6,428 yards, 131 slope from the White tees
Donald Ross designed the course in 1919, but went through several iterations over the years. Abandoned after World War II, then re-designed by Peter Tufts before a re-design by RTJ in 1973 and modifications by Rees in 1983. The course was then completely rebuilt by Tom Fazio in 1999. Gil then redesigned the course in 2018.
At the moment, the 4 course is in the spotlight. Newly made over by Gil Hanse and company, the course is becoming a must play in the area and if you listen to enough discussions around town, you’ll hear on one more than one occasion someone making the argument that No. 4 is better than No. 2. The terrain is certainly more diverse and with the difficulty No. 2 is known for, some feel No. 4 is more engaging and not as much as a slog as No. 2. There really isn’t any doubt that No. 4 isn’t as tough as No. 2 The greens are generally flatter and while both are fairly wide open low profile affairs, 4 only asserts its tougher side on a few occasions.
But I see the important question as, how does No. 4 assert its identity any different than No. 2?
That’s really the question for just about any course in the area, but probably most applicable to No. 4. In playing the course after Gil’s recent renovation, however, it was apparent that there doesn’t seem to be any interest in being compared to or competing with No. 2. They are completely different courses. It is only when you examine No. 4 without any regard for No. 2 does its individuality, and appreciable traits, begin to shine. Having played several of Gil’s courses (and this is now a Hanse design, based on the work he did and it’s even proclaimed on the scorecard), they are most often challenging in intelligent ways yet go beyond naturalistic with their shaping and design elements. His restoration work is often very well done but make no mistake about it, the courses are usually more challenging than before. Gil is certainly versatile in his style, being able to move between minimalist and maximalist structures. While the greens at the Cradle are an example of Gil’s mischievous side, Number 4 is of an entirely different style. It’s gentle with broad strokes, and immense greens that brim with subtlety. It uses the wind a lot more intentionally than it lets on and for that reason, is of a more classic low profile era where one can excel with his ground game. It’s natural in its presentation. And just when you’re in a rhythm, lulled by its grand simple manner, it tightens that handshake just enough. To keep you guessing and knock you off kilter a bit. While Gil has restored several famous Donald Ross designed courses, this feels more like his own loose and preferred interpretation of Ross. Making use of the land efficiently, some forced carries and other worldly routing, Gil seems to take to heart Donald Ross’ famous quote, “Golf should be a pleasure, not a penance.” Perhaps it’s no coincidence that’s the quote on the Cradle’s score card.
Indeed, Number 4 is Gil’s rendition of a Donald Ross Pinehurst sand hills course. In that context, I was impressed and enjoyed playing it considerably. Now placing the course within the larger Pinehurst frame work, it complements No. 2, as well as the other courses, more than it contrasts, competes or compares to them. While the golfer can discuss which of No. 2 or 4 he may like better, there really is no discussion which is the better course because it was never intended to be. Yet its individuality and how it highlights and fully utilizes the terrain and setting makes it one of the better courses in the area. Like a flowing lazy river gliding along putting you at ease all too naturally, whose rapids are sudden, random and unenduring. Yet through it all and unlike some rounds you may encounter here or elsewhere, you know it’s adventure, you’ll come out of it in one piece and you don’t have to worry about drowning. That calm reassurance isn’t present at many of Hanse’s original courses which is yet another way in which No. 4 sets itself apart. Whether it’s the result of time, location or history of the place, or just my perception, who knows.
Fazio’s version of No. 4 is still in Google Earth and it’s worth taking a look at to see the extent of the work done by Gil. Fazio featured a dizzying array of pot bunkers, as well as large swaths of sand on one side of the hole or the other, similar to what Pete Dye did on his courses. Very much a modern, trending style at the time, you can see just how more natural and harmonious the course is now. Hanse cleared a lot of trees and enlarged greens so their scale fit with the land. The far ranging vistas add to the inspiration the golfer feels as he traverses the land throughout the round. He built a new par 3 at the Eleventh and moved the par 3 Fourth green on top of the ridge it used to be below. He transformed shape and placement of bunkers. Really though, Hanse did well to release the terrain to freedom, its grand majestic nature coming out from the rocking hills. Wayward shots meet the native scruff and occasional tree but recoveries are very much in play. Width done well, in Pinehurst tones.
The First is a 404 yard par 4 (from the White tees). A nice little dog leg right with wire grass and broom sage off to the right that I’ll refer to as native scrub for the most part. One is able to carry as much as the native as possible to shorten the hole but bunkers are further down on that side closer to the hole which will collect any of these tepid shots. The green is large and seems flattish, yet moves strongly. This is the general theme of the greens; large in size, flowing from the fairway, subtlety abounding.
