he hadn’t played the course, but he did take a peek. “This was where Ross lived when he died in 1947, so you have to figure this is the way he wanted it.”
Jones reflected on the days when he was a kid, when his family used to stop at Pinehurst on their annual drive from New Jersey to Florida. “I remember all of the sand, wire grass and the chipping areas around the greens.”
Right--the chipping areas around the greens.
I was late for my date with my caddie. We were supposed to spend time working on the bump-n-runs. I was already geeked up, and as I made my way through the hallway of the clubhouse--the short walk through history--where, in a glimpse, you’ll see names of legends, Open trophies, and iconic images of champions, I got chills. The noisy floor adds to the drama, and as I went by the statue of Payne Stewart--behind the 18th green--and out to “Maniac Hill,” which is the nickname of the driving range, I got an extra dose of jitters.
There was time for 10 swings and then to the chipping area and practice putting green, where I’d meet up with Sean Duggan, who has been holding the hands of amateurs like me for over five years. Duggan and I connected on Twitter
days before the trip. @pinehurstcaddie
, which is Duggan’s Twitter handle, assured me he’d help me break my goal of an 83. His tweet: “I’m your man, brother!! I’ll set it up! Can’t wait.”
Right--I couldn’t either.
Another fortunate set of circumstances had Jim Hyler, president of the USGA, walking to the 18th fairway as I was headed to the first tee. I made sure we crossed paths, and I asked him for his thoughts on No. 2. “I came here with high expectations,” said Hyler. “It has exceeded them.”
Hyler told me it was the first time he had been to Pinehurst since August, and that he loved the changes, which were made by the design team of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw. “I think Pinehurst picked the perfect partner in Coore and Crenshaw,” Hyler said. “They were so respectful of Ross.” And as he pointed to the right side of the 18th fairway, he said: “Look at the way they were able to seamlessly bleed the waste areas into the bunkers. They widened the fairways, and yet it looks more narrow off the tees.”
Right--the tees. Which ones should I play today?
Playing the right tees is one of the current hot topics of golf, which improves pace of play, not to mention increases the fun factor.
I might be understating it when I say there was a decent breeze. At the very least, the flags were flapping. The pros will play it at more than 7,500 yards. No chance. The blues are 6,930 yards. Maybe. The whites are listed at 6,307 yards. Sounds about right for a course that puts a premium on approach shots and short game.
My host for the day was Bob Farren, who has been at Pinehurst since 1982, and who likes to say, “I’m in charge of everything green, except for the money.” Farren is the Director of Golf Courses and Grounds. He oversees eight courses, four superintendants and a crew of 160 to 200, depending on the time of year.
Farren is a smooth-swingin’, snappy-dressin’, soft talkin’ 10-handicapper, who said he was playing the white tees. “I tell people, ‘If you break par after nine, we can go back to the blues.’ So far, I’ve never had to go back.”
Right--white tees it is!
As I played the course on Friday I took my Twitter followers all 18. I could tell they were begging for carts by the second hole, which is where I had this lie in the sand and the wire grass, to the right of the fairway:
When Farren said, “There’s so much more adventure to the course now,” he wasn’t kidding. I had all kinds of adventures, but none more than when I reached back and went for extra distance on the fourth tee. I yanked it into dark shade of some pine trees.
From the fourth tee (pictured above), Farren pointed out the new bunkers on the right side of the fairway, “which are pretty cool,” he said. There were 121 bunkers before the changes. Now, because most of those are either gone or bleed into waste bunkers, there are only 38.
Farren spoke highly of his experience working with Coore and Crenshaw. “They were so nice, and approached the changes with such respect to Donald Ross. They had no intention of leaving their mark.” Farren said the hottest design team in golf often referred to pictures of No. 2 from the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. “They made the changes with a small paint brush as opposed to a roller.”
At least Coore or Crenshaw was on site once a month for 15 months--Bill a little more than Ben. “Before they broke ground, they’d come down and walk the course during play,” Farren said. “Ben would stop, introduce himself, and talk to golfers. Bill would say, ‘Come on Ben, lets’ get to work.’”
