The design of The Old Course at St. Andrews is exemplary on many levels. Most importantly, it possesses a slew of world class holes that few courses match while remaining fun for a wide range of players. No wonder Charles Blair Macdonald routinely copied more holes from this course than any other, as it possesses that elusive design quality enabling a grandfather, father, mother and their son to equally enjoy its challenges (even the day after hosting a grand event). Though some of America’s greatest courses like Oakmont and Merion have design elements of The Old Course laced within them, playing them after they have hosted a significant event would be quite inhospitable! One course stands out on the American golf landscape for its ability to challenge the very best and yet provide maximum fun to a wide range of players. That course is Pinehurst No.2 and it is no coincidence that it was designed by the Scot Donald Ross who was intimately familiar with The Old Course.
Thanks to the successful restoration project completed by Coore & Crenshaw in 2011, Pinehurst No.2’s design attributes have been reestablished making it unique with The Old Course. Both designs hinge on great expanses of short grass – and the challenge it presents – and by greens that shed balls into swales, hollows and other places unintended by the golfer. Fifty yard plus wide fairways once again greet the golfer on every tee at No.2. Gone is the bermuda rough that choked the fairways to thin ribbons. In fact, there is no rough on the entire course, bermuda or otherwise. There are only two heights of grass, one on the greens and the other everywhere else. Hunting with your head down, searching for an errant drive in bermuda rough, is a thing of the past as are 650 (!) sprinkler heads.
The intended consequence of Coore & Crenshaw removal of thirty-five acres of bermuda rough is that Pinehurst’s sandy floor once again shines through with No. 2 properly reflecting its environs of the Sandhills of Moore County. Predominantly found along coastlines, Pinehurst’s sandy soil is its ultimate trump card over virtually every inland course in America. Reinstating the course’s natural sandy qualities, rather than burying them beneath acres of bermuda rough, was a key objective to Coore & Crenshaw’s successful restoration project. Given that about 85% of the world’s top twenty-five courses are built on sand, overstating its virtues is impossible.
Much like The Old Course, the rub for the good player at No. 2 is to maintain control of his ball. On a soft, receptive course, he plays point to point golf with more precision and confidence, making low scores a distinct possibility. Once the tiger ceases to be able to control the fate of his ball as it scuttles along fast running short grass, worry creeps in, followed by doubt. At this point, the course gains the upper hand.
Not seen for several decades, tee balls are now bouncing three to five yards in the air after landing in the fairway. They run out and 1) stay in the broad fairways, or 2) come to rest in one of the bunkers that protrude into the fairways (and as there is no rough to impede the ball’s progress, the bunkers play larger than their actual foot print), or 3) end up on the native sandy floor strewn with beach grasses, pine straw, etc. where the golfer may or may not draw a good lie. These same scenarios play out at The Old Course where the threat of heather is replaced by wire grass at Pinehurst.
At the green complexes, the common denominator of The Old Course and No.2 is the short grass that surrounds the greens. The putting surfaces themselves couldn’t be more different as St. Andrews’s massive double greens average over 14,000 square feet while Pinehurst’s famous turtleback greens are only 5,500 square feet. More than half of the technical green space is not cupable at Pinehurst given how they slope off on all sides, thereby leaving targets in the 2,500 square foot range. That’s less than Pebble Beach’s notoriously tiny greens. Yet, the key at both courses is how well you get down in two from ten or twenty or thirty yards from the hole. You’ll likely be on short grass but how do you coax the ball near the hole? You might hit a bump and run into the green’s bank, try a pitch shot or even putt from a long distance. The important thing at both courses is that all options are available and that they are within the physical ability of the vast majority who play the sport. Only a professional can gouge a ball from thick rough while controlling the clubface; that dull challenge doesn’t factor into a game at Pinehurst. Creativity and imagination rule the day here, just as Ross intended.
Despite Ross’s constant adaptation of No.2 to changes in technology and agronomy, the course feels homogeneous and unforced upon the landscape. While No.2 may not compete for grandeur with Pine Valley or Sand Hills or for scenic glory with Cypress Point or Royal Portrush , it nonetheless attracts equally ardent admirers. As Tommy Armour eloquently wrote, ‘The man who doesn’t feel emotionally stirred when he golfs at Pinehurst beneath those clear blue skies and with the pine fragrance in his nostrils is one who should be ruled out of golf for live. It’s the kind of course that gets into the blood of an old trooper.’ Ross himself wrote, and his quote is on a sign by the first tee, ‘I sincerely believe this course to be the fairest test of championship golf that I have ever designed. It is obviously the function of the championship course to present the competitors with a variety of problems that will test every type of shot which a golfer of championship quality should be qualified to play. Thus, it should call for long and accurate tee shots, accurate iron play, precise handling of the short game and, finally, consistent putting.’
