- 7,588 yards, 138 slope from the U.S. Open Tees
- 6,961 yards, 133 slope from the Blues
- 6,307 yards, 124 slope from the White tees
If there is one course that represents the anchor of golf course design in America while also its barometer of evolution, this is it. When I first started paying attention to golf, one of the early memories I had was the 1999 U.S. Open at Pinehurst. I remember John Daly hitting his ball as it was still rolling back down to him from the green, then his interview after the round where the frustration with the course was boiling in every word. I remember later that weekend watching Payne Stewart nail that putt for the win and in many ways, I fell further in love, watching how much drama and excitement was possible within the game. I remember the 2005 U.S. Open as well, which seemed like a battle of attrition, Retief’s collapse while Michael Campbell pulled off the win. The commentators kept harping on how brutal the course was playing and that stuck with my initial impressions of Pinehurst. Most vividly, however, I remember 2014, when the course looked much different. Shades of brown, light and pale green, some yellow, balls bouncing and shimmying about, Martin Kaymer committed to the flat stick off the green while most others were confounded with the absence of the deep, lush rough that typically accompanied our nation’s major. While many bemoaned how “ugly” the course looked because it wasn’t the bright hues of green most courses tried to replicate from the near perfection of Augusta, I tried in vain to convince anyone who would listen how spectacular it was. A turning point in how major tournament golf could play with an emphasis on sustainability over conditioning for the sake of visuals.
While only a small stretch of time, these personal memories represent the more recent spectrum of changes we have seen with Number 2, which not so coincidentally parallel the changes in course architecture as well. To understand the significance of Number 2, delving into its historical progression is both necessary and fascinating.
Number 2 started as a nine hole course to alleviate the crowds that began to develop from playing Number 1. The crowd continued to grow and in 1907, Donald Ross expanded and re-designed Number 2 to eighteen holes. Once the eighteen holes were finished, however, only one hole of the original nine remained (The First). Ross’ routing used high points of the land, especially for the greens. The deep set bunkers distinguished itself from Number 1 and based on the newfound challenge they presented, faced a stiff wind of criticism initially. Today, the Fifteenth and Sixteenth are the only holes that are significantly different from the back nine of 1907. Yet for the next four decades, Ross would watch over, adjust and refine Number 2 as he saw fit. Hence began the evolution of the course from its origin and in general, Ross began to implement strategic options instead of the penal features that dominated the early iteration. Ross also experimented with different types of grass, eventually shifting the sand fairways to strains of Bermuda. The introduction of grass enabled Ross to incorporate swales and ridges that are now synonymous with the course. It was at this time that he began to invert the greens to their domed shape that many mischaracterize as his trademark feature on most of his courses. Along with this change to the greens, Ross widened landing areas to add strategy with alternative lines of play into the greens. On this point, Ross quipped:
“To play well a man must have a wide variety of shots. More and more he will be forced to use his head as well as his hands and arms. More and More the golfer will have to have control over the club to insure direction or meet certain trouble.” – quoted in “The Legendary Evolution of Pinehurst” by Richard Mandell.
The greens were changed to grass in the 1930’s, all of them finally completed in 1936-36. That’s right. For almost 30 years, Number 2 featured sand greens. This transformation was profound, allowing Ross to shape engaging and exciting greens with the swales and contours it is known for today. This emphasized a much more interesting putting component, which expanded to refined short game demands as well. The new grass greens meant Ross needed to rebuild the bunkers and in this respect, he ended up reducing their amount by eliminating around 30 of them. This shows how significant the structure of the greens impact everything leading up to it for it to flow well and make sense.
In 1948, Ross passed away. In his never-ending quest to perfect Number 2 and the other courses, he intended to restore greens where weather and maintenance practices had shrunk the greens back to his original design. This the same type of restoration we are seeing take place throughout the architectural landscape today. With Ross gone and the death of Ellis Maples in 1949, the era and generation that had formed and cultivated Number 2 was coming to an end, yielding to anew. Robert Trent Jones modified the course in various ways throughout the 1950’s although the focus of change was to the other courses. In the 1960’s, Richard Tufts began more of the “modernification” of the course to ensure its challenge remained amidst technological developments of golf equipment, which began a drafting away of Ross’ well planned strategic layout. In the early 1970’s, new owners of the resort implemented more of these modernization changes, which included lengthening various holes and introducing a new strain of Bermuda for the greens. Yet the more poignant change was taking out the native wire grass scrub and installing Bermuda rough, which assuredly converted the course into an aerial challenge while altogether eliminating the magnificent ground game Ross had established. Number 2 went through additional modifications, including the greens being re-built, in an effort to attract tournament play as the pines were allowed to crowd the corridors Ross has created for strategic options, in its place a more singular demanding structure that was touted as more difficult and worthy of the tournaments it sought to host.
