Wild, wonderful and ready for the U.S. Open


May 29, 2024

The ninth hole of Pinehurst No. 2 Copyright USGA//Fred Vuich

Pinehurst No. 2, Donald Ross’s masterpiece, will test the world’s best golfers when the U.S. Open comes to Pinehurst Resort this summer.

by Lee Pace

A December day in 1935. A man approaches the house at 120 Midland Rd. in Pinehurst, notices the Scottish-style stonework and arches of Dornoch Cottage and rings the bell. Donald Ross opens the door and greets A.W. Tillinghast. 

What a meeting of the minds in the early days of golf course architecture. 

Ross, 63, was the son of a Scottish stonemason, apprentice in his 20s to legendary pro Old Tom Morris at St Andrews, an immigrant to the United States who set up shop in Pinehurst in 1900 and designed notable courses across the eastern United States — from Seminole Golf Club in Florida to Inverness Club in Ohio to Oak Hill Country Club in upstate New York. His tour de force, Pinehurst No. 2, sits just behind his house. 

And Tillinghast, 59,  was the son of a wealthy rubber-goods magnate in Philadelphia who grew up playing cricket and fell under the spell of golf on a visit to St Andrews in 1896, where he established a mentor-mentee relationship with Morris. Tillinghast’s design acumen was on display across the land as well — from San Francisco Golf Club on the West Coast to Winged Foot Golf Club and Baltusrol Golf Club in the shadows of New York City skyscrapers. 

Oh, to have been a fly on the wall, to hear these friends and sometimes competitors talk about their shared experiences — their formative years at St Andrews, their design philosophies, the challenges of maintaining businesses and servicing clients when travel was by train and communication by post. 

Surely Tillinghast espoused, to some degree, his belief that, “A round of golf should present 18 inspirations, not necessarily 18 thrills.”

A.W. Tillinghast and Donald Ross. Photographs courtesy USGA Archives & Tufts Archives.

And no doubt Ross would have looked at the 72-hole facility at Pinehurst Country Club and talked about how it had become the epicenter of golf in America. “I wholeheartedly believe in golf,” Ross once said. “A country which gets golf-minded need not worry about the honor, the integrity and the honesty of its people.”

Tillinghast’s visit came at the behest of the PGA of America and his role as a consultant with the organization, which in 11 months would conduct its flagship competition, the 1936 PGA Championship, on Pinehurst No. 2. They carried their golf clubs past Ross’ masterful rose garden in the backyard, through the wrought-iron gates and onto the third green. 

Ross showed his guest the green complexes that he had just converted, with the help of green superintendent Frank Maples, from their previous flattish sand-clay structure to undulating Bermuda grass, shaping the sandy soil around them into a cacophony of dips and swales. He noted the roll-offs around the greens, how they penalized shots even slightly mishit and propelled balls into the hollows nearby. 

They felt the taut turf under their feet, reveling in how the drainage qualities of the sandy loam made for the ideal golf playing surface. As they went, Ross explained the choices golfers had off the tee — on the par-4 second, for example, showing his friend what a lovely view it was into the green from the left side of the fairway but pointed to the gnarly bunker complex a player had to flirt with to get there. Ross nodded to the native wiregrass that grew in profusion along the fairways and how it reminded him of the whins of his native Scotland. 

“Without any doubt Ross regards this as his greatest achievement, which is saying a great deal,” Tillinghast said after touring the course. “Every touch is Donald’s own, and I doubt if a single contour was fashioned unless he stood hard by with a critical eye. As we stood on hole after hole, the great architect proudly called my attention to each subtle feature, certain that my appreciation of his artistry must be greater than that taken in by a less practiced eye. Nothing was lost on me, and after our round together, I told him with all honesty that his course was magnificent, without a single weakness, and one which must rank with the truly great courses in the world today.”

2014 U.S. Open Photograph by Joann Dost

2014 U.S. Open. Photograph by Joann Dost.

And, 89 years later, the show goes on when the U.S. Open returns for the fourth time June 13-16.

Pinehurst No. 2 would be the site of the North & South Open on the PGA Tour through 1951, with Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, Byron Nelson and Ross himself among the winners. It would host the 1936 PGA (won by Denny Shute) and the 1951 Ryder Cup (won by the Americans, 9.5 to 2.5, over the team from Great Britain and Ireland). But it wasn’t yet in the mix to host a U.S. Open. 

Through the 1970s, that union was simply impossible because Pinehurst shut down for the summer (the founding Tufts family and the staff went to Linville or Roaring Gap in North Carolina or traveled north to Maine), and the American national championship was played in June. 

