9 Lives – Pinehurst’s oldest new course

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With its acquisition of Pinehurst No. 9, Pinehurst Resort and Jack Nicklaus are brought together again

By Lee Pace

My golf writing career and the single Pinehurst-area Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course have something in common: Both sprouted out of the mid-1980s golf boom.

I had covered quite a bit of golf at the Durham Morning Herald in the early 1980s before repairing to the staid world of corporate public relations. But the itch to have a front-row seat as the sport expanded—riding flush economic times, a squeaky-clean image and the Baby Boomers’ trade of their tie-dies from the Sixties to their Pickering golf shirts—kept my eyes peeled for good stories throughout the Carolinas to peddle to the rapidly expanding universe of golf publications.

So when developers Mike Sanders, Allen Jordan and Claude Smith announced in early 1987 that they had signed Nicklaus to design a course just southeast of the Pinehurst roundabout, I rode the story for all it was worth. I even took a day of comp time from my job in Charlotte in the spring of 1987 to attend a sales-and-social gathering on the job site when Nicklaus was in town to inspect the early earth work for what was originally called Pinehurst National Golf Club.

“There are a lot of great courses in Pinehurst,” said Nicklaus, who was paid a cool million bucks for his efforts. “Pinehurst No. 2 from a design standpoint has always been my favorite. I’m glad to be here and be a part of that.”

By the time the course opened in April 1989, I had quit my job and was now freelancing full-time. I covered the opening exhibition, when Nicklaus shot a four-under 68, and dispatched 1,500 words on the course to a glossy fledgling publication called Southern Links (the forerunner to Links Magazine).

“The golf course sits so nicely, it looks like it’s been here a long time,” said Nicklaus, who won the 1959 North & South Amateur on Pinehurst No. 2. “The waste areas and wire grass add a nice flavor and feel to the golf course.”

“Pinehurst No. 2 from a design standpoint has always been my favorite. I’m glad to be here and be a part of that.” -Jack Nicklaus

Since then, the golf club has endured three recessions (the junk bond fiasco and first Iraq conflict of the early 1990s; the dot-com bubble bursting and 9-11 fracas of the early 2000s; and the 2008 housing market implosion and ensuing banking collapse). It has withstood a name change; ergo its legal name from the late 1990s to 2014 as National Golf Club. And it endured a revolving door of management and ownership groups through the 1990s; the stewardship of owners Kenneth and Claudia Robinette from 2000-14 gave the club much needed stability.

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Pinehurst No. 9, 5th Hole

Now 25 years after its opening, the club has crossed another significant threshold. It was purchased by Pinehurst Resort & Country Club and rechristened Pinehurst No. 9 in June of 2014.

“This gives us another course on the level of No. 4, 7 and 8,” said Don Padgett II, the Pinehurst president and COO at the time of the purchase. “It’s a win-win-win for everyone involved. The members there now have access to our facilities, and our existing members and guests can play an outstanding golf course.”

Tom Parsons has been at the club since 1997, first as head golf professional and more recently in a dual pro/general manager role. He no longer has to advertise with discount coupons in newspapers and golf travel guides to fill afternoon tee times during the summer.

“I have always felt this golf course and this club have serious potential be something special,” Parsons says. “When people walk in and see the majestic views on 9 and 18 and the ponds and aesthetically how it all blends together—they agree as well. I think Pinehurst senior management and (owner) Bob Dedman think they have a real winner.”

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Pinehurst No. 9, 18th Hole

Philip Bailey and Tom Bowles both joined the club in the mid-2000s and have houses adjacent to holes on the back nine, Bowles on 16 and Bailey on 17. Both were originally attracted to the Nicklaus-designed golf course because of its challenge and visual stimuli.

“It’s a thinking man’s course, which you would expect from Jack Nicklaus,” says Bailey, a financial advisor with a young family. “On the par-5s, for example, you have to give a lot of thought to where to place your second shot for the best angle into the pin. The greens complexes are some of the most interesting in the area. There’s definitely a lot of thought that goes into where to miss and where to position yourself around the greens.”

“Before the sale, I was thinking we had slipped to fifth or six among the top clubs in the area. Now we’re back at the top.”

“From the beginning I liked that it was a challenging course but was still fun to play,” says Bowles, who retired and moved from Buffalo with his wife to be closer to his son and his family. “The first five holes are as tough a starting stretch as any course I’ve ever played. I’ve met a lot of fun people to play with, and that’s what golf amounts to, the people you play with.”

Yet both in recent years had noticed a slide in course conditioning and club amenities and were happy to see the sale go through in early June.

“Some of the bunkers had deteriorated and they hadn’t fertilized end to end in years,” Bowles says. “They were running on a shoe-string for quite some time.”

“Before the sale, I was thinking we had slipped to fifth or six among the top clubs in the area,” says Bailey. “Now we’re back at the top.”

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Jack Nicklaus won the 1959 North & South Amateur at Pinehurst No. 2. (Photo courtesy of the Tufts Archives)

Bailey says improvement was immediate in course conditioning over the summer.

“There were more workers on the course, more equipment,” he says. “They replaced water fountains and repaired cart paths. They changed the mowing patterns on some of the tees and actually extended one of the tees on the second hole, the par-3 over water. You now have a lot more variety on that hole. Before you’d drive up and know which club to hit. Now you have to check where the tee is and get a yardage.”

Parsons says members and resort guests will really begin to notice changes in the spring and summer of 2015, when many of the improvements implemented later in 2014 have a chance to evolve in the warmer weather. The club is now spending $250,000 more per year on golf course maintenance and is also on the cusp of a major overhaul of the clubhouse.

“It’s been a whirlwind since June,” Parsons says. “A lot of things have happened for the good. And we’re just really getting started.”

Lee Pace has been writing about the Pinehurst golf scene for nearly 30 years. 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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