Pinehurst was awarded the 1999 U.S. Open and in preparation for it, additional changes were made to the course. Yet some of this work was restorative, including re-building the greens to the size and slopes Ross had created, as well as thinning the overcrowded tree growth that had developed. Along with these changes, however, were more lengthening, more irrigation. The lush, full, bushy Bermuda rough remained as well. Narrowing and lengthening continued in preparation for the 2005 USO. After the Open, the course maintained the same narrowness of fairways that was in place for the pros, to allow the golfing public to experience the course under the same conditions as the tournament, as well as it being easier agronomically.
Unfortunately, Number 2 had become very much a modern tournament course that could be found just about any where else. Lush rough, narrow fairways and small greens, it relied on its history and tournament resume for its appeal, yet was victim to the homogeneity that was prevalent in modern golf course design. Strategy and highlighting the unique features of the terrain were not design priorities at that time, especially if one wanted to host majors. The course experienced a dramatic drop in the rankings and as the popularity of places with a different focus such as Bandon Dunes began to take hold, Pinehurst was in need of change.
Coore and Crenshaw were brought in to restore Number 2. After careful deliberation and thought, they decided to bring the course back to where it was at the end of Ross’ life. It was at this point the course was at a culmination of his efforts while Coore and Crenshaw could continue with the restoration of the greens Ross intended as well. This would mean, however, that fairway width would be restored, all the rough removed in place of native wire grass, which runs counter to the traditional U.S. Open set up of heavy rough and narrow fairways. Yet the USGA messaged it would be willing to have the Open there with those changes in place, recognizing the importance of restoring Number 2 back to its proper identity and realizing the unique challenge it would present to the pros. Punishing rough would be replaced by the randomness of the natural ground and plants off fairway and tightly mowed short grass areas off green. The strategy of the course revitalized while the greens returned to a much more prominent role with restored size and sweeping short grass areas tying in to them much better. This work was completed in 2011.
That is where Number 2 is on its journey of evolution.
Again, all the credit to Richard Mandell’s “The Legendary Evolution of Pinehurst,” which is an insightful and detailed historical account of the area and its courses.
Number 2 has been able to reflect the sign of the times through the decades as course design has shifted, changed and progressed. Starting as a penal “monster,” it became more strategic as turf conditions progressed, then began modernizing once Ross and the generation that built it faded away. The modernization reflected the changes in the design industry and as those tenets began to stall out, it was able to return to a much more complex, natural version of itself reflecting the Golden Age tenets that are now re-discovered and celebrated, all while remaining a challenging major venue.
With all its history and significance in American golf, how does that translate into a round for you or me? As I made my way through the round, I found Number 2 to be imminently engaging. At first the greens were confounding. The first couple are indeed crowned and require precision in keeping the ball on them. Crowned greens are not a standard Donald Ross feature and instead, the greens here are unique in their domed shapes? Yet by the Third, I started seeing just how strategic the course was. It required a deep knowledge of the greens in how they move and yes, the manner in which they repel shots, and to where. It requires knowing the lines into the greens and how hard to hit into them. It requires decisions, some times between choosing the lesser of two evils. It requires, and occasionally rewards, ingenuity. I stopped caring if my shots were perfect or even as intended. What really mattered was what my next shot looked like and how to best coax it closer to the hole on the next. If my tee shot ended up in the scrubby native, I stopped thinking about a booming 7 iron out of it, in the air with a baby draw before fluttering down and landing next to the pin. Instead, I looked at longer running shots and how the terrain would treat it. Or a knock down 5 iron to land short of the green and bound up. Or maybe start to hedge where I’d prefer a recovery; off the short grass or bunker. I started to think about golf in the right way and as I submerged myself into the round, I realized what mattered out here most was your interplay with the terrain. In that way, perhaps Number 2 bears similarity to the Old Course in how the complexity of each reside below the surface, revealing themselves slowly, infinitesimally with each shot, hole and round, an always changing chess match with the elements, a never ending yet infinitely enjoyable trial between man and nature.
