Mark Townsend gives an assessment of fabled PinehurstJune, 2014 Competitions
We travel to the cradle of American golf in order to set the scene for the US Open
PINEHURST means the world to American golf. We have St Andrews, they have Pinehurst. It has been a Mecca for the club and tour player alike for over a century.
James Walker Tufts, a soda fountain magnate, bought 5,500 acres for around $1.25 an acre in 1895 and, a couple of years later, No 1 was laid out and the first North and South Amateur Championship was staged in 1901. The tournament is still held today – winners include Francis Ouimet, Jack Nicklaus, Curtis Strange, Davis Love, Corey Pavin and Hal Sutton.
In 1907, No 2 was born thanks to the design skills of Donald Ross.
The Dornoch-born architect, who served his apprenticeship with Old Tom Morris, was originally hired as the head professional but then asked to redesign No1 and extend No 2 from nine to 18 holes, as well as adding a third and fourth course. By the 1920s it was turning away golfers during its seven-month season.
These days there are eight courses.
You might be surprised to learn that Pinehurst’s first US Open came in 1999 when Payne Stewart famously holed a par putt to stay clear of Phil Mickelson; previously it had held one PGA Championship and the 1951 Ryder Cup.
Six years later Michael Campbell prevailed on a course (pictured top right) that had a very different look to what is present today. Changes in technology, both in how the game was being played and how grass was being grown, meant that the feel of No 2 had moved away from the original intent.
It also meant that the look of the course was less aesthetically pleasing and the strategy required less obvious.
Nicklaus describes it as his favourite course from a design standpoint and that was being missed.
So the rough that the New Zealander wisely chopped out of at the 72nd hole has now been removed (30 acres were removed) and in its place have appeared native wire grass, pine straw and sand. Likewise the fairways have been widened by an average of 50 per cent to give more options off the tee.
Several bunkers were restored, eliminated or reshaped based on aerial images of course from the 1940s with the edges prepared to give a rustic appearance in more than a notable nod to Ross.
Only two greens have been tinkered with and 13 tees added to give an extra 300 yards, leaving June’s test at 7,565 yards.
The women, who will play their US Open the following week in a novel move, will face a course of around 6,700 yards.
Part of its genius is that you might never lose a ball and a wonky tee shot might avoid the huge tufts of wire grass – but you will likely not score too well. After a closure of 12 months the course reopened in March 2011 when Ben Crenshaw and his design partner Bill Coore’s $2.5m project had come to a finish. The result, you would hope and think, would make Ross proud.
One of the remits was still to allow the club player to have fun and, having been lucky enough to play the course, you can’t fail to do so. Nicklaus said of Pinehurst that you could see a ‘totally tree-lined golf course without a tree coming into play’. This theory was safely disproved by the 3rd.
Most holes begin with longleaf pines and end with crowned greens.
Approach shots and recoveries from the waste areas briefly mount the putting surfaces before rolling meekly away. No 2 must not only be played from the fairway but the right side of the cut grass.
The approach will then require a certain shape and flight to find the appropriate segment of the green, which means any green in regulation by the mid-handicapper should be applauded.
Part of its genius is that you might never lose a ball and a wonky tee shot might avoid the huge tufts of wire grass – but you will likely not score too well.
On the face of it there is nothing overly daunting from the tee or fairway, no water lurks at any point and the flags might all sit in welcoming positions. But the end result will unlikely be anything close to your club handicap.
Thankfully the pros have also struggled to get the better of it, Stewart winning in one under while Campbell was level. The lowest round in either was a 66 – hats off to Sweden’s Peter Hedblom.
The thinking here is that the lack of rough might well mean that the winning score approaches 10 under.
The USGA, once keen on a penal contest, don’t have any problem with that as long as the course plays the way that people expect it to play.
Many experts expected Merion to finish up with a winning score of around 12-14 under. At Pinehurst the ‘green complexes’ might prove more than enough of a defence.
Ask anyone who has a decent knowledge of Pinehurst of their favourite courses and their answers will vary greatly. Nos 2, 4 and 8 are ranked the highest but the latter pair aren’t guaranteed to get a look in. The fun is in finding out, and not necessarily by playing.
Ross considered the 5th on No 2 as the hardest on the course, a view shared by the majority of the members we quizzed on the eve of our assault.
“Don’t go leeeft on fiiive” is the advice delivered by a group of members, all delivered in long, lazy and soothing southern accents and, whatever other nuggets are added, always followed by teenage giggles. Not one of the quintet is under 70.
Like St Andrews it’s very special; a heap of ingredients that, when added together, makes it quite spiritual.
The three-time Major champion Tommy Aaron once said of the place: “The man who doesn’t feel emotionally stirred when he golfs at Pinehurst beneath those clear blue skies and with the pine fragrance in his nostrils is one who should be ruled out of golf for life.
“It’s the kind of course that gets into the blood of an old trooper.”