The Early Days of Pinehurst

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Despite the noblesse oblige of the original conception of the resort, Pinehurst, in fact, evolved into an elite community. At an unprecedented pace both golf and prominent families of Northern society became established traditions within the resort. In fact, along with the peerless North and South Open, they came to define the resort for several charmed decades. This was precisely what Tufts intended with his updated vision of the resort – peaches and consumptives already a distant, if not altogether faded memory.

When deprived of the tempering influence of home and hearth, lively groups of men are sometimes known to pursue what Ross called “sporty” vacations. This was roundly discouraged by the Pinehurst establishment. In fact, one had to be personally approved by the Tufts family to be admitted into their Southern haven. So keen was Tufts upon a wholesome environment that alcohol was not allowed within the resort at any time. The banishment of intoxicating spirits within the gilded edges of this village was about as successful as it soon went in the nationwide Prohibition decree – which is to say that there was the occasional discrepancy between stated community standards and the activities which actually took place. With the resort being comprised of individuals accustomed to a certain level of gentility, even those establishments which catered to the less than elevated instincts reflected a measure of the elegance found within the town itself. For just on the edges of the community – and there is always something on the edges of any community – nightspots such as the Dunes Club and the Chalfonte bore little resemblance to the bath tub gin joints to be found throughout much of the rest of the country in this era.

Courtesy of the Tufts Archives

Never-the-less, the resort did maintain an uncommonly high degree of decorum. It was within this milieu the prominent families came not only to visit but to establish stately homes for the duration of their winters.

Pulitzer Prize winning Swope was an intimate of the Algonquin Round Table.  Courtesy of the Tufts Archives

One example of this colonization was the the Fownes family of Pittsburgh. As the iron industrialist clan settled into a lifestyle commensurate with their wealth they were able to spend upward of six months of each calendar year at their home in the center of Pinehurst.

W.C. Fownes and Donald Ross in Pinehurst. Courtsey of the Tufts Archives

W.C. and his father H.C.’s enthusiasm for the game and Pinehurst was a matter of no small consequence. For these were the two gentlemen who went on to create one of golf’s supreme masterworks: Oakmont. Beyond the modification of one bunker there is no known evidence that their prolonged Pinehurst experience influenced the design of Oakmont. The Fownes earliest perspectives have largely been kept away from “the picklocks of biographers”. Never the less, consideration of the matter presents some possibilities.

It is a fact that the co-architect of Oakmont – H.C. – was a chief proponent of the penal school of design. Such deeply entrenched views do not just appear out of nowhere. This would have been an acquired set of related views which evolved from a natural inclination to a core belief. That is a process which takes place over an extended period of time. He may have had an epiphany at some point but even that would not have occurred without having absorbed a great deal of information regarding various architectural principles.

Consider this quote from Pinehurst’s first designer – Dr. Culver:

“We are happy to say that there are no obstructions other than those placed there in connection with the few hills met with on our course, and those lend interest to the game.”

That is the opposite of Oakmont. Not only was Oakmont one of the most fiercely bunkered courses in the world – they insisted on deep furrows within by using a very wide tined rake known colloquially as “the devil’s back scratcher”.

This first resort course deliberately eschewed any sort of reprimand for the misplayed stroke. How many sunny afternoons upon those links do you suppose he witnessed no penalty whatsoever for the wayward shot – and no corresponding gain for the artful stroke? It would have had to have been a great deal of them. Pinehurst was not necessarily the first or the sole place which set Fownes on a path to becoming a primary proponent of the penal school. However, he was immersed in that world for quite a long time before Oakmont started. In all likelihood, what he witnessed upon those links would have informed his thinking to some degree.

Being markedly attracted or repelled is a catalyst for individual activity – like a piece of metal that either clamps to or is jolted away from a powerful magnet. Obviously, Fownes was very keen on presenting a strenuous test where in his words “a stroke misplayed is a stroke lost”. The fact that he spent decades vigorously pursuing and refining one of the most penal courses ever designed implies a distaste for its opposite. One story which illustrates this occurred many years later while H.C. was playing bridge in his Pinehurst home. He was delivered a phone message that Sam Snead had driven over a particular bunker. Without blinking he merely said “put in another bunker” – and continued on with his card game.

There was a another sharp contrast between the Fownes summer and winter clubs. Pinehurst – at least nominally – went with the egalitarian format. Oakmont was and remains extremely exclusive. Both versions of the perfect golfing experience have their merits. It is nice for “average citizen” to be admitted to lofty surrounds. In turn, it is nice to go to a place where your hard gained success has admitted you into a realm where you do not have to worry about the quality of individuals you will meet on your frequent visits to the club. Both exemplary clubs maintain the same perspective one hundred years on.

Considering the fact that H.C. Fownes largely went in the opposite direction it is curious that his affections for the winter resort were so effusive: Here is Fownes in 1901 – two years before Oakmont began construction:

“There is something in the air of Pinehurst that makes it insidiously attractive; all who breath it want more of it. Here, golf is the sport of sports; experts are counted by the dozens and enthusiasts of all kinds by hundreds. Every weekday on the links may be seen by many parties of players of both sexes and all ages, oblivious to everything but the fascination and charm of this most healthful and invigorating of all sports. Golf is popular everywhere, but particularly so at Pinehurst, where climactic conditions are ideal for the game and where players have the advantage of a course that is unquestionably the finest in the south, and which compares favorably with, if it does not surpass, any other in the United States.”

Also, there was an event which very clearly showed his regard for the resort. It is not well known that in the later stages of the Depression when the resort was very close to going under…he personally bailed it out.

The Fownes family deserves to be remembered in Pinehurst.

H.C. Fownes in Pinehurst. Courtesy of Corbis


The Fownes chapter is a variation of a core Pinehurst theme. This theme being the leaders of American towns and cities visiting Pinehurst and subsequently insisting upon having a course for their own area. By doing their own design, and having it become one of the most esteemed links within the world, the Fownes chapter was an uncommon version of this template. But for hundreds of previously golf poor communities the wealthy visitors simply drafted Ross himself to establish this ever popular game – and its attendant genteel world – to their own provinces.

In terms of general America culture the exportation of golf from Pinehurst is not so easy to quantify. But consider this, Donald Ross ended up designing approximately 400 courses in the U.S. This man brought the game and its gentlemanly ambiance to so many corners of the country that the culture of the U.S. itself was elevated to a significant degree. This is a phenomenal achievement that informs and refines the coarse nature of the country even to this day. FDR thanked him for as much when the two met. Ross wasn’t too impressed with the politician though.

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