When the resort went to air conditioning and a year-round operating calendar, the idea was still problematic because of the USGA’s preference for playing courses with firm and fast greens, a challenging task on Southern courses during hot-weather months. The U.S. Open was not played in the muggy Southeast until venturing to Atlanta Athletic Club in 1975 (though it had flirted with warm waters in St. Louis, Tulsa, Fort Worth and Houston). About that time, officials at Pinehurst Country Club began floating the idea of an Open for No. 2. The Diamondhead Corporation was five years into its ownership of Pinehurst after purchasing it in 1970 from the Tufts family, whose patriarch, James W. Tufts, launched the town and resort in 1895 as a refuge from the cold winters of New England. 

It took two more decades to figure out how to bring the National Open to Pinehurst. 

First, there was the dodgy financial bona fides of the resort and club, which eventually went bankrupt and was taken over by eight banks for two years beginning in March 1982. Robert Dedman Sr. and his Club Corporation of America bought the facility in 1984 and provided what has turned into four decades of stability, innovation and financial security, with Robert Dedman Jr. taking the baton after his father died in 2002. 

Second, there was the issue of the playing surfaces, how to find the best variety of bent or Bermuda grass to give No. 2 a smooth and consistent putting surface year round that could still play sturdy and quick for an elite competition. 

By the early 1990s, the USGA and Pinehurst officials agreed that advances in grass technology and green foundation construction would allow them to rebuild the greens and have them stand up to the world’s best players on a 90-degree day in June. The USGA announced in June 1993 that it would conduct the 1999 Open at Pinehurst. The competition was a rousing success from the perspective of ticket sales, corporate support, traffic ebb and flow, housing and, certainly, the golf course itself. 

“It’s the most draining course I’ve played in a long time,” said European Ryder Cup team member Lee Westwood.

“People sometimes ask what’s the hardest course I’ve ever played,” said two-time U.S. Open champion Lee Janzen. “Now I know.”

The Open was contested on No. 2 twice more, and the course has played as a par-70 for each championship. The scores validate that what Ross completed in 1935 stands in fine fettle in the next century. Only two golfers in those three Opens broke par for 72 holes — Payne Stewart at 1-under in 1999 and Martin Kaymer at 9-under in 2014. 

The 2024 Open at Pinehurst will be the first played on the Champion Bermuda greens installed after the 2014 Open and the second of the Coore & Crenshaw restoration era. Bill Coore, a native of Davidson County who played No. 2 often during his boyhood summers, and Ben Crenshaw, a two-time Masters champion, coordinated an extensive makeover in 2010-11 that included stripping out hundreds of acres of Bermuda rough, recontouring fairways and bunkers to Ross’ design, and rebuilding the perimeters with firm hardpan sand dotted with wiregrass, pine needles and whatever natural vegetation and debris might accumulate. 

“In the early days, this golf course was disheveled and brown, and the ball rolled and rolled and rolled,” Coore says. “That’s what gave it its character. There was width here, the ability to work your ball to get the best angles. Over time, that was lost. It was too green and too organized.” 

“Bowling alley fairways,” Crenshaw adds. “Straight and narrow, just like a bowling alley.” 

Don Padgett II was the Pinehurst president and chief operating officer from 2004-14 and the man who convinced Dedman that hiring Coore & Crenshaw and taking No. 2 back to its “golden age” from 1935 through the 1960s was the correct move. 

One March afternoon a decade into his retirement, Padgett sits in a rocking chair on the porch overlooking the 18th green of No. 2. It was sunny and 55 degrees, and the tee sheet on No. 2 was full. 

“I think this is what the Tufts envisioned,” Padgett says. “If you’re from Boston, this is balmy. My dad used to say if you’re in the golf business, stand here because everyone will come to see you.”

The world of golf is coming to Pinehurst this month, and the game’s top players will find the 18 holes that so impressed A.W. Tillinghast in 1935 and will vex them in 2024. 

“I think the golf course today probably presents itself as the best it ever has,” Padgett says. “It’s Ross’ concepts with modern maintenance behind it. I think he would look at this golf course and say, ‘Wow, I wish I’d had the ability to grow grass like this.’ These are his concepts with modern turf. It’s not distorted, it’s enhanced. I think he would bless it.”  SP

Chapel Hill-based writer Lee Pace has authored four books about golf in Pinehurst, including The Golden Age of Pinehurst: The Story of the Rebirth of No. 2. Follow him @LeePaceTweet.

Featured image: The ninth hole of Pinehurst No. 2 Copyright USGA//Fred Vuich.

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