“Change” is not the first word one thinks of when it comes to Pinehurst, North Carolina. The treelined streets of the village, sketched out in 1895 by Frederick Law Olmsted on behalf of Boston soda fountain magnate James W. Tufts, still call forth a nostalgic vision of small-town America, and the walls of the eponymous resort’s clubhouse are heavy with history: silver trophies and plates, dog-eared scorecards, photos of legends both local and national. The overall effect is of a quaint hamlet contentedly frozen in amber.
But the golf course that singlehandedly made this town, Pinehurst No. 2, actually has a long history of transformations, from its beginnings as a scruffy nine-holer with oiled sand greens to its current status as a U.S. Open venue. It was designed by the great Scottish architect Donald Ross, who completed the full 18 holes in 1907 but didn’t settle on the routing we know today until 1935.
In its early heyday, the hallmark of No. 2 was its subtlety. Wide open off the tee, it allowed players to think strategically about which side of the fairway offered the more advantageous approach to the greens. Wayward drives would carom around in a wasteland of sand and wire grass, and the closer one drew to the green, the more the drama heightened: Shaped like tortoiseshells, the putting surfaces would repel all but the very best shots.
In 1970, the Tufts family sold Pinehurst to the Diamondhead Corporation, a real-estate developer that remodeled the resort, as Pinehurst historian Lee Pace puts it, in the “greens, golds and shag carpets” style of the era. The company also gussied up Pinehurst No. 2 with narrowed fairways and wall-to-wall Bermuda grass rough. Though the Diamondhead era lasted only a decade—and the resort, then under ClubCorp’s management, successfully hosted the 1999 and 2005 U.S. Opens—the course had lost its multidimensional appeal, slipping in the estimation of critics and the public alike. With Pinehurst set to host both the men’s and women’s U.S. Opens in 2014, chairman Robert Dedman decided significant changes were in order.
Enter architects Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw. Both men have a deep affinity for No. 2—Crenshaw from his days on the PGA Tour and Coore, a native North Carolinian, from his teenage years in the 1960s, when he played dawn to dusk on $5 day passes. Faced with the daunting prospect of touching up one of the treasures of American golf, they began studying vintage course photos at the village archives. Rather than risk tinkering with the course’s famous greens, the architects focused on uncovering its natural sandscapes, rebuilding scores of bunkers and even uncovering a couple that had been filled in over time.
Now that the work is complete (the official reopening was March 4), it’s remarkable to see how closely the architects captured the look of the course from the ’40s and ’50s. The knock on No. 2 had been its lack of a “wow factor”—the merit of each hole was evident, but few truly stood out. It turned out that their individuality was simply buried beneath acres of manicured rough. By providing a stark visual contrast between the fairways and their peripheral areas, Coore and Crenshaw have enhanced every hole on the course. The challenges of, for example, the par-three ninth, which crosses a deep valley filled with wire grass and then rises to a devilish two-tiered green, or the par-five 16th, where the course’s lone water hazard blends beautifully into its natural surroundings, now snap into sharp relief.
Reworking Pinehurst No. 2 as a more naturally presented golf course isn’t just a reaction to the recession or a nod to environmental concerns, though grounds director Bob Farren estimates the renovation will reduce the course’s water usage by some 40 to 50 percent. More important, it’s a movement toward maximum playability without sacrificing challenge. While extricating a golf ball from heavy rough requires little more than brute strength, recovering from hard-packed sand takes real imagination and shot-making skill.
Pinehurst deserves credit for drawing on the best aspects of its past to shape its future. This most intricate of classic courses, presented in a manner that reveals Donald Ross’s architectural genius to the fullest, is now primed to return to the pinnacle of American golf. It’s about time.
Rooms at the resort’s Carolina hotel start at $265, and with a round of golf, $410; 800-487-4653; pinehurst.com.
Case Study: Hole 7
Before (above left) and after: Here, converting the sides of the fairway from Bermuda rough to sand and wire grass affected how the fairway bunkering on the right relates to the angle of the dogleg bend. In the past, the curve was quite sharp, making the landing area perilously narrow—the smart move was a boring bail out to the left. The softened angle gives players incentive to try cutting the corner on the tee shot.