This was another case of capital is king, and guys like Dedman, Donald Trump, Herb Kohler, Mike Keiser and Wayne Huizenga have been the snakes in the grass-for a lack of a better analogy-striking when the time has been right. More than anything, they’re buying up prime real estate, growing their stakes in golf. And as natural selection continues to play out across the country of courses with broken business models, inept management, horrific designs and bad timing, it’s the guys with deep pockets who are maximizing the returns on their investments by hiring minimalist architects.
As colleague Peter Finch and I continue our phone tour of some of the best resorts in the U.S., I spoke to Don Padgett Jr., president of Pinehurst Resort since 2004. Not only is Padgett an accomplished golfer who has played in six PGA Championships and three U.S. Opens, his father, Don Padgett Sr., was the former director of golf at Pinehurst and was the past president of the Professional Golfers Association.
Padgett shared the news of Pit becoming a Bill Coore-designed Pinehurst No. 9. He also said that as long as he has been in and around the business of golf, he has never seen anything as successful as the restoration of No. 2, which will host the U.S. Open and U.S. Women’s Open in 2014.
It has been a great spring. Our numbers are back to the 2008 levels. We’ve had an early spring, the weather has been great, the buzz for No. 2, has all driven our business levels beyond what we expected. We’re very pleased.
When you say 2008 numbers, is that rounds played or the bottom line?
Business levels. Revenues. We’re obviously charting everything, but we haven’t had a spring like this since 2008.
And that’s because of the weather, the restoration of No. 2 (which reopened April 2011), the lead up to the Opens in 2014 and a bit of a recovery to the national economy?
I think that’s accurate. Those four things would add up to where we’re at. What we did to No. 2 was historical but relevant, and that’s hard to do at the same time. There are just a lot of reasons to be interested in what was happening with that golf course-how it was going to turn out-in fact, a lot of the story is yet to be told.
The story yet to be told is how the pros play the new No. 2?
Absolutely. The men and women.
Christmas Day, 1943, as a guide to the ultimate restoration of No. 2.
This is the 13th hole, above, and the 14th hole, below.
(Photograph by Craig Disher)
When David Fay, former director of the USGA, had this idea, to play the men’s Open and then the women’s Open the following week, it seemed like a good idea. Now, as we get closer to 2014, is there growing concern of how the course will hold up to this kind of player and gallery wear and tear?
I don’t think we’re concerned about the condition of the course. There are only three or four areas where we feel the women’s landing area and playing area in the fairway will be the same as the men’s. I think the excitement is still there; it has never been done before. You’re right, it was David Fay’s idea, and David isn’t at the USGA anymore [Mike Davis is in Fay’s former role], but I think the enthusiasm for the concept is still pretty high with us and them.
You guys are in a good spot. The bulk of the setup and conditioning responsibility falls on the USGA, and you guys will continue to benefit from the exposure from now and until the tournaments are played, correct?
I think that’s fair. We’re assisting in a large way, and we’re a significant partner, but they’re connecting the event, and they’re hosting the event, and they own the event.
The last time we spoke (February 2011), you had just bought the Pit. You went on to close the course and focus on the reopening of No. 2. Is there any update on what was the Pit?
Bill Coore was assigned to do a routing, which I think he’s close to completing. I have not seen it, but he has told me that he is almost there. We’re not going to pull the trigger anytime in the immediate future, but [Pinehurst owner] Bob Dedman would love to build that golf course. Bill [Coore] feels like it will be a very, very good golf course. He would be excited to build it. A lot of the land he’d use would be in the 150 acres east of what was the Pit golf course. That’s the parcel that Bill likes the best. At some point there will be a No. 9 at Pinehurst.
You’re back to 2008 numbers and you almost have a routing, so you’re probably closer to pulling the trigger now than you were a year ago.
We’re a lot closer than we were six months ago.
As long as you’re sharing the news of a No. 9, is there going to be a No. 10?
I’d say we’re more likely to have nine. Unless we were to acquire something, there’s no land in the vicinity to do the 10th golf course. If we were going to do it, we’d want to make sure it was as significant as Bill assures us No. 9 will be.
You’ve gone to single-line irrigation at No. 2 (only one row of irrigation running down the middle of the fairways), and you’re painting or staining the Bermuda grass in the fairways instead of overseeding; has this been considered a success?
Incredible. We have not had one person play the golf course, with the new agronomics, and really had any displeasure with it at all.
Is this a big savings for you? Is this something you’ll consider doing at all of the other courses at the resort?
We’re looking at a resort-wide offering from an agronomics standpoint as to what golf courses might end up being MiniVerde [a hybrid dwarf Bermuda grass that thrives in hot temperature], what golf courses might be overseeded, or the option to paint them, and I would think we might complete that process by the end of the year. There will be some savings in it, but we’re looking at what would provide us the best playing conditions at each course for the best part of the year.
Having learned all that you’ve learned, being one of the premier destinations in the world, what advice would you have for course owners, general managers and superintendents out there in this industry going through ongoing changes and financial pressures?
If your golf course can be presented like No. 2, which is a minimalist-type presentation, you certainly have a lot less chemicals, you have a lot less water, you have a greater chance of keeping Poa annua out of your greens by painting and using a single-line irrigation system. There’s a lot to be said for presenting a golf course in that manner, but that’s not true for any course you have anywhere in the country. Obviously courses in the north aren’t going to MiniVerde, but there are some courses, built by some of the older designers who had a minimalist approach, where I’m sure it would work well for them. Not only would it be potential savings, they might even improve their playing conditions, but it’s a case-by-case basis. Even for us, we don’t have one answer for eight courses. No. 4 and No. 8 are Fazio golf courses, and they’re not minimalist golf courses, so we have to figure out what works best for them.