The Second is a 473 yard par 5. This area is a hub of greens and tees of various holes of various courses. Counting them, the number is ten. Ten holes are routed from various angles to meet at this location before going off again in various directions. For us, while the First was the gentleman’s handshake, the Second is the grand entrance introducing us to the heart of the course. A wide twisting hill corridor through the pines leads to the green set on the right hillside. Beyond the green, the course sprawls in all directions and we get a glimpse of what’s to come. While the green at the First was more representative of most holes, the green here has some flashes of No. 2 as it’s pushed up on a hillside. The entry point is a steep apron up to the green while the movement right to left is bold and harrowing. Hedging to the right on the approach to account for that movement is smart, but too much hedging means your ball will end up stopped up there, leaving a very delicate shot back down the hillside. The green is well fortified and like No. 2, takes all the studying you can muster to figure it out.
The Third is a 378 yard par 4. Now heading a bit uphill, the fairway is wide and moves slightly right to left. A few bunkers and native scruff come in from the sides leading up to the green but in general the fairway is generous and spills into the similarly generous green. I’ve already used subtle over a dozen times already but this hole epitomizes that with its larger contours that are only noticed when one looks back from the green. The size of the green is daunting and one could easily get befuddled with distance control on longer putts but it’s a great contrast from the tight wire we had to walk at the Second.
The Fourth is a 119 yard par 3. The water is now off to our right and the green is hanging on the edge of the hillside. Fazio had this green close to the water so that the tee shot was a forced carry over it but here, the hill side is the main feature. Anything to the right of the green will dive down the hillside while those hedging left will need to avoid the bunkers on that side and/or will be left with a slippery putt with the hillside. A simple short par 3 that Ross typically had on his courses, it’s a nice measure of strategy and challenge for the shorter iron.
The Fifth is a 460 yard par 4. Now moving across the interior of the course, the tee shot is uphill over sandscape at the front of the fairway, which climbs and crooks to the right. The hillside moves the fairway from left to right while the green is tucked off to the right, trees on that side guarding any approach until they are cleared. The climb gets a bit steeper just before the green, making most approaches blind. Yet one up there, we enjoy a glorious view of the water from the side opposite the Fourth. A burly par 4, the approach is a tough one yet the reward is that view from the green.
The Sixth is a 184 yard par 3. A longer par 3 that’s a forced carry over a ravine, the green sits atop on the other side, bare to the elements. Sloping off on all sides, the green looks difficult to hold from the tee but there’s a lot more room that it appears and there’s plenty of room around the greens for recovery. A great par 3 in both look and feel. The green is yet another spectacular viewpoint. Now at the highest area of the course, the panorama of the course is a moment to inspire as we now journey forth.
The Seventh is a 404 yard par 4. Truth be told, I spent most of my time on this hole in the tree line on the right, strictly for research purposes of course. What I learned though was I always had a shot out of it and the ball could be found. I just couldn’t get out. Shot after shot. I finally emerged to the green and explained the entire sequence was just as intended and no one should be alarmed. For those less adventurous who prefer the fairway, it’s a slight dog leg right where the native sand area is fairly dominant on the right side, yet trees temper those favoring the left. A well hit tee shot reveals a more relaxing approach to a large green with bolder contours within its larger framework.
The Eighth is a 374 yard par 4. A bit different on this hole is the cavernous bunker intruding into the fairway from the right side. It must be dealt with on the tee and harkening back to my round at No. 3, I decided laying up short of it was the best idea. It simply looked like it needed to be avoided, which it does as you get closer to it and realize just how steep it is. The problem is I was left with a longer approach in, but I finally hit a decent shot that ended up just off the left side of the green where I was able to get my par. The green actually runs front to back a bit, so others may want more distance off the tee to set up shorter approaches. Terrific bunker placement here makes all the difference.
The halfway house is after this hole, which confused me for some reason and I was convinced we had missed a hole some where. At any rate, it looked like a nice place to sit for a while but we carried on post haste.
The Ninth is a 484 yard par 5. Speaking of bunker placement, we encounter what I’m calling an “acre” bunker here, similar to the Seventh’s Hell’s Half Acre at Pine Valley and the Seventh at Philly Cricket Wissahickon, which are both par 5’s as well. It technically falls into the Great Hazard category. Large, intimidating and unavoidable, it comes into play on the second shot for most. I have no idea whether the longer players are able to carry it from the tee but I have my doubts. The green is set on a ridge to the left and has a lot more upfront movement than we’ve become accustomed to. It’s a tough hole and with the Eighth, the teethier side of the course makes an abrupt appearance.
The front nine essentially traverses a high ridge on one side of the course before taking you down the valley and back up again to the other side. The par 5’s were spectacular, the par 4’s well varied and the par 3’s joyful fun. Every hole was solid. I’d rank them 2, 8, 3, 9, 5, 6, 4, 7, 1.
The back nine starts with the 392 yard par 4 Tenth. A bit narrower of a fairway than we’ve seen from the tee with trees on both sides. The fairway tilts from right to left, with bunkers on that left side to collect tee shots bouncing and rolling in that direction. The fairway opens up closer to the green, with the left side feeding into the green above while the right side gives way to a long trench bunker lining that side. It’s a cool green but it’s the first fairway I found a little nondescript.