The land here is not all that dramatic, the course is pleasing yet fairly direct in its presentation, yet the complexity is there all the same. Wide fairways make their way around mild undulations and contours that heave and turn amidst sandy scruff and native curtilage. It all looks straightforward enough until you begin to nice the various slopes and terrain pull, bunker placement in relation to it and yes, those legendary green complexes. They’re enough to bring madness to us all as they swirl, swerve and steer your ball in unfathomable directions. They demand attention and study and as intended, influence every shot out there. Knowledge of all the intricate movements is the path to understanding how to plot each shot from tee to green. Yet all of this facilitates a dimension of creativity, variety and decision making that yields golf in its purest form, allowing for one’s individuality of game to thrive.
Well into my Pinehurst sojourn and with one of the first tee times on a brisk late fall morn, I found myself on the First tee of the incomparable Number 2. Relaxed, primed and earnest, the road through the Land of Ross continued.
The First is a 376 par 4 (from the White/Tufts tees). A wide welcome fairway awaits from the tee, bowing down to the green, almost too fittingly. While hitting the fairway is an easier affair, figuring out the preferred or ideal approach into the green is where things get interesting. It seems to fall off to the left with deep set bunkers on each side of it, rising up from the fairway and leaving dips and nooks in its wake at the entry point. Based on the green movement, an approach from the left makes sense yet those coming in from the center are able to more fully use the entry while those from the right have the clearest view of the green. The other unique characteristic about several of the greens, including the First, is how treacherous they are whether you’re above or below the hole. While above it becomes a test of deftness while below you need to determine just how firm to roll the ball so it doesn’t go blathering by or come rolling back to you, mockingly. It’s a great opener that wastes no time in showing you what to expect throughout the round.
The Second is a 411 yard par 4. A carry over scrub and wire grass from the tee to the fairway that juts straight out. The fairway is wide but with its rolling nature, balls will bounce and bound, so the sand about the sides comes into play a lot more than it seems. The orientation of the green from the fairway creates a lot of the complexity here. Set at an angle, the entry point is facing off to the left, almost signaling the ideal angle in. While the shortest route to the green is from the right, that brings green side bunkers into play and leaves only a portion of the green to use for an approach landing. The longer route is better and from that side, the underbelly of the green is exposed. Tom Watson feels it’s one of the best second holes in the world, and for good reason!
The Third is a 330 yard par 4. Donald Ross lived along the left side of this hole, enabling him to toil over the grounds as long as he liked before heading in for the night only to rise early and do it all over it again. Another wide fairway except narrow strands of grassy sand encroaching towards the center. The green is set off to the right, raised above and moving right to left. It encapsulates a lot of how remarkably complex the greens are, as it appears near impossible to keep your shot from rolling off. It only looks that way, however. There’s a lot more room to the right than it appears and approaching from the left side allows the length of the green to be used, even though it brings the green side bunker in play.
After being handled by this green, I realized the warm up was over and it was time to bear down on the task at hand. While a bit of golf fatigue from the trip was setting in, I harkens back to the round at Number 3 and began to plot out the shots with care.
The Fourth is a 434 yard par 4. Moving from the edge of the course towards the interior, we also see the first bit of rolling terrain. The tee shot looks out to the fairway below, which then takes it time climbing up to the green. It’s a valley, really, with each side of the fairway funneling down towards the center. This some what emboldens the golfer from the tee, although the sand and pine straw still requires a degree of thought and precision. The uphill fairways and hot it crooks to the left made me wonder if it was a par 5, but it is not. It’s a longer approach (uphill) to a clearing where the green is set, with vast short grass surrounds. Those landing past the pin or even off the green will have exacting shots down the hill yet those that try to finesse it in are in danger of landing in bunkers on the front side. It struck me as an amphitheater setting, an infinite number of shots to cultivate all in an effort to coax the ball ever so closer to the hole.
The Fifth is a 462 yard par 5. We’re essentially in the middle of a figure right in the routing, now going back in the direction we came at the edge of the course before going back to the interior. The first par 5 starts with a semi-blind tee shot to a fairway tilting from right to left. Swinging out to the tree line on the right is fine, all in an effort to avoid the bunker on the left. The fairway finally crests and starts downhill to the green, turning a little to the left just before it. The high side of the right and low left become much more distinct as we move closer to the green, with sand and brush all types of elements to avoid on the left. Of course, there is sand on the right to consider as well just before the green. The green lets us know the right side entry is probably a good idea, but the strategy of keeping your ball on that right side with each shot gets more complicated when accounting for the fast moving terrain and how the green will treat your ball once it gets on. The hole is of a shorter length, which actually allows flexibility in recovery and strategy.
The Sixth is a 178 yard par 3. Playing longer than it looks, the green is set on a diagonal from right to left with bunkers running along either side. The green is pushed up and swales at the front while falling towards the left bunker. Landing the ball and keeping it on the green is a delicate affair and consists of accounting for the bounce and roll it will decidedly take.
