BY LEE PACE
Two snapshots from 27 years of Padgetts at Pinehurst:
The first one is from the spring of 1987. Don Padgett Sr., the new director of golf at Pinehurst Resort & Country Club, is having lunch in the resort clubhouse and talking about bringing his four-plus decades of experience as a club professional and national officer of the PGA of America to his job at Pinehurst, now just three years into the ownership regime of Robert Dedman Sr. and his ClubCorp empire. Padgett is wearing a white dress shirt, necktie and cardigan sweater.
“This is a multi-million-dollar operation, and I’m administering that business,” he says. “I need to look the part.”
“I can feel my dad’s spirit in here. It’s kind of like coming full circle.” -Don Padgett II
After lunch, he walks to the driving range, dubbed “Maniac Hill” many years earlier for the fervor with which golfers of all rank and file search for the Holy Grail of the golf swing. Padgett surveys the array of golfers striking balls in early spring sunshine and says, “Anyone important in golf has hit balls right here. If you’re a golfer and can’t get excited at this, you need to take up tennis.”
The second is from his son, Don II, in the spring of 2010, seven years after his father’s death and six into taking the reins as the president and COO of Pinehurst. The club is two months into a daring and admittedly risky restoration of Pinehurst No. 2, the idea hatched by Padgett and the project headlined by removing some 40 acres of grass and re-exposing the natural hardpan sand and unkempt look the course’s designer, Donald Ross, so embraced in the early 1900s. Recently Padgett’s office has been peppered in the height of the spring golf season with complaints that the resort isn’t taking proper care of this national treasure, when it fact it was simply in the early stages of retrofitting and rediscovering what Ross left upon his death in 1948.
“I can take the heat,” Padgett says. “I can sleep because when I lay my head on the pillow, I know we’re doing the right thing.”
Vision, class, courage, respect for the past—those qualities and more will help define a watershed and continuous chronology of Padgetts holding important leadership and administrative roles at Pinehurst. That era officially ends today as Padgett II begins his retirement and is replaced by Tom Pashley, formerly the resort’s executive vice president.
Don Sr. was director of golf at Pinehurst from 1987-2002 and is credited by then-CEO and President Pat Corso as being the “insider” in the world of golf who opened doors and leant credence to Pinehurst’s drive in the late 1980s and early 1990s to land a major golf championship for No. 2. He died in 2003 having seen No. 2 successfully host the 1989 U.S. Women’s Amateur, the 1991 and ’92 Tour Championships, the 1994 U.S. Senior Open and the 1999 U.S. Open.
“For 27 years now a Padgett’s had an office at Pinehurst, counting my dad’s time and mine. My dad helped get the U.S. Open here in the first place. If I helped recover what Donald Ross left here all those years ago, then I’m happy. I think it’s all pretty cool.” -Don Padgett II
Don II, after a successful tenure as director of golf and general manager at Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio, moved to Pinehurst in 2004 to replace Corso atop the entire Pinehurst club, resort and golf operation. His experiences on the PGA Tour in the 1970s (he shot a 66 in the 1977 U.S. Open) gave him a unique perspective on the nuances of the Pinehurst golf experience. After the 2005 U.S. Open, Padgett came to the gradual realization that No. 2 had become too homogenized with its svelte green sheen and a maintenance protocol that had course workers only half jokingly say they’d catch fallen pine cones “on the first bounce” rather than let it reflect its natural ambiance that reminded Ross of his native Scotland.
“For 27 years now a Padgett’s had an office at Pinehurst, counting my dad’s time and mine,” Padgett II says. “My dad helped get the U.S. Open here in the first place. If I helped recover what Donald Ross left here all those years ago, then I’m happy. I think it’s all pretty cool.”
Both Padgetts during their times at Pinehurst were thoughtful, understated, calculating, analytical—a “ready, aim and fire” mentality with the emphasis on ready.
Padgett Sr. was known as “Coach” to many of the younger staff members at Pinehurst throughout his tenure. He held court by rocking in his beefy leather chair, telling stories and dispensing advice; he absorbed his environment and managed by walking the facilities and pausing to observe, reflect and mingle with the members and guests. Corso and Padgett Sr. traveled frequently to major championships and events in the golf world as they worked to rebuild the image of the resort and No. 2 following Pinehurst’s financial duress of the early 1980s, and Corso marveled at how Padgett was a magnet to the Who’s Who in golf.
“If Padge had wanted to go into politics, he could have won anything he wanted,” says Corso. “As a politician, he never showed all of his cards. He would always have had a huge following of people—not because he was boisterous or loud or a comedian, but because he was substantive and understood the value of relationships.”
That was much the management template passed on to Padgett II. He had the wherewithal to notice No. 2 had gone awry, the good sense to recognize architects Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw as the right team for the job and the savvy to sell his boss, Robert Dedman Jr., on the merits of the plan. He had the fortitude to the stay the course amid early caterwauling and the leadership skills to tell his staff that Coore and Crenshaw were in charge.
Padgett Sr. was known as “Coach” to many of the younger staff members at Pinehurst throughout his tenure. He held court by rocking in his beefy leather chair, telling stories and dispensing advice; he absorbed his environment and managed by walking the facilities and pausing to observe, reflect and mingle with the members and guests.
“What stands out is his singular focus to allow Bill and Ben to make decisions and make sure everyone stayed out of their way,” Pashley says. “He said, ‘We haven’t had any good ideas for a long time. Let’s let the experts have at it.’”
Adds Jay Biggs, the club’s senior vice president for golf and club operations:
“His leadership on the No. 2 restoration was remarkable. I’ve thought about it often: ‘If I were in his shoes, would I have had the courage to pull that trigger?’ He had the idea and the vision to go to Mr. Dedman at a time when the economy was poor, the golf business was suffering. It was a big gamble.
“But it paid off and Pinehurst is better off for it.”
Padgett will remain active around the resort with the title of “executive emeritus” and will work in concert with Coore and Crenshaw on all matters pertaining to No. 2. He recently moved from the executive suite on the second floor of the resort clubhouse to a smaller office on the first floor—one that coincidentally his father occupied two decades before.
“I can feel my dad’s spirit in here,” Padgett II says. “It’s kind of like coming full circle.”
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.