Donald Ross Meets The Wayback Machine

Pinehurst 2 US Open LogoWhen the head honchos of Pinehurst called on Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw in 2008 to consider restoring the famed Pinehurst #2 to it’s original Donald Ross character they had to feel like Mr. Peabody and Sherman cranking up the old Jay Ward Wayback Machine.

Coore and Crenshaw (C & C) were the obvious choice for this task because of their success with sand based terrain in Nebraska and Oregon and their reputation for copious attention to architectural detail of the classic golf courses. With the USGA’s Mike Davis enthusiastic in supporting this change it added to the pressure that it would need to be done in time to showcase #2 for unprecedented back-to-back appearances of the men’s and women’s U.S. Open Championships at Pinehurst in June of 2014.

From it’s introduction in 1907 Pinehurst #2 was Donald Ross’s obsession. He spent the next 35 years tinkering with a flat piece of North Carolina sand hills terrain turning it into one of the most captivating strategic golf challenges in the states. It built it’s reputation through the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s hosting some of the most important annual professional and amateur events and national championships in the game of golf.

Bronze tribute to Donald Ross the famed designer of Pinehurst #2

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Ross’s architectural principles were pretty simple-use the sandy base to create a wide open hard and fast running layout with interesting twists and curves into accessible small convex green arrangements made up of sharp falloffs, grassy hollows, and bunkers. In the original design there was virtually no rough just wide fairways between the tree lines and primitive adjacent landscape full of sand, scrub brush, and wiry vegetation.

This put a premium on making the right positioning decisions off the tee for the day’s flag position. Executing precise approach shots into these mounded green complexes would be the key and being able to play creative recovery shots when they were rejected would be equally important.

This style of design lent itself to flexibility in strategic approach and enjoyment of the game by players of wide ranging golf aptitudes. As George Waters says in his book “Sand and Golf-How Terrain Shapes The Game”, “Too many golf courses focus on separating a good shot from a bad one. The real goal should be to separate a good shot from a great one, while allowing the bad shots to eventually find their way home”. Pinehurst #2 was always a championship caliber course playable by every man.

Time and taste in golf course design changed all of that and the owners of Pinehurst #2 let it morph over decades into a Bermuda grass laden array of 18 lush green bowling alleys between the pine trees. It lost the unique rugged look and strategic character that Ross had envisioned. Worse, the holes meandered off the original strategic lines that Ross had created.

By the end of 2008 the groundswell of criticism got to the owners and C & C were brought in to rediscover and reveal the original Donald Ross intent. They were given a Carte Blanche to do whatever they felt need to happen to bring #2 back to it’s original glory. For the most iconic golf resort in the U.S. this was not without great risk since the American golfer’s appetite for the lush Augusta Green look had not abated.

C & C started the work in 2009 and two very fortunate things happened early in the process. First, Bob Farren, Pinehurst’s director of course maintenance, told Coore that the original center fairway irrigation line installed 80 years ago and long since abandoned was still in the ground. Revealing that line and an associate 30 yards on either side of it gave them the original fairway borders to work with. They now had an accurate skeleton of the original design.

Second, Craig Disher, a Pinehurst resident who knew spent much of his retirement years studying course design, revealed a cache of low-level aerial photos taken by the War Department in 1943 which would provide them with the blueprints they would need of original green sizes, fairway lines, and shapes of bunkers. These photos proved invaluable during restoration in understanding and implementing the original design and intent.

Over the next four years the C & C operatives marshaled the stripping of over 35 to 40 acres of lush green Bermuda rough grass and the reintroduction of the natural sand and scrub off fairway areas of Ross’s day. The replacement of this rough with sparse native planting created natural looking inconsistent rough areas with a perfect balance of penalty and recovery available. Pros and schlubs alike meandering off the fairways would be presented with a new set of strategic decisions to make off of unpredictable lies.

Approach and recovery from this makes Pinehurst #2 unique

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As Waters says, “On well designed sandy courses, the interplay between firm conditions and clever architecture places approach and recover shots among the highlights of any round”. The added bonus was the restored #2 had 700 less sprinkler heads and needed 40 percent less irrigation to maintain it’s firm and fast playability.

The routing of the course did not change so the basic 70 par and strategic approach to playing is in tact.  Mike Davis of the USGA did prevail on C & C to flip the par on the 4th and 5th holes.  The 5th was the hardest par 4 on the course and with a new tee lengthening the yardage into the high 500’s it will now be the hardest par 5 on the course.  The main difference is that the 6 or 7 some of the players would have made on the hole anyway will seem less of a self-esteem issue.  The 4th had the tee relocated to the original Ross location  further to the left.  It now will be a seriously long wrap around dogleg left par 4 where a pitch and a putt may be needed to save par.

With the two U.S. Open Championships now at hand it will be up to the professionals to give the renewed Pinehurst #2 their blessings as an appropriate venue for competitive golf at it’s highest level. It will remain for the owners to convince the green’s fee paying public that brown is the new green. Then this entire experiment might turn out to be, pardon the Jay Ward pun, a watershed moment in the time-line of American golf course design.

June, 2014

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