April 16, 2018 By: Wes Gilbertson – Everything that’s old is new again in Pinehurst, N.C., as several of its marquee courses have been restored to glory.
It was the summer of 2010, and the design duo of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw had just started a restoration of historic Pinehurst No. 2, one of only three public-access courses to have hosted multiple U.S. Opens and the centrepiece of a golf-proud community in North Carolina’s Sandhills.
As daylight turned to dusk, Coore walked the brick path from the clubhouse toward the parking lot. From the corner of his eye, he spotted a gentleman bee-lining in his direction.
“I remember that meeting extremely well,” Coore said. “That man just looked right at me and said, ‘I don’t know what the hell you’re doing out there, but I’ll tell you this — you better not mess this up. Because as this course goes, so goes this entire town.’ And he turned around and walked away.
“When you’re at the very beginning of something that is being perceived as not only controversial but also quite unknown … It did put it into focus as to how concerned everyone was about what was about to happen.
“And from the other side — from Ben’s and my perspective — it was like, ‘Well, if we weren’t stressed enough about this already, now we’ve got the whole town to worry about.’”
They certainly didn’t mess it up, and it can’t be a coincidence that there have since been millions of dollars worth of improvements to several of the other headliners in this area.
Billed as ‘The Cradle of American Golf,’ Pinehurst has long been regarded as a must-see and must-tee destination for the bogey brigade. Now, thanks to those renovation efforts, it would be best described as a must-see-again destination.
Despite the initial fears (“A different guy said to me, ‘Who has ever heard of taking 40 acres of grass off of a golf course?!?’” Coore chuckled), the restoration of No. 2 was a smashing success. The reviews were overwhelmingly positive, the prestigious resort endlessly praised for the courage to tear up its marquee attraction and reintroduce the sandy hardpan areas that were so key to the character of Donald Ross’ most celebrated design. The changes were spotlighted during an unprecedented double in 2014, when Pinehurst No. 2 made history by hosting the U.S. Open and U.S. Women’s Open in back-to-back weeks, with Michelle Wie claiming her first major title before Martin Kaymer mowed down the competition among the men.
That much you already know. This evolution, though, has stretched beyond the boundaries of just the bucket-list topper.
Gil Hanse is currently overhauling Pinehurst No. 4, often cited as the Next-Best-Thing at North America’s largest golf resort. This isn’t a restoration but closer to a complete redo.
“It’s an amazing honour to have your name associated with a place like Pinehurst,” said Hanse, once considered a rising-star in the design biz and now just a star, period. “Hopefully, we do a good enough job that they never really change it and then we’ll be a part of the tradition and the history of this place, which is amazing to think about.”
Along with partner Jim Wagner, Hanse also mapped out a nine-hole short course known as The Cradle, a 789-yard addition to a roster of nine full-length layouts at Pinehurst Resort. The Cradle is already open and has been very well-received. No. 4 will be back in business this fall.
Just a few miles away in Southern Pines, up-and-coming architect Kyle Franz was tasked with updates to both Mid Pines and Pine Needles, two other Ross originals that should be on your hit list if you’re planning a trip to this area.
Coore and Crenshaw will soon tweak their own work at Dormie Club in nearby West End, which opened during the economic slowdown and has been more survival story than success story so far. (Now under new ownership, Dormie Club will transition to a private facility.)
“That’s just another example of how golf in Pinehurst is in the midst of a major rejuvenation period,” Coore said.
It’s no shock that the evermodest Coore was hesitant to accept any credit for that trend, although he seemed flattered by a suggestion he helped spur this feel-good phase in his home state.
“After the restoration project, I think you’re exactly right — I think people started to say, ‘Oh, this is Pinehurst like Pinehurst used to be and like it was meant to be,’” he said. “And that then has carried over into these other efforts … There has been a lot of, I guess it’s not introduction but restoration of the sandy character of the sand hills of North Carolina into those golf courses, and I would assume No. 2 had something to do with that.”
Ross was born in Scotland and apprenticed under Old Tom Morris at St. Andrews, but Pinehurst was his home for most of his adult life. His second course build in the Sandhills, known then and now simply as No. 2, opened in 1907. Ross lived in a cottage behind the third green and tinkered with his masterpiece for the next four decades, including an upgrade to grass greens prior to the 1936 PGA Championship. As you stroll down the hallway toward the pro shop, you’ll be gobsmacked by photos from the 2005 U.S. Open. With wall-to-wall grass and country-club style rough, it looks nothing like the Pinehurst No. 2 of today. (The famed venue will again play host to the Men’s U.S. Open in 2024.)
Now with his fingerprints on several hangouts, Franz made his first mark on this area as a member of the construction crew for the Coore/Crenshaw restoration. With that project being guided by photographs from the early 1940s, he would sift through black-and-whites of Ross’ work at the Tufts Archives. As he researched, he was repeatedly struck by snapshots of another local layout.
Franz soon learned of plans to convert the greens at Mid Pines from bentgrass to Bermuda. He convinced the club to go bigger, requesting a stroll with its president, Kelly Miller, and pitching a return to what Ross had unveiled in 1921. It has that same scruffy look, although it’s the canopy of overhanging trees that really ups the intimidation.
Franz was later enlisted by Miller to rebuild the greens at Pine Needles too, a sibling setup that will host the U.S. Women’s Open for a record fourth time in 2022. He’s also created two new holes at Pinehurst No. 3, necessary to accommodate the addition of The Cradle.
“Walking the course (Mid Pines) and listening to Kyle that day, I thought I was listening to Donald himself,” Miller reminisced. “I think Kyle might know more about Donald Ross than Ross knew about himself. I was so impressed with his passion and the work that he had done, I just said, ‘Let’s do it. Let’s go ahead.’
“I would like to think that Ross would be very pleased with what we’ve done here.”
Ross would likely be tickled with so much of the work done in his old digs, now home to 40-plus courses in a radius of about 25 kilometres.
And what about the gentleman who filled Coore’s ear that evening in the parking lot?
He hasn’t piped up since, at least not to any of the central figures.
“It’s a story we tell all the time around here, so I’d love to know who it was,” said Tom Pashley, the president of Pinehurst Resort.“It would be neat if that guy would ever step forward and say ‘That was me, and I sure love what they did.’”