Coore and Crenshaw were essentially peeling back multiple changes that have been made on Farren’s watch. “Ben and Bill were both so concerned about me, and whether or not I was OK with what they were planning on doing, which I thought was very nice.” They were also concerned with the opinion of Mike Davis, who was the Senior Director of Rules and Competition for the USGA, until a few weeks ago, when he was promoted to Executive Director. “Mike would tell them, ‘We’ll play it as you do it,’” said Farren. “But Bill and Ben wanted their concept to stand up through the Opens.” (Both the men’s and women’s U.S. Opens are scheduled for 2014). “Mike assured them throughout the project that they would.”
Farren says that Davis was on site three or four times within the year of construction, but that Coore and Crenshaw spoke to him on the phone on a regular basis.
On the right side of the 402-yard seventh hole was one of the few places where there were significant changes. The landing area to the severe dogleg right got wider, and, among other things, they added a high, sweeping bunker:
Duggan, who’s a perfect caddie and a scratch golfer, said a player he was caddying for got into that bunker, and asked him the best way of getting out. “I told him, I have no idea.”
Duggan thought the hole with the most significant change was the 174-yard ninth hole. I use a vintage picture of the ninth hole from the 1940s, with a picture I shot on Friday. For fun, I converted my picture into black and white, which is the frame in the middle of the sequence:
One of the first holes Coore and Crenshaw worked on was the 375-yard 13th, which is also a good hole to illustrate the white sand of the “rough” contrasting the green of the fairways. Here’s the view from the tee, and then looking back from the green:
I have a bomb-and-gouge style to my game--I tie my laces extra tight, swing too hard, and then try to gouge it out of the rough and onto the green with my approach shots. When I’ve played No. 2 in the past, I was never concerned about where the fairway ended and where the three-inch rough started; standing on the tee, it was actually hard to tell. Even from 6,900 yards, distance was never an issue for me, it was truly a “second shot” golf course that gave my short game fits. But now, visually, it’s so much more interesting off the tees. It’s nice to know the fairways are wider, but it’s also nice to know what you’re aiming for, and to have some recognizable sight lines of the intended routing.
When I said it’s “better,” I mean that there’s so much more going on from tee to green; a more interesting trip from point A to point B. It’s like the choice of using Interstate 5 or Highway 1 in California. No. 2 used to be Interstate 5--it got you where you want to go, but it didn’t matter if you could see out your side windows. Highway 1 is the scenic route that runs along the coast of the Golden State, and you can’t help but pull over along the way, take a breath and a few pictures of your surroundings.
“What’s so unique about this project,” says Farren, “is that the changes in the past were made with the pros and the Opens in mind. These changes were made with the average golfer in mind.”
A refreshing concept, if you consider most of the people who play No. 2 are average golfers. And they’re also the ones who pay to play.
The “retro irrigation system,” which runs down the middle of the fairways and will only shoot 15 yards in either direction, will mean, over time, that the better grass and thus, better lies, will be down the middle. Farren pointed out that the contrast of the sand and the grass gives the impression of flatter greens, more like my breakfast plate, and less like an upside-down version of my cereal bowl. In truth, the only significant changes to any greens were on the two par 3s on the back nine: they added more green to the back-right quadrant of the 183-yard 15th, and they lowered the collar in front of the 186-yard 17th six to eight inches. They also flattened the center of the green just slightly, which adds pin locations.
These are pictures of No. 17 from the tee, and then a closer view of the new collar, which is still growing in:
I stood on the 18th tee knowing I had a rough first seven holes, but that ever since an eagle at the 440-yard eighth hole (pros play it as a 490-yard par 4), I was even par, and that I would be close to bettering my goal of an 83.
I hit a low-cut drive, which stayed in the fairway. Then I hit a flared approach that left me a long putt from off the right side of the green. “Putt this like the hole is 20 feet further than where it is,” was Duggan’s advice. I made a par for an 81 (44-37).
Hats off, hand shakes, man hugs--the whole bit. More importantly, I had a blast. And if you’re going to pay a steep green fee ($410 is the peak-season walk-up rate) to play one of the best public courses in the country, there’s something to be said for fun--and chills.
“Every Sunday,” said Duggan, “they put the pin in the same spot where Payne Stewart made the winning putt in 1999. They change the flag, which reads: One moment in time.”
Right--one moment in time.