As we will see, No.2 accomplishes this with a string of exceptional holes which invite comparison on a hole by hole basis to any course in the world.
Holes to Note
(Please note: Two yardages are given, one from the back markers reserved for events like the U.S. Open and another in the 6,300 yard range.)
First hole, 405/375 yards; The first hole perfectly captures the essence of No. 2 as a wide fairway meanders through a broad corridor of pine trees and ends at a sophisticated green complex. What may not be readily evident are the intriguing angles of play. While the first green is forty yards long, it is only half as wide. Its axis runs from front right to back left and points to the right side of the fairway. For the good player, the target area in the fifty yard wide fairway is shrunk by half as he dearly wants to play his approach down the green’s spine. The less ambitious golfer is just pleased to hit the broad fairway. If the approach doesn’t hold the green, one is likely left with a recovery from short grass and ends up with no worse than a bogey. Most first time visitors will fall under the charm of such a course that tests the best while allowing them to muddle through the round with only one ball. Meanwhile, better players recognize the hard edge of the subtle though exacting challenge. Some players during the year end PGA event in 1991 and 1992 went so far to say that No.2 was the hardest course that they had ever played. They see it as Pete Dye does who once remarked to Tom Doak, ‘On the first hole, you’ve got a five foot deep bunker with an almost vertical face to the left of the green, and a humpback green with a bunch of severe dips in the ground to the right of it. What’s so subtle about that?’
Second hole, 505/410 yards; Tom Watson considers this one of the best second holes in the world, and he is not alone. To achieve so much character on essentially flat land is an amazing design accomplishment and one wonders why this green complex has never been emulated elsewhere on sandy soil. Local golf course architect Richard Mandell has had plenty of opportunity to study No.2 and says in admiration, ‘What I like about the greens at No. 2 is the way Ross doesn’t just simply open up the putting surface to the middle of the fairway or even to the same spot on each golf hole. He constantly mixes it. For example, the best angle to approach the putting surface of the second green is the far left side of the fairway. A golfer’s instinct is to take the shorter route to gain an advantage and that is the right side in this case. It will take the golfer fifty tries to realize the shorter route is the wrong side to approach the green from. When people talk about the subtleties of No. 2, that is a perfect example: Beating your head against the wall multiple times to figure out that isn’t the way to play a certain shot.’
Third hole, 390/330 yards; The third is a rare example of a hole being improved by hosting a major tournament. Several large pines were removed from behind the green to make room for grandstands during the 1999 U.S. Open. With nothing to assist with depth perception, the severely sloped back to front green is an even more terrifying target. Of course, gains in technology enable the modern professional to have a crack at the green from the tee when the hole is played in the 340 yard range. The USGA will certainly utilize a forward set for one or two days during the upcoming 2014 U.S. Opens to goad golfers into risking a bogey or worse for a chance at a birdie or better. The left greenside bunker isn’t a bad place to miss as the green slopes toward the golfer and a recovery is easier from here than over the 5,050 square foot green from where the putting surfaces races away. Again, Mandell notes, ‘Another example of Ross’s subtle approach to green design is that most often the best place to miss it is on the bunker side because the putting surface contours are more receptive to a recovery from that side. While instinct says ignore sand at all costs, that is frequently the lesser of two evils at No.2. Of course, these examples of subtlety only come about from years of refinement. Ross had that luxury as his home is in plain sight from the third green.’
Fourth hole, 570/470 yards; In marked contrast to the first three holes, the fourth features attractive land movement with the fairway some forty feet below the level of the tee. Played through a secluded valley, the fourth feels like a different piece of the property and it is as the fourth and fifth holes were once part of the ‘Employees’ Course.’ Built in 1928 by Ross, these nine holes represented affordable golf for the locals but the timing was poor. The Great Depression hit the following year and the Pinehurst Resort was soon under terrible financial strain. The Employees’ Course was shut setting the stage for its first and ninth holes to become today’s fourth and fifth when Ross undertook a major remodel in 1935. Ross was always impressed by the scenic qualities of this portion of the property. The addition of these holes and their sloping land add great variety to No.2.