The art of making Pinehurst No. 2…better?

By LEE PACE

Technology is forever evolving in industry—steam engines replace horses pulling cargo, dynamite replaces picks and shovels for mining coal. And in sports as well—golf clubs morph from hickory shafts to steel to titanium.

Today improvements in grass seed science allow golf architects and green superintendents to use grasses in the Mid-Atlantic “transition zone” not long ago deemed too bumpy and slow for quality putting surfaces. The greens on Pinehurst No. 2 are now five months into their next iteration, this time with a strain from the same family of grasses, Bermuda, deemed outdated three decades ago.

“Technology keeps evolving. The Bermudas available today are nothing like the common Bermuda we knew 30 years ago,” says Bob Farren, Pinehurst’s director of golf course and grounds management.

The greens on No. 2 were torn up one week following the 2014 U.S. Women’s Open and resurfaced with Champion ultradwarf Bermuda, a strain that maintains high density during extreme temperatures and at low mowing heights, delivering smooth, consistent putting surfaces 12 months a year. Champion has been installed on more than 530 courses throughout the South in the last decade.

No. 2 becomes the fourth course at Pinehurst following Nos. 1, 3 and 8 to have its greens converted from bent to Bermuda, another in a decades-old effort to ride agronomic technology and provide golfers with the best putting surfaces possible.

“I think the new greens are absolutely fantastic,” says USGA Executive Director Mike Davis, who played the course in early November. “Ultimately it’s a good thing for Pinehurst. Agronomically, it’s the right thing to do. Why try to fight the climate with a cool-season grass? As good as the greens were for the U.S. Opens, and they were borderline perfect, this is the right thing for day-to-day play. And for championship play, whether you’re talking April, June or August, your chances of getting good greens are better with this type of grass.

“These new Bermudas have much less grain, they roll so much truer, and they withstand the heat better.”

Architects Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, who directed the restoration of the course in 2010-11, have also visited Pinehurst this fall and give a thumbs-up to the early returns on the new greens. Coore during the restoration four years ago extended the right side of the 15th green and the front of the 17th to allow for hole locations deemed too extreme before. This summer when the course closed, he floated out some area front-right on the sixth green to allow a cup-able location there as well. Approximately three-eighths of an inch sand build-up was removed as well before the greens were re-seeded.

“I think they’re pretty good,” said Crenshaw, who visited in early November. “They’re quick now, and once they get a little maturity on them they can get them down a little more and speed them up. I was impressed with the tie-ins around the actual putting surfaces. They look really good. The greens and the surrounds blend together seamlessly.”

“I think the new greens are absolutely fantastic. Ultimately it’s a good thing for Pinehurst. Agronomically, it’s the right thing to do. Why try to fight the climate with a cool-season grass? As good as the greens were for the U.S. Opens, and they were borderline perfect, this is the right thing for day-to-day play. And for championship play, whether you’re talking April, June or August, your chances of getting good greens are better with this type of grass.” -USGA Executive Director Mike Davis

“I was there the day they planted the grass and came back 16 days later,” Coore added. “It was incredible how quickly the Bermuda had taken off. In just over two weeks, they were 80 percent grown-in. They had perfect conditions to get them established and they looked great in October.”

Coore was interested on that visit to watch about an hour’s worth of play on the sixth hole and see the new front-right hole location in use. He had two challenges in shaving off a modest amount of the slope around the green—create a large enough area to place a pin but not let the green look forced or unnatural. He watched a half dozen groups play the hole and deemed the pin fair and playable but difficult.

He accomplished exactly what Davis had asked for.

“If you look at the old photographs, there was a hole location front-right on 6, but over time you could not put a hole there,” Davis says. “I don’t know if it was because of top-dressing over the years or what. I told Bill, if you could ever so slightly soften that area middle-right, we could certainly get a hole back in there. He did a great job. You can put a hole there now. I will say, it will be a tremendously challenging hole location. It won’t be for the faint of heart.”

The fall golf season has been extraordinarily busy with guests interested in playing the course that hosted the back-to-back U.S. Open and Women’s Open in June. If you’ve not played the course recently, among changes in addition to the greens you’ll find the following:

  • A new starter’s hut beside the first tee modeled after the one at the Old Course at St. Andrews.
  • A new putting green and chipping/pitching green in the same area, redesigned by Coore to tie the ground between the first tee and 18th green into a more seamless presentation.
  • A permanent flopping of the pars on the fourth and fifth holes as they were played in the Opens—the fourth being par-4 and the fifth a par-5.
  • The removal of the bathroom facility beside the fourth tee that stood starkly in its brick-box design with the natural flow of the golf course.
  • The repositioning of several cart paths to make access and egress more fluid.

Farren and the No. 2 maintenance staff will continue to carefully manage the native areas bordering each fairway, now a key part of the course given the removal of some 40 acres of Bermuda rough by Coore & Crenshaw.

“We’ve shifted our focus to better understand the native areas,” Farren says. “The learning curve continues. What grows at what time of year? What looks good and what fits? What enhances the area and what looks like a weed?”

Lee Pace is a regular contributor to the Pinehurst Blog. He latest book, “The Golden Age of Pinehurst—The Rebirth of No. 2,” is available in all retail shops at Pinehurst.

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