The Middle Ages of Pinehurst

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Part II

“…what happened is that through decades of labor and artistry Ross rendered four luminous courses of ornately detailed craftsmanship – a golfing dream world – out of nothing.” – From A History of Pinehurst No. 4

Weaving a masterfully realized course through primitive land with no reference points is an accomplishment which requires a phenomenal level of talent. Envisioning the seamless placement of eighteen holes from the natural features of the terrain in such a way that the flow and strategy create a unified logic over and above the individual variations is quite a triumph.

In Pinehurst, Ross brilliantly interlaced and perfected the nuances of seventy-two contiguous holes. The four courses not only had a compelling rhythm within themselves but as they related to each other. There are innumerable articles regarding the golf at Pinehurst but one fact that has not received due consideration is the ingenious balance of challenge and style as the four original courses made up differing elements of one complete world of golf.

The Magnum Opus (Courtesy of the Tufts Archives)

The land which Ross found in a primordial state was ideal for golfing. Eons ago, it was under the Atlantic – lately to become the edge of a continent – before receding 100 miles distant. In its wake remained a loam which provided a grounds more than suitable for weaving an elaborate four sided master plot of golfing configurations. A sandy based soil…but not entirely sand.

Pinehurst is 25% clay.

This mixture – a clay and sandy compression – provided the correct balance needed for grassing lands firm enough for golfing – yet porous enough to provide the designer a canvas upon which subtleties and formations could be introduced and retained. A heavier soil would not allow for such because a lack of drainage leads to frequent muddy areas – and this places considerable limitations on which design features can be crafted. Soil that is entirely sand is not what you’d want for golfing either. That would be called a desert – and that doesn’t work out too well. Modern technologies do expand the percentage of land which can be worked for golfing. The difference being the earlier designs worked, of necessity, in close harmony with the natural world.

“There is something so undeniably pleasant about a natural hazard that it seems out of the question to duplicate it artificially. Take, for instance, a creek found on a property. Something about the way banks have shaped themselves adds greatly to their attractiveness. But when a like effect is attempted artificially, it falls far short, no matter what pains and expense are taken. Man cannot do in a few days what nature took years to accomplish.” – Donald Ross

“It’s the only way. If you’re going to make a tree, for instance, you have to copy a real tree. No one can “make up” a tree because every tree has an inherent logic in the way it branches. And I’ve discovered that no one can make up a rock. I found that out in Paths of Glory. We had to copy rocks, but every rock also has an inherent logic you’re not aware of until you see a fake rock. Every detail looks right, but something’s wrong.” – Stanley Kubrick

Latter day modes of course design are more of mans imposition – clever though they may or may not be – upon the land. An intimacy with nature is one of the irrevocable keys to a proper golfing experience.

Beyond an ideal soil was a terrain which rolled about here and there – not too sharply pitched – yet rich with character. As with the sand/clay mixture it had a proper balance between the two edges of a continuum. The turn of the earth upon the ancient compacted sediment combined to provide an ideal canvas. All that was needed was someone with talent enough to bring it to a full golfing realization. Pinehurst was rather fortunate in that regard.

As architect, Ross roamed this land for decades. Identifying feature after feature which could provide playing interest of a caliber which continues to beguile more than a century on. As architect he would have been familiar with the land in a fashion most people could not begin to fathom. You can be quite sure he was familiar with every hill and hollow – and importantly the distances between.

When this sort of artistry is performed at the highest level the course will look like it has always been there and the sequencing of the holes was effortlessly born out of obvious choices. Actually, rendering a course of outstanding (rather than mediocre) quality requires a complexity of thought on a level that is parallel with advanced mathematics. It is a highly involved exercise to assess the vast number of variations which a land suited for golf offers. It’s not a matter of identifying one well conceived hole at a time. They must all relate to one another in a smooth progression. When visualizing a hole the skilled designer is simultaneously assessing how the others will relate to the one he is concentrating on at the moment. This can lead to adding or eliminating elements of the current hole – while retaining a high degree of quality of that hole. To weave the entire affair together in a way that resonates with a measure of grandeur is creativity on a grand scale. And, as stated before, in Pinehurst this was done times four.

