Wednesday 11 June 2014

Pinehurst No. 2

Tomorrow morning, Pinehurst No. 2 will host the United States Open for the third time, however, the 2014 edition of the event will see a significantly altered golf course.  The changes made to the historic Donald Ross design were carried out under the watchful eyes of the architectural team of Bill Coore & Ben Crenshaw.

The wonderful one-shot 9th.
The goal of the work was to restore the strategic design intent and Sandhills appearance of the individual golf holes.  This was accomplished by widening the fairways to create more angles of approach into the greens, and through the removal of 35 acres of irrigated rough, which was replaced with native areas full of sand, wire grass, pine straw and numerous varieties of native grasses.  The current set-up features no rough, with errant drives finding a wide variety of lies - from perfect to pitch-out and everything in between.  Many trees were also felled to open vistas throughout the golf course and give golfers more room to play freely.  In total, the restoration allowed 650 irrigation heads to be removed from the golf course, and the current maintenance program has eliminated over-seeding, keeping the turf grass playing firm and fast throughout the season.  The bunkering has been restored to a 1943 aerial of the golf course courtesy of Craig Disher, with whom I had the pleasure to play a round with at nearby Dormie Club.  Donald Ross tinkered with Pinehurst No. 2 throughout his career, hence the aerial used for the restoration - taken only five years before the great architect died is ideal.  In addition to be restored in terms of size and location, the bunkers were given a more rugged appearance in keeping with the landscape of the area.  Two greens (No. 15 & 17) were modified slightly to provide more hole locations, and while that type of architectural change is not desirable, given the philosophy of the architects involved and the reverence they hold for Pinehurst No. 2, I trust the alterations were kept to the most essential and were minimal in nature.

I was fortunate to play Pinehurst No. 2 last fall (in fact it was the last game I played in 2013) thanks to a friend I'de met only a few days previous who arranged the day before to have us go first off the tee at 6:45 in the morning.  It was a special round, and having caddies to help guide us around was a welcome experience.  For a major championship venue, I found the course eminently playable (I shot 80, albeit the greens speeds were manageable, we played suitable tees for our calibre and the fairways weren't lined with spectators), with the greens and surrounds providing the greatest defence against scratch golfers.  Pinehurst No. 2 is the type of course that good golfers can pile up bogies even on a good day, a test and result that is much more enjoyable than one that yields the potential for round ending holes at every turn.  It is also a course that allows higher handicaps to swing freely, never lose a ball and play around the hazards due to the increased width.  In combination with firm and fast and even a hint of brown turf conditions, a model for faster golf (a remedy the sport is in desperate need of).  I sincerely hope that the public perception of the restored Pinehurst No. 2 will be positive as I feel it is a model for sustainable golf, and is a healthy change to what has been in vogue for the past few decades.

Here at the famed fifth, my caddie told me to play my approach with a 4-iron.  He knew it wasn't enough club, but left me below the front hole location.  A delicate chip (which took its time to settle 3 feet from the hole) followed by a satisfying par putt will always be a cherished memory from the experience.  
The focus of this post will be to highlight some of the positive features of Pinehurst No. 2 rather than be an exhaustive description of the strategic merits of this Donald Ross masterpiece.

Pinehurst No. 2 is routed over a landscape replete with lots of smaller undulations, and by replacing the irrigated rough with native waste areas, Coore & Crenshaw have added lots of contrast to the overall landscape making the golf course much more visually appealing.

No. 3
No. 11
The transition between the fairways, bunkers and native areas are excellent.  The design elements bleed into one another creating a nice harmony between features.

No. 12
No. 1
No. 3
No. 11 (scene of my only birdie, note approach just left of hole)
The restored bunkers have a much more natural appearance, similar to the natural erosion of wind and rain on the Sandhills landscape.

No. 7
No. 17
The green surrounds repel marginal approach shots and place immense pressure on golfer's short games.  The closely mown surrounds allow balls to escape further from the hole, but also provide short game options.  Players with less well-honed skills can play to their strength and if not greedy, get down in three shots.  Professionals and top-ranked amateurs can choose the best option, be it a putt, chip, pitch or flop for recovery shots in an attempt to maintain par figures, but that often comes at the risk of making double-bogey or worse.

My recovery shot from pin high left at No. 2 ended up falling off the front of the green after a less than crisp chip.  The next stroke was a putt for fear of piling up a big number and facing the same shot again.
Over the back of No. 8 green, scene of the famous John Daly "hitting a ball in motion" meltdown.
An over aggressive bunker shot from the front left bunker at No. 10 turned a good birdie opportunity into a bogey six after ending up in this depression.  Note how much smaller the greens actually are, as a good portion of the above funnels balls off its surface.
No. 14
In looking at current aerials of Pinehurst No. 2, there is plenty of width for the rank-and-file amateurs that make up the vast majority of rounds at the course.  However, the fairways begin to narrow further from the tee, maintaining an adequate challenge for the very best players who risk flirting with trouble for a shorter approach shot.

The fairway at No. 12 provides plenty of width to give advantage to players who can play accurately from the tee to gain a better angle of approach.

No. 18 is wide for players not trying to carry the fairway bunker, but narrows considerably and is set at a diagonal to the line of play to confound the highly skilled golfers who elect to take on the challenge.
Pinehurst No. 2 will be in the spotlight for the next four days, and hopefully some of the fundamentals being practiced here will be embraced by the golfing community at large.  From an environmental standpoint, using less water by reducing irrigated turf areas, promoting fast and firm conditions and planting native vegetation will keep Pinehurst No. 2 ahead of the curve.  Further, the wide, playable corridors combined with lack of dense bush and forced carries will help keep rounds faster and more enjoyable, and a happy golfer is a returning golfer.


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