By Lee Pace
It was a big event in early March 2011 when Pinehurst No. 2 reopened after 12 months of a major facelift under the direction of architects Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, the last four months of it with the course completely shut to golfers.
It was a major milestone as well in June 2014 when the U.S. Open and U.S. Women’s Open were held on consecutive weeks and the course’s restored optics of unkempt, jagged and utterly natural were hailed by golfers and the attendant golf universe.
Slipping beneath the radar, though, was the 5-year anniversary of the course’s reopening on March 3. The restoration project was never about adjusting Donald Ross’s No. 2 course for the U.S. Open. The purpose simply was to restore the width and bounciness of the fairways and remove the “bermuda creep” of four decades and return the perimeters of the holes to the native hardpan sand, wire grass and pine needles that reflected the look Ross left upon his death in 1948.
By sheer coincidence, Coore happened to be in Pinehurst on March 3, 2016. He had been attending to his recent work at Old Town Club in Winston-Salem earlier in the week and took the opportunity to visit Pinehurst and inspect the continued evolution of No. 2 and consult with course superintendent John Jeffreys on the course’s on-going maintenance.
“Five years? Seriously? I wouldn’t have had any idea,” Coore says.
He takes a stroll around the course on a crisp winter day when members and resort guests have taken every tee time available on No. 2. The fairways are a faint green hue, the result of course officials having discovered a colorant and method five years earlier of giving the grass a hint of color in winter without having to overseed the course with rye grass—a definite deterrent to developing the firm and fast playing conditions they covet. Just two weeks later, after a series of Spring-like days, the natural green would emerge.
“We take great satisfaction in that it turned out well and it’s gotten better. It’s everything we hoped it would be and more. And there’s a sense of relief, that it actually did work. We believed it would work, but when you do something this radical, this dramatically different, you never know for sure.” -Bill Coore
“It’s absolutely fabulous,” Coore says. “What an incredible job John and his guys are doing, not just the turf but the presentation and the overall course. It couldn’t be any better.”
Coore looks at the bunker to the right of the 18th fairway, his favorite on the course, and the wire grass plants dotting the sandy areas around it. “It looks totally random,” he says. “Absolutely nothing here looks like it’s planted or that anyone gave any thought to structure or organization.”
Walking along the eighth fairway, he notes the manner in which the fairways melt into the natural areas—the hardpan sand that resort founder James Walker Tufts and Ross found more than a century ago. “It looks like it’s been there a hundred years. The edges just fade into each other, there are no hard edges,” Coore says.
He notes the incongruity of the restoration concept, that Pinehurst owner Robert Dedman Jr. and his staff had the moxie to rip out pretty grass and replace it with random elements occurring naturally in the Sandhills of North Carolina. Standing on the ninth tee, Coore harkens back to a photo displayed in the clubhouse of the 18th green during the 2005 U.S. Open, when all the grass was green and the bunker edges svelte and smooth.
“The golf course is better now than when it reopened,” he says. “Think about that photo, where you have green grass everywhere. Think about what we did: We took all that green out and did everything that seems like the exact opposite of what you’re supposed to do and has the potential to make you look really bad in your business.”
Indeed, there were plenty of cynics early on. Members and resort guests in 2010 in the backwash of the 2008 financial collapse simply thought Pinehurst didn’t have the money to maintain the course. Some in the design and maintenance business said you might get an interesting look out of the gate, but the vintage aesthetics would be difficult to maintain. All were wrong.
“Five years is a long time,” Coore says, gazing at the jagged bunker outlines up near the ninth green. “Look at those bunker edges, some people said they wouldn’t hold up. I’d say they’ve held up pretty well. The biggest fear we had was it would not be maintainable. Some people said the bunkers would fall in, you can’t maintain them. I guess it worked. They’re still there.
“We take great satisfaction in that it turned out well and it’s gotten better. It’s everything we hoped it would be and more. And there’s a sense of relief, that it actually did work. We believed it would work, but when you do something this radical, this dramatically different, you never know for sure.”
Also out on the course this March afternoon are Jeffreys, the superintendent, and Joe Violette, a club member since 1989. Jeffreys is riding about the course on his maintenance vehicle, Violette as he is many afternoons throughout the year, walking the course and carrying his bag.
Jeffreys, a 10-year-veteran of the No. 2 maintenance staff and the superintendent since the fall of 2014, acknowledges there was a learning curve to the maintenance protocol set down by Coore and Crenshaw five years ago.
“It’s an ego check,” he says. “You accept what Donald Ross intended the golf course to look like, you accept that the playability and Ross’s vision come first over pure aesthetics.”
Jeffreys drives past a maintenance worker to the left of the third fairway who’s picking up pine cones and putting them in a big sack. Ten years ago, every pine cone would have been picked up. Today, just enough are collected so that they don’t overwhelm the playing areas around the larger pine trees.
“Bill came in and said, ‘Leave them alone, they’re part of nature,’” Jeffreys says. “He was shocked to learn we bought pine straw. ‘Why in the world would you buy pine straw?’ he said. He was absolutely right. Just use what’s here and don’t try to decorate with it.”
Jeffreys is asked about the tarps discretely folded and tucked into the trees beside every green. They are used to cover the greens on nights when the forecast is to be 25 degrees or colder; the new bermuda greens built in the summer of 2014 have been a rousing success, but they take more care and attention during the winter than bent.
“The trade-off is well worth it,” he says. “We did over 36,000 rounds on No. 2 in 2015, and that’s 10,000 more than we ever did on bent. With Bermuda, we spend our time making it better. With bent, we spent our time in the summer just getting it to survive. I’m fine having to put the covers on the greens a few nights a year and not having to water the greens all afternoon all summer long.”
The conversion to Champion bermuda has made a huge difference to Violette, a real estate broker and appraiser who works in the morning and plays golf in the afternoon.
“It was hard to get on No. 2 in the summer on bent greens because it was closed most of the time in the heat of the day,” says Violette, a former resort and club tennis professional who evolved into golf 30 years ago. “Now it’s so wonderful to go out on No. 2 at 2:30 or 3 in the afternoon, walk 18 holes and finish with the sun setting behind the clubhouse.”
“Now that they’ve made the change to the natural areas, it’s so much more beautiful. … “I live for that course, it’s so awesome.” -Joe Violette
Violette is among a number of members who take advantage of club policy that allows members to walk and carry their bags, and many of them can’t get enough of the revamped course.
“Now that they’ve made the change to the natural areas, it’s so much more beautiful,” he says. “There is more texture to the course. It looks prettier, there are a variety of colors out there. There’s more contrast, you can see the fairways and where you need to hit your ball. With less water on the fairways, they’re harder and faster and the ball runs out more. There’s more premium on the tee shot than there used to be because the ball rolls into the native grasses.
“I live for that course, it’s so awesome.”
That’s a fitting accolade five years into the second coming of No. 2.