At St. Andrews, you suspect that the entire burgh has turned out to watch your initial tee ball. It’s not the case, as the shopkeepers have wares to sell and the even the starter has other interests. In complete contrast are the headwaters of Pinehurst No. 2, Donald J. Ross’s paragon of the Carolina sandhills. With the strains of the village carillon serving as the piper who brings you aboard, the northwesterly walk from Maniac Hill (the fabled driving range) brings you past the final green, along the clubhouse veranda, to the starter’s shed. And in this gentle way does a round over the terrain of Pinehurst No. 2 commence.
If you dig deeply enough, you’ll learn that the golf course had sand greens in its aboriginal state. You’ll read that ownership began with James Walker Tufts of Boston before the turn of the 19th century, yet has enjoyed a robust transfer legacy since then. You’ll uncover the amount of effort and energy that Donald Ross, born along the coast of northern Scotland, put into creating his inland opus. If it’s history you seek, you’ll find an unending amount in Pinehurst.
For me, a recent trip around the 18 singular holes of Pinehurst No. 2 represented the closing of a circle whose trace initiated in 1982. As a 16-year old golfer with but a smattering of the lore of Pinehurst, I was fortunate to play the course and be exposed to the work of the master. Truth be told, the early 1980s did not represent the luminescent hours of the resort. Golf had not returned to the popularity it holds today and the resort was traversing an uncertain arc, finding an identity. Despite this bit of murk, the features of the course took hold of me, ensuring that I would be forever smitten with the game and its architecture. I would kid my father the tennis player that he played the same rectangle, over and over. In contrast, my game took me from mountains to seaside links, from the desert to the jungle, never to the same geometry.
There is a trap that awaits a golfer who anticipates a maiden voyage around a fabled course. The pitfalls are many: expect too much of the course; expect too much of yourself and your game; expect too much of your caddy; expect that others will share your enthusiasm, and so forth. As I stepped onto that first tee deck of the No. 2 course, I cautioned myself to be satisfied with two achievements: take divots and play to the safe side of the target.
Pinehurst No. 2, in anticipation of an unrivaled accomplishment, undertook a complete restoration of its spaces between. Gone now is the wall-to-wall emerald grass that made missed fairways a nightmare. Recovery shots from the thick rough were dubious at best, often a wedge to safety and rarely a run at the green. Under the watchful care of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw (and their team of builders and shapers), Ross’s pride was returned to the rugged, less-shorn test that the course creator had envisioned. Sandy wastes line the fairway edges. Bunkers that once described a recognizable curve now appear tangled, shaggy and jagged; in another word, beautiful.
It is a subtle touch that the first hole demands not a great drive, but a thoughtful approach shot to the green, and that the second hole reverses the requirements, accepting only the most stalwart of drives. Lest you think it gets easier from that point on, the third hole enjoins both. It is at the fourth hole that the golf course allows you to swing freely and crack a beauty down the majestic slope of your first look at a par-5 hole.
After the trundle down the fourth and the ascent back up the parallel fifth, the course for the most part gives off a flattish hue. Holes move this way and that, across boscages and along the odd chaparral. There is vertical movement, but none so dynamic that its presence distracts the golfer from the majesty of the course routing. Donald Ross maneuvered fairway after fairway in distinct directions and at contrary angles. He placed greens against gentle slopes, beyond rumpled hillocks and atop subtle yet potent eskers.
The end result is more golf course than the typical touring golfer can manage. Not in a horrifying, threatening way, but in a subtle one. This is championship golf and it demands championship thinking, planning and execution, again and again. Each golf hole remains etched in my memory for its apparent simplicity and its identifiable complexity. Greens with false fronts and bogus backs seduce golf balls off the putting surface, into grassy hollows.
Pinehurst No. 2 will host the Women’s and Men’s United States Open Championships in successive weeks in 2014. I suspect the mystic, beguiling experience will transcend the tournaments themselves.
Check out the gallery below to see more of Ron’s photos.