How about from a marketing standpoint, what have you learned?
No. 2 has become the centerpiece to all of our marketing and advertising we’ve done, both in print and on TV. We’ve shifted our focus from a message that was more about variety to really highlighting No. 2 right now.
One thing we thought we were going to have to do more of was explain to golfers why brown is good, and why that’s acceptable. We had a pretty wet summer last year, so we really didn’t brown out like we thought we would with that single-row irrigation, but so far the golfing public has really accepted it better than we expected. We haven’t had to do an education campaign, and a lot of that might have to do with the USGA and the other organizations that are trying to educate folks about water usage and agronomics.
How difficult is it to implement changes to a course with such a legacy?
I don’t think it was easy, but I think you get to the point, if you’re a golf person, and I hope I am-I think I am-that a lot of people had become disappointed the way Pinehurst No. 2 had started to present itself. A lot of the people in the design business weren’t being overly critical, but I would say they had become disappointed. I think even Mike Davis, to his credit, knew we had gotten there in trying to conduct some championships, and I think it kind of came to a head at the 2008 U.S. Amateur. Our corridors, our fairways, and what the golf course looked like and played like, had gotten so far away from what Donald Ross intended.
A lot of people are very passionate about Pinehurst, so they were very vocal with their opinions. And the amount of times I heard it, and thought about it, I couldn’t ignore it. Bob Dedman and I both discussed the fact that we don’t really like where we’re at, but what do we do about it? We finally decided, and Mike Davis and the USGA were partners in this decision, that we can change it. And then it came down to: Who do we do this with? Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore have an approach that fit where we wanted to get to and they got us there and we’re very thankful.
As it relates to timing, execution, the new key to the current marketing strategy, the agronomics, and how it’s being received, on a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being a huge success, how do you rate the restoration?
An 11. My family has been in the business, and I’ve personally been in the business for about 30 years, and I don’t know that I’ve ever been involved in anything as positive as this has been. It has been a complete blessing. At one point we were sending Bob Dedman all the comments, all the articles and all the information because he requested us to do so. Eventually he emailed my assistant back and he said, “I know we’ve gotten all of this, but I need to get the negative feedback also.” And we emailed back: “Mr. Dedman, there just hasn’t been any.”
It seems to me it took some spine from ownership and management to pull it off, so congratulations.
To me, the depressing thing would’ve been to shoulder on the way it was.
For the future visitor to your resort, breakdown all eight courses for me.
No. 1: It’s a nice Ross offering that’s fairly easy to negotiate, but long enough that an A player could have fun. It was my dad’s favorite course here to play.
No. 2: It’s a national treasure when it comes to golf.
No. 3: I enjoy it because it’s a miniature No. 2 as far as the greens are concerned. Someone can play it and get a flavor for Pinehurst even if they don’t hit it more than 210 yards off the tee.
No. 4: It’s my second-favorite golf course at the resort. It hosted an Amateur, it’s a Fazio signature design, and I think it’s one of his better ones. I think it’s the prettiest piece of property at the resort. The holes around the lake are beautiful.
No. 5: It’s a pretty good Ellis Maples golf course. I qualified for the World Open in 1973 on that course. Pretty straightforward. I think if that was the only course at your club anywhere across the country, I think you’d be in pretty good shape.
No. 6: The layout is really good. They held a tour-school qualifier there back in the ‘70s. It’s almost as good as 4 and 8.
No. 7: It’s a really good Rees Jones golf course. A lot of elevation changes. Pretty solid.
No. 8: It’s another great Fazio golf course. People argue about which is better-4 or 8-and I always give 4 the nod because of the land, there are prettier holes on 4, but you could conduct a lot of championships on 8 and it would be very well received.
Guys like Mike Keiser and Herb Kohler are probably envious of Pinehurst’s tradition, U.S. Opens and scale. Do you have any envy when it comes to destinations such as Bandon Dunes and American Club?
We’d like to have an ocean. That would probably be first on our wish list. If there are any available, let us know; we’d put in a bid. We’d settle for a good mountain if we could find one.
But seriously, Bob Dedman and I have been to Bandon a couple of times and what Mike [Keiser] has done out there is terrific. It’s great for golf. He has done genius work putting all of that together. I think he proved people will go the extra mile to find great golf.
How do junior golfers factor into the past, present and future strategy at Pinehurst?
I can’t tell you how many times people have come to me and referenced junior golf camp at Pinehurst in the '60s and ‘70s. They stayed at the Manor Inn when they were 15 years old. That type of stuff has been going on forever. We have the North & South Junior for boys and girls that we run. We have the Donald Ross Junior in the winter that is very popular. We have the Winternational Junior Series that Peter deYoung runs. Obviously U.S. Kids is a huge world event in junior golf. Kids under 12 play free here during the summer. We have a stay-and-play program that’s very popular. If you look at other properties, and comparables to us, we’re probably deeper in junior golf than anybody. At least I think we are.
Related: Q&A with Jim Justice/Greenbrier
Related: Q&A with Roger Warren/Kiawah
Related: Q&A with Mike Keiser/Bandon Dunes
Related: Q&A with Donald Trump/Trump International Golf Links