The Cradle & Thistle Dhu
Pinehurst, North Carolina
United States of America
There’s a romantic notion that golf began in Pinehurst in 1900 when a young Scottish immigrant named Donald Ross came to town and started tinkering with the sandy soil. Yet, there is a rich history that predates Mr. Ross that is often overlooked.
Initially, James Tufts envisaged Pinehurst as a retreat for those suffering from tuberculosis. The fresh air and scented pines seemed to have a medicinal effect. Plus, for those seeking to escape the Northeast’s cold winter months it was much closer by train than Florida. As Chris Buie notes in his book The Early Days of Pinehurst, when Pinehurst was being constructed in 1895 ‘the disease of the consumptive, tuberculosis, was found to be communicable rather than hereditary.’ Oops – back to the drawing board. Buie continues the tale of how Tufts planted orchards in the hope of creating a peach empire but ‘the culprit in the latest debacle was a pest known as the San Jose scale. A large infestation of these little beasts put a definitive end to the peach concept.’
Happily, things turned for the best when a local farmer complained about the guests of the Carolina Hotel bothering his cows. Sure enough, they were playing golf and Tufts decided to pursue that angle. He hired Doctor Leroy Culver, a local resident, to lay out a nine hole course. Culver had sufficient means for a boat passage to the United Kingdom and had been to St. Andrews. As Buie’s research showed (and this was quite a surprise), Culver had in fact built holes in Southern Pines at the Piney Woods Inn prior to being contacted by Tufts. Anyway, he was Tuft’s best option and in 1898 (two years before Ross’s arrival) Culver laid out the first holes in Pinehurst. A portion of that area is where The Cradle sits, though my word, how the game has changed!
Today a turned-down 6 iron in the hands of an expert produces a shot well beyond where a hickory driver could propel a gutta percha ball in 1898. Yet, the satisfaction derived from chasing a ball into a hole in the most expeditious manner remains similar.
The Cradle, which opened October 1st, 2017, represents a first class use of time and space. Perhaps the tiger is refining his short game or more importantly, someone is being introduced to the game. Perchance a family is having fun? The author has long contended that far too many courses that are ‘suitable’ for a novice are featureless designs of little merit. Scant are the chances that anyone becomes captivated by our sport if all they experience is deadly dull fare. At The Cradle, the architecture is compelling to the point that people actually look forward to a return round and that can lead to getting hooked on the sport.
From an architectural perspective, it was liberating for the architect too. Gil Hanse explains:
Jim Wagner and I were given the opportunity to build something on the front lawn of the landmark Pinehurst clubhouse yet we didn’t have to worry about rankings or ‘shot values.’ No one was going to play either The Cradle or Thistle Dhu and be too attached to their score. Therefore, what an ideal time for us to create offerings that focused solely on enjoyment. Length and difficulty were immaterial.’
The merit of a par 3 course is that you spend less time between shots and more time hitting shots. Three loops here equate to a par 81 (e.g. 27 holes x a par of 3) but those 81 strokes occur in 2 hours (e.g. 3 rounds @ 40 minutes per round) as opposed to the North American norm of 4 hours for 71 strokes. For any and all, The Cradle is simply a fun and efficient use of time. Par 3 courses harken back to the origins of the game with a featherie golf ball when good drives went 170 yards and a 5 irons, 110 yards. The point is that you played shots more frequently as you walked less distance between blows. Some practitioners today drive a ball and then walk 400 yards before striking another shot – good grief!
The Cradle occupies a rectangular block of land approximately 330 yards by 145 yards. Its nine acres are bordered along the long axis by a railroad track and Highway 5, which is trafficked by cars going 30 mph. As such, many drivers sneak a peek at the action on The Cradle. And they see golfers everywhere, frequently 20-25 of them strewn among the nine holes. Husbands and wives, seniors and families, some as spectators only, populate the playing field.
