As one of the country’s first golf resorts, Pinehurst has long been viewed as an American cradle of the sport.
The resort's showcase golf course, known as Pinehurst No. 2, hosted its first major event more than 100 years ago and evolved into a masterpiece of the nation's best-known golf architect, Donald Ross.
So in 2009, when Pinehurst said it was going to tear up 40 acres of the No. 2 course, destroying huge swaths of pristine green grass to replace it with irregular, bumpy sand and native vegetation, the news stunned the golf world.
To many, it was like giving the Mona Lisa a buzz cut. "People asked, 'Have you lost your mind?'" said Bob Farren, the Pinehurst director of grounds, who has been at the resort 32 years.
“I admit that when we started the work, we began as far from the clubhouse as possible so not many could see what was going on.”
The remaking of Pinehurst No. 2 was complete in 2010, but the worldwide unveiling begins this week when the US Open comes to Pinehurst. In a bit of unprecedented scheduling that will only increase the scrutiny, the course hosts the US Women’s Open a week later.
During that two weeks of practice and competition, the world’s best players and a global television audience will behold a Pinehurst that is virtually unrecognizable.
The course is now a natural, scenic vista, but it is a far cry from the usual manicured golf look, with random brush, patchy sand and gnarly wiregrass surrounding the fairways and greens.
For the first time, a US Open will be contested without the traditional high rough grass at the edges of play. There will be no rough at all. "I'm sure people will tune in to see the Pinehurst they know and say, 'What the heck happened here?'" said golf course designer Bill Coore, who with his partner Ben Crenshaw shepherded the revamping of Pinehurst No. 2.
What happened was akin to an archaeological dig with the attendant unforeseen findings and breakthrough discoveries.
Golf historians understood that Ross had taken advantage of the inherent landscape of the Sandhills region of central North Carolina to mold his course in 1907, using sandy soil and indigenous plants. Irrigation allowed the grass to grow in the fairways, but the rest was left as it had been for centuries.
In time, as golf design philosophy changed and with the advent of sophisticated, expanded watering techniques, Pinehurst No. 2 became like many other elite American layouts: a panorama of green grass.
Pinehurst’s plan to turn back the clock roughly 100 years to restore the No. 2 course to its former appearance met clamorous opposition. So Pinehurst sought proof, or verification, of Ross’ original intentions. It was not as easy as it might sound.
Early blueprints were not vivid enough and did not show the countless revisions Ross made as he lovingly tinkered with the course, which was just beyond the porch of his home adjacent to the third green.
Newspaper accounts of the 1936 PGA Championship at Pinehurst or the other championships from the era were sketchy in their description of No. 2. Black-and-white photographs lacked depth and topographical perspective.
One day, several Pinehurst executives, along with Coore and Crenshaw, visited the library in the Pinehurst village, a community created from scratch by the soda fountain magnate James Walker Tufts in 1895. The group had heard that the library housed some Ross documents.
They planned a 20-minute visit. They ended up staying for four hours and coming back for several hours the next day. Tucked away in the little brick library’s archives was a trove of Ross papers: notes, plans, filings, memos and correspondence about hundreds of his golf courses, including Pinehurst No. 2.
"The archives were a godsend," Crenshaw said. Farren added, "A eureka moment." Shortly thereafter, the restoration crew heard about World War II-era aerial photographs taken by the federal government. Defense Department planes had trained their high-powered cameras on nearby Fort Bragg, but they also captured Pinehurst while circling the vicinity.
A local resident, Craig Disher, collects vintage aerial photography of golf courses and years earlier scoured the Defense Department photo files. It was a laborious process - the Fort Bragg negatives had to be ordered from a Kansas City warehouse - but Disher discovered crystal-clear images of Pinehurst No. 2 photographed on Christmas 1943.
"The planes were at a low altitude - you can see the golfers playing - and the photographs are just magnificently detailed," said Disher, a retired manager for the National Security Agency.
The aerial photography became the missing link in the project, allowing Coore and Crenshaw to measure and identify every element of Pinehurst No. 2 - the width and angles of the fairways (most had been narrowed and straightened), the dimensions of every bunker and the shape and location of the sandy waste areas. There was no rough.
“It was the confirmation we were looking for,” Crenshaw said. Emboldened, if still aware of the backlash the restoration could engender, Coore and Crenshaw pressed on, cutting up the turf to expose the uneven sandy areas beneath.
They also planted by hand or revitalized 80 kinds of native plants. A team of students studying crop science at North Carolina State University arrived to help identify the vegetation that should be kept or removed, in what amounted to an excavation.
Pinehurst’s famed and treacherous concave greens were largely untouched. But one staple of the modern golf course, the sprinkler head, frequently found itself in the recycling bin.
By the end of the restoration, about 700 of Pinehurst No. 2’s 1,100 sprinkler heads had been eliminated, which has cut water use in half, saving about 40 million gallons a year.
Mike Davis, the US Golf Association's executive director, said the environmental effect of the restoration could have a lasting effect in golf. "At the USGA, we would say the biggest threat to the game, long-term, is water," Davis said.
“That is a great story of what Pinehurst has done because they’ve said that we don’t have to irrigate 150 acres anymore. We can get drier, firmer fairways, and we hope that this can be done other places, too.”
If Pinehurst No. 2 is now more authentic, strategic and ecologically sustainable - all viewed as improvements - it is still awaiting the uncompromising test of two national golf championships.
Players visiting the course for practice rounds in recent weeks have offered encouraging endorsements, but in competition, they have not yet had to deal with the vicissitudes of the new and changeable areas off the fairways, where high but predictable rough grass was once the norm.
Almost anything can happen if a player misses the fairway now. And those areas are not hazards, so the sand is not raked or maintained.
“In the past, a player hitting a wayward tee shot knew immediately what to expect on the next shot,” Farren said. “Now that player has to walk to the ball wondering what fate has in store. The ball could be sitting up nicely on hardpan sand, it could be in a footprint, it could be on pine needles or it could be under a tuft of wiregrass.”
As Davis said, “You could have two balls six inches apart and one player can go for the green and the other player can’t. The game we play isn’t meant to be equal all the time or necessarily fair.”
Coore said the element of luck could be particularly entertaining for the television viewer. “People are going to see players trying all kinds of shots, including ones they’ve probably never seen before,” he said.
But the first thing viewers will see is a historical rendering of a signature golf course. It will look rugged and idiosyncratic with challenges characteristic of the natural features of the region. It will be quirky, engaging, memorable and considerably more environmentally responsible.
Some in golf worried that Pinehurst might ruin its masterpiece. More likely, it was revived and freed of excesses that cloaked its intrinsic value and simple sophistication. A formative US golf resort has once again offered the game a path to follow.
In that way, by looking to its past, Pinehurst may have given golf a vision of its future.
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