Maniac Hill

Pinehurst is known as the Cradle of American Golf, and it is home to one of the earliest practice facilities as well

By LEE PACE

The 14 acres in the middle of the Pinehurst golf campus were originally not more than an afterthought from architect Donald Ross in 1913 when he re-routed course No. 1 to the south and opened some ground for golfers for practice.

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The concept of practice in the early part of the 20th century was slow to evolve, as Richard Tufts, grandson of the resort founder, once observed: “I always thought it very strange that Walter Travis persisted in practicing chip shots, putting and even full shots when a vacant fairway was available. Why should he, of all golfers, need to waste time practicing?” Indeed, most golf instruction in the early days followed the Scottish custom of the professional taking his pupil out onto the course and giving a lesson as they played along.

Fast forward a century where today an estimated 10 million or so balls are hit annually on the Pinehurst practice ground, an area nicknamed “Maniac Hill” in the heyday of the North and South Open on the PGA Tour for the fervor with which the pros pounded balls and searched for “the secret” to their swings.

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“If you can’t get excited over that, maybe you should take up tennis”

“The last 10 years or so we’ve seen a much higher demand for quality practice grounds,” says Bob Farren, Pinehurst’s director of grounds and golf course maintenance. “Expectations are very high. A good practice facility is a key component at most private clubs and resorts. Our footprint has been essentially the same for decades, but the usage and expectations from our members and resort guests has grown.”

Don Padgett Sr., the director of golf at Pinehurst from 1987-2002, took his grandson to the practice tee one day and told him to imagine every great golfer the game has known—from Hagen to Hogan, from Palmer to Nicklaus to Woods—has hit balls onto that vast expanse.

“If you can’t get excited over that, maybe you should take up tennis,” Padgett said.

Pinehurst staff members figure 150 thousand rounds a year are played out of the five courses at the main clubhouse, and say each golfer hits 30 balls before playing. That would be 4.5 million balls alone. At least as many balls are hit by golfers practicing and honing their games in the Pinehurst Golf Academy. It’s not a stretch to get the number in the 10 million neighborhood.

The maintenance building for the practice ground, tucked amid a covey of trees below and to the left of the main hitting area, houses eight 44-gallon, industrial strength barrels filled with balls. Each barrel holds eight cases of Titleist balls. A case comprises 24 dozen. That’s 18,432 balls in play at any given time.

Maniac Hill is Born

Surely Donald Ross never dreamed his modest 1913 experiment would evolve into such a production. Pinehurst had three golf courses open by 1910 but no dedicated practice facility. But in the spring and summer of 1913, Ross allocated the ground covered by the first, second and 18th holes of course No. 1 exclusively for practice and built new holes further southward from the clubhouse.

ManiacHillSign

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But consider the incubator that Pinehurst provided golfers—both pros and amateurs—in the early 20th century. The North and South Open was one of the premier competitions in pro golf at the time, and players the ilk of Tommy Armour, Walter Hagen, Horton Smith, Paul Runyan and Henry Picard relished having this ample laboratory to practice, share swing tips and ideas and experiment with the several dozen clubs allowed in their bags before the 14-club limit took effect. Armour said that Maniac Hill was to golf “what Kitty Hawk was to flying.” The pros also had hundreds of pigeons fluttering about—club members or resort guests anxious to take lessons and improve their own ability.

After the success of the Pinehurst practice tee, Donald Ross said he began incorporating practice ranges at all his courses beginning in 1914.

“The lessons had to be good,” historian and author Herb Graffis once noted. “If they didn’t pay off for the amateur during the daily competitions at Pinehurst, there was a quick switch of teachers.”

Ross’s early course designs never accounted for practice grounds. But Graffis said Ross told him years later that after the success of the Pinehurst practice tee, he began incorporating practice ranges at all his courses beginning in 1914. Still, they were largely afterthoughts—practice tees were never considered destinations in and of themselves.

A New Era

Tom Fazio entered the golf design and construction business under the tutelage of his uncle, tour pro George Fazio, in the early 1960s and remembers the landscape for golf practice:

“Every good player had a shag bag in the trunk of his car and his caddie would stand in the distance with the bag,” Fazio says. “The caddie opened the bag up and caught the ball on one bounce. You only needed a very small area. Back in the day, only the good players practiced, and some of them didn’t practice much. If they did practice, it was on the golf course. How many stories have you heard about Walter Hagen and Jimmy Demaret showing up on the first tee after partying all night? The pros back then went from the golf course to the bar.

“The practice ground is the first impression at a golf course for many people. It’s important for guests to have a good experience when they hit balls. No matter what time of year, no matter the weather, we think we have a place where a golfer can work on his game somewhere within our overall facility.” -Bob Farren

“Today professional golf has evolved that there is so much money and so much good competition, a work ethic has taken over. Today they sign their scorecards and go to the fitness trailer or back to the practice tee.”

The importance of the practice environment today is underlined in the fact that over the last decade, Pinehurst has re-sculpted the hitting area with target greens, lengthened the depth of the range by 50 yards and built a state-of-the-art teaching facility. The area was resculpted after the 2014 U.S. Open to double the hitting area for the members tee at the east end of the facility. The club installed all-weather mats at the west end of the hitting area early in the 2000s that are used during the winter and to take wear and tear off the hitting turf at other times of the year.

The club has also doubled the hitting area at course No. 6, and now it has an excellent practice area at No. 9 with its purchase of that Jack Nicklaus-designed course in the spring of 2014.

“The practice ground is the first impression at a golf course for many people,” Farren says. “It’s important for guests to have a good experience when they hit balls. No matter what time of year, no matter the weather, we think we have a place where a golfer can work on his game somewhere within our overall facility.”

Practice…and Fun?

The expanded and improved short-game area at the main clubhouse is another element of the practice experience. Pinehurst commissioned designer Bill Coore to create a new par-3 hole on No. 1 in 2012 so the old par-3 18th hole could be eliminated. That area is now used as a target green and hitting turf, the green and its surrounding area designed in the style of the turtleback greens on course No. 2. Additional ground was rebuilt and designed into the 17,000 square foot Thistle Dhu putting course, an amenity that has proven enormously popular with members and guests of all ages and skill levels.

Farren notes that at any given moment during the two weeks of the U.S. Kids Golf national and international competitions held in July, at least two dozen and up to 50 or 60 youngsters would be on the putting course. More would be putting, chipping and hitting wedge shots nearby.

“Those kids had the most fun,” he says. “That’s what it’s all about—seeing golfers come to Pinehurst, work on their games and have a great experience.”

Come to think of it, 10 million balls hit a year might be a conservative estimate.

Lee Pace has been writing about the Pinehurst golf scene for three decades. His latest book, “The Golden Age of Pinehurst—The Rebirth of No. 2,” is available in all retail shops at Pinehurst.

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