Additionally, the picture is one sandy landscape. Replicating the features of the Sandhills (sand and wire grass) was important to Hanse Design. When this land housed the opening holes of Pinehurst No. 3 and Pinehurst No. 5, it was a sea of green grass, dotted with people in golf carts; it could have been anywhere in the Southeast. Carts aren’t allowed on The Cradle. You either grab a handful of clubs and head out or use one of the tiny canvas Seamus bags proffered at the starter’s hut. The picture has gone from being non-descript to one that emphatically informs the viewer that they are in the Sandhills of Moore County.
As for the golf, the single page scorecard informs the golfer that he is about to embark on a round that features nine par threes, ranging from 56 yards to 127 yards. Gil didn’t embark on the project with a set total of nine holes in mind (it could have ended up as six or ten or whatever) but it happened to end up as nine. The total length is 789 yards and a round typically lasts 40 minutes. Of course, if the hole is open behind, people tarry and fiddle with shots.
What can the golfer expect? The player certainly won’t lose a ball, that’s a given. It is all short grass and sand, no rough. There is a profound sense of place where a golfer sees more of Pinehurst’s iconic clubhouse than from any of the resort’s other (nine!) courses.
One neat way in which the course appeals to both the tiger and novice is how slopes can gather balls onto the putting surfaces. The beginner might find such wholly unexpected occurrences as pleasing surprises. Meanwhile, the tiger spots the opportunities and crafts his shots to match the challenge.
The challenges continually shift. Some greens are open from tee to green and others aren’t.
There are no holes that can make grown men cry and shake their fist in despair, like 8 at Royal Troon or 5 at Royal Worlington & Newmarket. Also, there aren’t a bunch of crowned greens à la No. 2. Thought was given to instructing Hanse Design to replicate the short game terrors found at No. 2. After all, golfers flock to the resort to tangle with this famed course and few visitors have the opportunity to practice for the conundrum posed by her crowned greens and surrounding tight lies. Knowing whether to chip with a utility club, 7 iron, wedge or putter is something that plenty of golfers would like to have straight in their head before they head down the first fairway on No.2. Ultimately, the decision was made to steer away from any such replication. Those terrors were already part of the resort offering, so the thought turned toward making The Cradle more engaging to a broader spectrum of player. And that’s what happened.
The author’s two favorite holes are the third and seventh. The third plays 66 yards up a slight incline to a green benched into the hillside. Named Punchbowl, a bank, maintained as short grass, is featured along the left and rear of the putting surface and it sends balls well onto the putting surface. Indeed, time has shown one way to reach the right hole locations is to have the ball land as high as possible on the left bank; from where it gains enough momentum to reach the right edge of the green. Conversely, when the hole is left, the play is just right of the hole and/or not as high on the left bank. Here’s the thing: no matter how you play it the first go around, you are likely to try a different approach the next time. That sort of experimentation represents great design, even if the hole measures 66 yards.
As for the seventh, it plays along the high edge of the property and short grass extends from tee to green. On first glance, it seems friendly but there is more hidden peril here than at any other hole. A slight hollow runs diagonally along the right side of the angled green and is counter-balanced by an unseen drop-off left. Two knobs in the right side of the putting surface enable a proficient player to work a ball toward left hole locations and remove the drop-off left from the equation. Firm Bermuda putting surfaces do their part in releasing the ball. Missing right seems innocuous enough given all the short grass but maneuvering a chip up and over those knobs and getting it within ~10 feet of any hole location right of center is no mean feat.
Tom Pashley, president of the Pinehurst Resort, said it best when he remarked of The Cradle that ‘For a resort that offers over 60,000 yards of golf, it is amazing how much attention and fanfare 800 yards has garnered.‘ I took a friend, George Blunt, to see it. Hailing from Melbourne, Australia and a member at Royal Melbourne, George gets the appeal of tight short grass and bunkers. He remarked after one loop, ‘Never have I felt I missed out on more options in such a short time. Let’s go back around.’