The Eleventh is a 137 yard par 3. A new hole altogether, a shorter par 3 that ended playing a bit long for us because the wind is up. Native long grass and sand sits between the tee and green but there’s plenty of room before the green to play with, although it does move right to left, towards a bunker on that side.
The Twelfth is a 387 yard par 4. Out of the woods, so to speak, the fairway heads slightly uphill from the tee. The width is refreshing but once we hit the crest, large deep cut bunkers are on both sides, left before right, then the green. While the green runs back to front, it sure seemed to allow balls to fall off the rear pretty easily, as everyone in our group ended up back there. I’ll be aiming for the front of the green next time.
The Thirteenth is a 504 yard par 5. We have snuck up on the water from the other side, which is out yonder from the tee. The fairway descends to it while tilting towards it as well. The decision comes at the second shot, as to how much of the water to take on, or to steer wide right around it, which results in a pretty long third shot approach. The green is off to the left. You would think it moves towards the water but the photo below shows how it slopes the other way. I’d still bet it moves towards the water but won’t know for sure until the next time.
The Fourteenth is a 179 yard par 3. Very similar to the Fazio version from what I can tell with probably a larger green and a more rugged natural bunker complex off to the right, the water now calls on us all whether we like it or not. A semi long tee shot over the water to a modest hillside, all of it running right to left towards the water banks. Bunkers are on the right to collect those trying too hard to stay out of the water and the slope makes sure you end up with a tricky chip shot with the quick movement towards the water.
The Fifteenth is a 331 yard par 4. Another slight uphill tee shot and while the fairway should be easy to hit, this is all about figuring out setting up the best line into the green. The green is wide and not shy about its undulations and runs off into the bunkers and native scruff on its sides. I would posit that coming in from the left is a good idea. You have to take the bunker on but the green movement favors this angle, at least to me. Belting it straight out gives you the entry point, at which a nice bump and run gets you on, so that’s another option. Just don’t go right above all else.
The Sixteenth is a 274 yard par 4. A short par 4 that relies heavily on the contours of the land for its character, although any shot too far sideways has a whole new set of problems. The fairway shirks left a bit and the area around the green is immense. The green is raised, with various mounds and contours about that must be well negotiated to find your way close to the green.
The Seventeenth is a 536 yard par 5. Fairly far away from the clubhouse with two holes to go, we now make up a lot of ground quickly. Heading out straight away, the fairway starts downhill, after a cantankerous native area before it that needs to be carried off the tee. The fairway then starts to head up to the green, various bunkers off to the sides on one side or the other. Take note some of these bunkers are hidden from view at first blush, so study where you intend to land closely.
The Eighteenth is a 408 yard par 4. While the prior hole seemed more about straight and long, the last is about placement and strategy. A dog leg left where the fairway initially heads off to the right while sand rapids are to its left. Bunkers on the right ultimately dead end the fairway, which then about faces left, moves down before going back to the right and up to the green. Those adept off the tee could draw it with the hole and get the ball to the left, which would then leave a shorter iron in while the conservative play is hedging off to the right and settling for a longer approach in. The wild sand rapids we see to the left initially are now off to the right of the green and while the green is large and there is plenty of room before it, the sand on the right some how comes into play more than it looks like it should. The clubhouse is askew in the background as the final putts drop, an enriching experience amongst the Pinehurst terrain.
The back nine features a very strong set of par 4’s while the par 5’s and 3’s fall a bit behind, yet all is well with a very strong strategic closer that was among my favorite holes down here. I would rank them 18, 12, 16, 11, 10, 15, 13, 17, 14.
Generally, Pinehurst 4 has seen a number of iterations since its inception, yet the land on which it is set has always assured interesting and engaging golf. Fazio’s modern take juxtaposed with Hanse’s return to a flowing rugged natural presentation shows just how versatile the terrain here is. While it’s likely difficult to imagine, there may be a time when the course will change yet again to accommodate the evolution of the game, which is something the Pinehurst Resort has endured and adapted to acutely. As it stands present day, however, Number 4 is one of those rare reviews I actually grew more fond of the course as I was studying the photos and writing it up. Hanse accentuated the strengths of the land and similar to it, the course is just as versatile. It can play as challenging or fun as you’d like, while accommodating all various styles of play. The vistas and the width are done well and provide much of its character. It certainly felt like Gil had the freedom to explore his vision of Ross here, all while instilling his team’s own intelligent touches.
There’s a duality to Number 2 and 4. I think both are required play down here but for different reasons. While Number 2 has a distinct identity and path that I’ll get into in that review, Number 4 allows you to enjoy the terrain more holistically. Long drawn out vistas of the sand hills, grand corridors leading to sprawling greens, all with a gentle adjustment to whatever game it is you’re looking for out there. Number 2 is a brilliant expression of our game intrinsically while Number 4 is a cogent extrinsic expression. That’s the best way I can put it.
Clubhouse/Pro Shop/Practice Area: It’s all part of the main clubhouse and with the First tee mere steps away from the facilities, you should be warm and sharp by the time you meet the starter.