In addition, the designer must contend with a constant stream of practical matters such as the owner, the craftsmen, the budget and many other issues – each of which can give the designer unexpected difficulties at any time. One would imagine contending with this high wire juggling act for an extended period of time would leave the designer quite happy to be done with the course and not overly enthusiastic about initiating another one of these demanding projects. That was not at all the case with Mr. Ross though. He did this about 400 times. Not only that – but at Pinehurst he spent decades refining these courses over and over until they were…perfect.

An ultra rare view of the land prior to its transformation for golfing and residential purposes.  (Courtesy of the Tufts Archives)

The four courses taken as a whole were a virtuoso performance on a level which ranks with the master works of the broader culture. The achievement in course design was matched by the charmed nature of the village itself. The entire enterprise reflected a sensibility of understated elegance and an adherence to the highest level quality in all matters. All in all, it was a spectacular achievement.

The dedication to a supreme level of quality was a reflection of the Tufts family. Beginning with founder James and continuing on with his son Leonard, it was their very personal involvement which was the key to the elevated nature of the resort. The place was so finely wrought that it was only with the greatest reluctance that visitors would take leave of this most uncommon world.

From Golf Illustrated – 1920:

“Before entering in detail on the play for the three championships, a description of the courses and the Pinehurst atmosphere may be of value to these unfortunate fans uninitiated to Pinehurst. If you had left the North in a snowstorm, as we did, you could appreciate it all the more. It seemed almost unbelievable, after an all night ride on a train, to be greeted at this Carolina oasis men call Pinehurst by a white flannelled, sun-tanned coterie of “regulars” there; to step off the train and be ashamed of an overcoat and the pallor of a snow-bound North. Summer suns beamed on one. Flowers poked their bloom out of green shrubbery; sprinklers played on green lawns surrounding the beautiful cottages with which the thriving golf village of Pinehurst is filled. Red-breasted robins twittered with other feathered harbingers of spring, laughing at the bus-loads of new arrivals as though to say, “You’ve just found this place? Why didn’t you fly down here long ago like we did?

The verandas of the big hotels are littered with knickered groups of golfers waiting for the buses to take them to the club for the morning round. Inside the baggage of new arrivals is piled high. Woe unto him who has made no reservation. It was like a golf scribe’s dream to look around in those lobbies. Francis Ouimet was there, arranging a match with three other national stars; Walter Hagen in another corner with Gil Nicholls and other pros getting up another preliminary match; all of them there, fancied the fan, to battle for his pleasure, to furnish him reams of copy. They talk, eat and sleep golf at Pinehurst. It’s the first thing in the morning and the last thing at night. They play 36 holes with golf sticks in the day-time, and with tongue and pencil at night. They are there from every corner of this broad land, there to play golf. They represented our greatest stars, and our greatest business men. They had come, all of them, hundreds of miles because they couldn’t wait for the season to start at home.

There must be something in this game of golf, after all. Perhaps the modern accommodations at Pinehurst; the fact that robins on your window sill and warm sunshine wake you up for breakfast and from your table it is the shortest walk or ride to the club; that once there you have four eighteen hole golf courses laid out for you with all the skill and cunning of Donald Ross.”

In 1920 no less than 15,000 requests for reservations had to be turned away.

When he passed away in 1948 the ingenious quadrilateral was left in the hands of a gentleman who was entirely dedicated to golf. Leonard’s son Richard graduated from Harvard and some influential people called him the most effective president of the United States Golf Association. His behavior and manner were said to be beyond reproach.

He was the perfect choice to carry on the legacy.

Richard Tufts with Donald Ross (Courtesy of the Tufts Archives)

And yet, it was in his hands and at his direction that Ross’s extraordinary golfing dream world…was torn apart.