As The Cradle was born, so too was the Thistle Dhu green reconstructed and added into the immense putting lawn that stretches for 80 yards (!) in front of the clubhouse. It covers almost 2 acres and evokes St. Andrews’s famed Himalayan putting green. It takes 2.5 hours to mow on a riding triplex mower (the assignment for which is rotated!) and like The Cradle and No.2 was grassed with Champion Ultradwarf. The Bermuda greens are covered when the temperature drops below 28f for an extended period. Thistle Dhu requires six covers measuring 56 x 280 feet and the process is akin to watching a tarp being rolled off a pipe over a baseball field.
The four corners of the two acres were well defined. Hanse went to work pushing stuff inward and trying to make mounds, valleys, and rolls that tied into one another. While doing so, he had to remain vigilant as to how water would drain on such an immense surface. Apart from that though, he could be as radical as he wanted with significant ups and overs. Gil remarks, ‘Essentially, we started off trying to make a mess and then we refined it to provide as many interesting elements as we could. There is huge flexibility for hole locations but there is generally a way to sort out a putt that can end up reasonably close. I hope people will enjoy figuring out over time how to get close to some of the trickiest ones.’
The sight of so much well-tended shortgrass is impressive. Not many resorts could dedicate the resources to something that is free access. The shadows created by the mounds in the early morning and late afternoon is a vivid reminder that golf is first and foremost a ground game. Time spent on this green hitting 140 foot putts or 30 footers that break 30 feet should certainly help develop a fondness for putting. Worse case, it will stimulate your creativity and benefit your play on the main course.
The origins of Thistle Dhu are interesting. First, the name is a play on ‘This will do.’ A shipping magnate, Leo Barber, was an early resident in Pinehurst and commissioned Ross to build an eighteen hole course on land that was partly on what is now Forest Creek. Barber also had the first miniature golf course in America built in his backyard in 1916, 18 holes on a large putting green. Both designs have been lost through time but the resort reprised the Thistle Dhu course in time for the 2014 US Opens. It was a rousing success, packed throughout the events. The problem was it was located 150 yards from the clubhouse porch. With the creation of The Cradle, the decision was made to have Hanse Design rebuild Thistle Dhu directly in front of the clubhouse verandah. In plain view, people are readily drawn to it and the sight of a man approaching the clubhouse with but a putter in hand is a clear indication of his intent.
The Cradle and Thistle Dhu will improve your short game, which is surely the best way to reduce the handicap ravaged by family commitments! From a personal point of view, these two are exciting additions for the area. It was a trip to Pinehurst in 1981 that stimulated interest in golf course architecture for my father and his three sons (Mom, not so much but she was never happier than when the family was together). Without that trip, the odds of GolfClubAtlas.com coming into existence greatly diminish. The cost of a father taking his sons on a similar trip today are substantial though. The Cradle and this immense putting green mitigate the sum especially since children 17 years and under play The Cradle for free with their parents. Once again, Pinehurst takes a leadership role in opening the eyes of youngsters who may well become enthralled with the sport.
What occurred here? Were things done that you can’t find anywhere else? No. Will people mention this along with Gil’s best work or as a milestone in his career? Unlikely. Will you remember one of these holes on your deathbed? Probably not. Yet, make no mistake -something enduring and important occurred. These two projects are sirens that introduce new players to the game while nurturing the desire of the veteran. This is inclusive architecture that doesn’t bully but rather inspires.
All the excuses drop by the wayside: golf takes too long, it is too hard, too expensive. None of that applies. You play a lot of golf and you play it quickly. Plus, you become part of a communal happening where all nine flags and fellow players are in sight. People passing in a car see folks close together in clumps, having fun. The resort even lets groups of six go out when appropriate. The Cradle is the best possible advertisement for the resort as golf seems cool again.
Attracting those already engaged in the sport is more important than a statement-making design that leaves many people on the sideline. Getting people to learn and play golf has been at the very foundation of the Pinehurst Resort ever since it pivoted away from consumption and peaches. The creation of The Cradle is a welcome return to those roots. As Chris Buie found in a 1898 article in Pinehurst Outlook, ‘To stay out of doors all that one possibly can is the straightest road to rest and health in the pine woods region.’ Such words ring as true today as when they were penned when golf first came to Pinehurst. And now, you have two more reasons to stay outside.