“Being a Scot, Ross interpreted the word ‘rough’ to mean ‘broken ground.’” – Charles Price
If there was one underlying guidepost that Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw used in their 2010-12 restoration of Pinehurst No. 2, it’s this passage from author and historian Charles Price that appeared in GOLF Magazine in 1979. Crenshaw, an avid student of golf history, knew that Price had lived in Pinehurst at two separate times in his life and also had lived in St. Andrews, thus Price’s opinions carried plenty of weight on the subjects of architect Donald Ross and traditional golf design.
“Being a Scot, Ross interpreted the word ‘rough’ to mean ‘broken ground,’” Price wrote. “In other words, it was never tended in any other way. The ‘fairway’ meant the same to him as the word does to a ship’s pilot, a navigable channel through rocks, sand banks and other obstructions that is the safest way for a vessel to leave or enter a harbor—to leave the tee and enter the green. Consequently, he didn’t create rough to border a fairway. He ‘dredged’ a channel—a fairway—through the rough and left it as he found it.”
Crenshaw harkened back to those words one recent evening in Pinehurst when he and USGA Executive Director Mike Davis joined Pinehurst officials to inspect the golf course and tweak their preparation and maintenance plans just seven months away from the 2014 U.S. Open and U.S. Women’s Open.
“One sentence kept going over in my mind, something Charlie Price wrote a long time ago,” Crenshaw said. “Fairways were meant to be an oasis encased in sand, pine straw, pine needles and wire grass. That statement never left our mind.”
First approached in the summer of 2009 with the idea to restore the course to its original width and character native to the Sandhills of North Carolina, Crenshaw admits that he and his design partner of some three decades tiptoed into the project with some reservations.
“We always thought the course was there, that the bones were intact,” Crenshaw said, referencing No. 2’s evolved look into a svelte presentation of smooth, grassy playing surface. “But we thought it could be depicted in a different manner. We said, ‘We need to tackle this, we need to give it a shot.’
“This golf course is one of the greatest architectural achievements I’ve ever seen in golf. There’s nothing else like it. It does remind you of Scotland and the British Isles. Only here on this sandy base could Donald Ross practice what he wanted to do at a very early time, when he started scalloping the those areas around the greens. There’s no other course in the country like it in that regard.”
Davis, who supervises course set-up for the Open, believes the course’s essential character of the concave-shaped greens combined with the reclaimed fairway width and complete removal of all Bermuda rough will make this a watershed U.S. Open.
“The golf course is maturing beautifully,” said Davis, who visited frequently with Coore and Crenshaw during the restoration project. “These are magical greens, and they really haven’t changed. The native areas are what are so remarkable. This is a great story for the game of golf in terms of water use and the concept of maintenance of the middle—where you really focus on teeing grounds, fairways, the greens and the greens surrounds. It’s a more enjoyable way to play. When you hit it off the beaten path, you have different lies, you have to create shots. We’re going to see that next year. These players are going to be in some foot-printed areas. They’re going to hit into wire grass or behind a tuft of wire grass. They’re going to hit off hardpan, they’re going to hit off softer organic material. They’re going to have unusual lies. It’s going to show off their shot-making skills. It’s matured beautifully, and aesthetically it’s such a great contrast from what it looked like before with every square inch of the course maintained.”
Crenshaw and Davis are also excited and intrigued by how much patience, discipline and course management will come to bear on the championships. Conventional wisdom says to play to the center of these inverted-saucer greens and putt out to the edges.
“It’s a choice when you’re out in the fairway and you see a flagstick and you say, ‘Am I going to play to it or am I going to play away from it?’” Crenshaw says. “The player that will excel is the judicious player who will play just away from the flag, most of the time. I think that’s the type of player who will do well here. To exercise that restraint is very difficult. When you’re on your game, you think you can produce that. There’s going to be a lot of heartache out there. A lot of good shots are going to shoulder off, but that’s Pinehurst. To see these choices unfurl, that’s going to be the test.”
In previous U.S. Opens at Pinehurst in 1999 and 2005, the fairways were 23-25 yards wide and bordered by thick Bermuda rough. Players knew exactly what they would get if they strayed from the short grass. But in 2014, the element of luck has been reestablished—a wild tee ball could easily carom into woods off the hardpan. A missed fairway on one hole could find a clean lie on hardpan; yet another could be dead behind a clump of wire grass. And there will always be the delicate issue of playing off pine straw.
“This Open is going to require a lot of thinking, more so than most Opens,” Davis says. “Guys might hit drivers, 3-wood, hybrids off tees. You might see three different thoughts within one group. It will be interesting to see who can say, ‘I’m not going to fire at the flagstick, I’m going to fire at the middle of the green.’ That’s not normal. That takes some willpower, some course management skills. And then you have choice after choice after choice when you miss a green. Do I putt? Do I chip? Do I play a bump-and-run? The bunkers are another issue at Pinehurst. The bunkers are softer and finer, it’s harder to nip the ball quite as much. It comes out a little bit like a knuckleball. You don’t know what it will do. I like that.”
The clock is ticking—seven months and counting.
“We are so excited at this point,” Crenshaw says. “We’re at the 11th hour. It’s just around the corner. We’re hoping for good weather. We know they’re going to see something special.”
“When has the golf world seen this before, seen the world’s best men and women play the same golf course on back-to-back weeks?” Davis says. “It’s never happened before. I can’t think of a better place than Pinehurst for such an historically significant event.”