Two years after history, Pinehurst No. 2 remains a standard in championship golf

After back-to-back U.S. Opens, Pinehurst No. 2 continues as not just a marker of the past, but with an eye toward the future in golf

By LEE PACE

This week the eyes and ears of the golf world have moved from the Sandhills of North Carolina in June 2014 to Pennsylvania. Instead of the whiff of pine in the nostrils of golfers competing in the U.S. Open, they’ll face the harrowing green speeds of Oakmont Country Club.

Two years later, though, the vestiges of the historic back-to-back U.S. Open and Women’s Open at Pinehurst No. 2 are still alive.

Even with Oakmont’s classic Open setup on display the idea of firm-and-fast playing conditions with a tinge of brown has now been established in the minds of golfers, course owners and superintendents nationwide.

The concept of easing back on course setup for the Women’s Open has been seeded after the USGA parsed a wealth of statistics from the performances of the men and women at Pinehurst in 2014.

JUNE: U.S. Open (USGA)

Sunday at the 18th hole of Pinehurst No. 2 during the 2014 U.S. Open. (Photo by the USGA)

And now members and guests at Pinehurst Resort & Country Club enjoy playing No. 2 on a pristine set of new Champion Ultra-Dwarf Bermuda greens that were installed immediately following the Women’s Open last summer and have grown in two years to top-shelf conditions. The greens roll smoothly at 9.5-to-11 on the Stimpmeter and their tendency to play bouncier and prompt pitch-and-run shots to release further than similar shots on the old bent greens adds challenge to the experience—as if it needed any more.

It leaves the golfer an experience unlike any in the country – whenever you play No. 2, you play as close to a U.S. Open setup available anywhere.

“It’s a time of the year with bent greens on No. 2, we had to let them be a little taller and slower,” says Pinehurst President Tom Pashley. “I hated for someone to come to Pinehurst for the first time and play No. 2 in July and, because of the heat, not have the best experience. Now they’ll get a true experience on No. 2 for 52 weeks of the year.”

That experience following the restoration of No. 2 by Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore in 2010-11 also includes 40 acres less of Bermuda rough and sweeping expanses of hardpan sand, wire grass and jagged bunker edges like those found in the United Kingdom, the home of architect Donald Ross. No. 2 was groomed for the Opens with two mowing levels of grass—one for greens and a slightly higher cut for everything else. It leaves the golfer an experience unlike any in the country – whenever you play No. 2, you play as close to a U.S. Open setup available anywhere.

Phil MIckelson U.S. Open

Phil Mickelson plays from the native area on the 16th hole of Pinehurst No. 2 during the 2014 U.S. Open. (Photo by the USGA)

That look was in stark contrast to the traditional Open setup of luxuriant green turf tree-line to tree-line, thick rough and the smooth, rounded bunker edges prevalent on most Eastern and Midwestern championship venues.

The USGA extended that concept in 2015 with the venue at Chambers Bay.

“It’s a throwback to the old days,’” USGA Executive Director Mike Davis said at the end of the 2014 Open fortnight. “Maintain the middle of the golf course and spend less time and money on irrigation, fertilizer and fungicides in the roughs. Go back to the way golf used to be played. You use fewer resources and you reduce the cost.

“You just hope around the world, people will look at this golf course and say, ‘It doesn’t have to be lush and green.’ Maintenance up the middle is a great message for the game.”

Bob Farren, Pinehurst’s director of grounds and golf course maintenance, has seen progress over the last year of fellow superintendents beginning to understand the “brown is the new green” idea.

Geoff Ogilvy of Australia hits his tee shot on the 13th hole during the first round of the 114th U.S. Open at Pinehurst Resort & Country Club, Course No. 2 on June 12, 2014 in Pinehurst, North Carolina. (June 11, 2014 - Source: Andrew Redington/Getty Images North America)

Geoff Ogilvy of Australia hits his tee shot on the 13th hole during the first round of the 114th U.S. Open at Pinehurst Resort & Country Club, Course No. 2 on June 12, 2014. (June 11, 2014 – Source: Andrew Redington/Getty Images North America)

“I think it has opened the eyes of some of my colleagues and given them a little more confidence in some of their convictions in not being so concerned about lushness and aesthetics,” Farren says. “We presented a good test of golf predicated on firm and fast conditions. The strategy of the golf course depended on dryness and firmness. It was not green, but it was a very good test.

“And two weeks later, the course greened up without any manipulation on our part. That’s what I was most proud of—the aspect that we didn’t manipulate it one way or the other to cause it to be dry or not before the Open, and then the color naturally came back a week afterward when we got some rain.”

Brooks Riddle, superintendent at Yeamans Hall in Charleston, watched quite a bit of the Opens at Pinehurst and “thought it was really cool.” His staff and members subscribe to the “less is more” philosophy of course maintenance—groom the premium playing spaces to a fare-thee-well, but have less of those acres and leave the extremities to their own devices.

“Kudos to Pinehurst and the USGA, this is a huge step forward in promoting conservation of water,” says Riddle, who maintains about 60 acres of turf and has four or five varieties of grass in the roughs, strains that are indigenous to the land. Riddle sympathizes with a superintendent colleague in an urban environment who has a course with nearly 140 acres to maintain.

“Our members love what we have,” Riddle says. “But 140 acres is a lot of turf to maintain. That may well not be feasible in 10 years. If you really love golf, if you’re a purist, this is how it was meant to be played.”

“Kudos to Pinehurst and the USGA, this is a huge step forward in promoting conservation of water.” -Brooks Riddle, superintendent at Yeamans Hall in Charleston

Davis and the USGA staff had never had the chance to set up a course for men and women on consecutive weeks and study distances, ball flights and run-outs to the degree they did at Pinehurst. The numbers proved that the women don’t hit the ball as far and don’t spin it as much going into the greens as men. But otherwise, they hit the same number of quality shots. Hole length and green firmness will be adjusted for the Women’s Open at Lancaster Country Club this July to account for those differences.

“The data clearly showed we’d been setting up courses for women’s championships too long,” Davis said. “At Pinehurst, we wanted a guy hitting a 7-iron into a green and a lady hitting a 7-iron as well—just from a point closer to the green. We were able to make that happen and we had to shorten many of the holes to accomplish that.”

“(The 2014 U.S. Women’s Open) was a win/win for the women,” Juli Inkster said after the championship. “Our U.S. Open has been talked about more than it has ever. And it was fun to hear the guys say, ‘Hey, I’m really looking forward to seeing how the women play it next week.’ It’s never been done. I think it’s nothing but positives.”

Two years later, Pinehurst gets to sit back and watch the action from a very different U.S. Open and look ahead to the 2017 U.S. Men’s Amateur Four-Ball and the 2019 U.S. Amateur.

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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