The Middle Ages of Pinehurst

Part I

“I missed the money in the Los Angeles Open. And we were driving to Oakland, California, and Valerie said, ‘You know how much money we have?’ And I said, ‘Yes, I know.’ We had eighty-six left out of the $1,400. So she said, ‘Well, what are we gonna do?” – Ben Hogan

The early professional golf tour was a rather bleak affair. Merely to stay afloat one had to finish very high in the tournaments – on a regular basis. Not finishing well could mean having to leave the tour and head for home – as happened to Hogan for a time. Players travelled around in cars without heat or air for enormous distances while doubling and tripling up in seedy motels. Not all of the players ate well – although the same can not exactly be said with regard to drinking.

Things were a little different when the tour arrived in Pinehurst.

“The North and South Open at Pinehurst was one of tournament golf’s most anticipated events, a beautifully run tournament most marquee players regarded as only a whisker below the National Open and the PGA Championship in terms of prestige and stature. Players’ wives adored the North and South because the tournament’s hosts treated them like visiting royalty, providing manicures and massages, lush buffet luncheons, special teas, garden tours, horseback rides, and black-tie socials and dinners in the elegantly draped dining room of the Carolina. There were always fresh spring flowers waiting in the guest rooms, along with imported bottles of French mineral water, and guests were invited to take in polo matches off the hotel’s vast side porch or attend evening band concerts in the village square.” – James Dodson

From end to end, the entire village was filled with luxuriant displays of dogwood, azalea and wisteria. Playing the best competitors on the ingenious course within this otherworldly ambiance – at the height of Spring – was an experience far removed from anything these hardscrabble players had ever known.

It was as close to perfection as any tournament you care to name – a tradition like no other.

Courtesy of the Tufts Archives

“For many years, the old North and South Open on No. 2 was sort of a Masters before there was a Masters. Touring pros and golfing enthusiasts alike remember the North-South and Pinehurst as the tour’s annual brush with charm and elegance. Black tie and evening gowns for dinner. Eventually, it was the favorite tournament of Ben Hogan and Sam Snead, who each won it three times and in fact considered it a major as did the equipment and apparel companies who gave bonuses to the North-South winner just as they did for the winners of the U.S. Open, PGA and Western Open.” – Dan Jenkins

There were many extraordinary battles which occurred in that half century of supreme tournament golf. The 1920 version was most assuredly one of the best. A spirited battle went on with a great deal of tension until Walter Hagen came to the 18th hole of No. 2. Like Payne Stewart many decades later he also needed a par to win and a bogey for a playoff. Also like Payne he was left with a 20 foot par putt for a dramatic victory. Unlike the man who’s statue now resides behind the green, Hagan missed the putt. He then had a four footer for the play off.

“A loud and distinct groan went up from the wall of onlookers as they saw that putt had missed by three inches. But their golf hero stood up straight and just laughed.” – Golf Illustrated

Hagan on the final green of the 1920 North South Open

Don’t feel too sorry for “The Haig” – he ended up winning the tournament three times. Incidently, he won the Western Open five times. That was considered a major at the time, as well. When historians make their lists of all time greats they would do well to take this more into consideration.

Oh, and by the way he won five PGA’s, two U.S. Opens and four (British) Opens, as well. That is…19 majors, if you are counting. Can you imagine the regard he would get if this was pulled off today – especially given his effervescent style and personality? Regarding his personality, all you really need to know is that he preferred to end the day’s round with his butler standing beside the green – in full regalia – delivering a perfectly chilled martini on a tray.

Of equal or perhaps even more importance was the fact that he was the one who personally transformed the status of pro golfer from tradesman (who were not allowed in the clubhouses) to something along the lines of an upper-mid level businesman. Only the Haig could say “Hey Eddie, hold the flag, would you please,” to the future King of England and get away with it gracefully.

The earliest days of the North South were dominated by none other than the Pinehurst pro himself. Ross won the title six times. Most people don’t know that while a pro at Pinehurst…Ross won the U.S. Open in 1907. Well, actually that would be Alec rather than his brother Donald. Alec was quite a renowned player and won many titles all over the world. Brother Donald held up his end of the family golfing honor not too badly as well. In the earliest days he won the North South three times. Most people don’t remember the master architect also finished in the top ten in both the American and British Opens.

Golfing ace Alec Ross - Courtsey of Wikipedia

Among many other dramatic North South competitions was the 1940 version. Coming into the tournament Hogan had yet to win a single time. He had been close several times only to crumble at the end. It had gotten to the point where he had a reputation as a guy who could not pull it off. This was starting to get the diminutive man more than a little steamed up. In fact, before this tournament he cancelled two lucrative private matches which were guaranteed money even larger than the North South purse. It was a very determined man who showed up a week early to sort matters out before the big event.

And for the first three rounds sort matters out he did. With the brand new MacGregor driver Byron Nelson had graciously given him he took the lead early and held it through the first three rounds. With one more to go he was four ahead of the man who irritated him the most. The tour was still in the stage of trying to establish respectability and, to put it mildly, Hogan did not care for the hillbilly routine Sam Snead trotted out at events with the overalls and straw hat he’d put on to amuse everybody. Still, Snead was an unbelieveable talent and a proven champion many times over. And he was breathing right down Mr. Hogan’s neck.

Also in second place going into the final round was “The Squire” – Gene Sarazen. At this point Sarazen had already won seven majors. The Squire didn’t think there was quite enough pressure on the long suffering Hogan – so he took the liberty of goosing him a bit before the final round. The previous night while holding court at the Carolina, Sarazen said “he has never won before, he won’t win this time. Hogan’s been out front before. Someone will catch him“.

Apparantly, Hogan wasn’t entirely pleased with this newspaper quote.

A gentleman not in the least given to exaggeration saw Payne Stewart walking up to the first tee before the final round in ’99. He said “I’ve never seen anything like that. You could have held a shotgun up to Payne’s head and he wouldn’t have blinked.” Hogan was was exactly like that – if not even more so that particular day.

Well, not only did he win the tournament – he set the all time record – leaving all those formidable competitors in the dust. It was quite a breakthrough – and a turning point because he rattled off several more wins that year. The rest of his career requires no comment.

That is just a little sample of the many all time matches which occurred during those halcyon years. There were, of course, many more. But, matters went to an even higher level at one point. In a moment of competetive golf that has not been reached before or since, in 1951 the Ryder Cup was held the week prior to this major tournament.

It was indeed a singular moment in time…which ended in ignominy.

As did the fabled North and South – for that was the year the magical tournament ended.

Photograph of a poster on the veranda of the Pine Crest Inn.