The Seventh is a 385 yard par 4. One of the underrated aspects of the restoration project was that the hole shapes were returned to how they were in the early 1940’s. Many of the holes, including the Seventh, had straightened out over time based on tee placement, rough growth and bunkers/mound placement, so the fairway lines were restored to the native growth areas using aerial photos from the military back then. Here is a dog leg right with that native plantery sand scrub and bunkers along the right, so figuring out how much it you’d like to carry from the tee is something to decide. The green is deep yet beset on both sides by deep set bunkers, so setting up the approach angle from the tee to take advantage of the green depth is a priority.
The Eighth is a 440 yard par 4. The hole heads uphill in a serpentine fashion around a few native inlets, which encroach just enough to require navigation around or over. The green is above, the fairway feeding in to the crowned and arching context, the ball liable to rolling off in any direction if the approach isn’t true. A longer hitter will be looking to carry the native area on the right and landing in the heart of the valley while the shorter among us may favor the left side, then could run the approach in, or even end up short of the green and rely on the old short game. It’s a hole that stayed with me after the round and even to this day, mainly because of how the climb of the hill meets that crowned green, the number of ways to attack it abundant.
The Ninth is a 148 yard par 3. The shortest par 3 on the course sits uphill from the tee and is well guarded by bunkers. The hillside moves from left to right while the green also moves back to front, so shots that don’t quite reach the center of the green or start to veer to the right risk ending up much further down the hill. Those that end up left will need to deal with the large hilly wire grass sand hill while those on the green or just off on that side will have to consider the rush of movement away from them leading down the hill. It’s a great shorter par 3, using the small hill brilliantly.
The front nine is spectacular and my only complaint is that it all went so quickly. As one of the first groups out, we were blazing and I simply was enjoying myself too much for the holes to run out. All of the holes were strong, the routing was tremendous in both how the holes were presented sequentially and the strategy of each, all of it resulting in a varied and versatile set of holes. I would rank them 3, 2, 4, 5, 9, 1, 8, 7, 6, yet just put an A next to each one.
The back nine starts with the 455 yard par 5 Tenth. Heading straight out with sandy native wire running along both sides, the fairway widens before narrowing, then turning left at the second fairway bunker on that side. This turn is simple enough, yet provides the golfer options into the green. Hugging the left bunker means a shorter shot while the right side sweeps wide and even though it will be a longer approach, the entry point of the green is more accessible as well as the length of the green, for those wonderful low running shots.
The Eleventh is a 375 yard par 4. The halfway house we see between the Eighth and Ninth at Pinehurst 4 is between the Tenth and Eleventh here. The tee shot must clear some sand and with the tree line so close on the right, the terrain strongly suggests favoring the left side off of it. Relatively flat, positioning of the tee, hazards and the green provide all the challenge and strategy here. The decisions between distance, ideal angle, view of the green and type of shot into the green continues here. The green is set beyond the tree line to the right, so those moving up the right side need to negotiate the pine straw and wire grass but are rewarded with a shorter approach that will then need to carry sand to get to the green. Off to the left means a safer tee shot, a better view and angle into the green in my opinion, yet the shot will be longer than on the right. Orienting to the entry point of the green started to seem like a fairly good idea because it at least provided the entire depth of the green for the approach. Here, bunkers guard the front of the green fiercely while there is one at the rear for those trying too hard to carry those at the front. A very solid par 4 that was among Ben Hogan’s favorite.
The Twelfth is a 360 yard par 4. Similar in distance from the Eleventh and continuing on flat terrain, the bunker configuration from the tee seems to likewise suggest favoring the left side to avoid them. That may be, but consider laying up short of the bunkers on the right. The green is set off to the right, so that sets up a straight approach into its gullet, whereas those to the left will need to hit a more challenging tee shot avowing the bunkers and accounting for the right to left movement correctly, but will be rewarded with orientation to the entry point and have the depth of the green at their leisure. The crowned green here beats its chest, demanding you to do your worst.
The Thirteenth is a 358 yard par 4. The flat terrain of the back nine now gives way to the hilliest section of the course. The green is perched on what is known as Maniac Hill. A splendid view from the tee, the green above the native areas and fairway contours is Number 2 basking in its finest threads. A simple carry over native sand off the tee is the least of our worries; it is the sand further out that is our focus. While it appears the sand bisects the fairway altogether, it does not. Yet only the most accurate tee shots will find the strand of fairway between the sand and is rewarded with a shorter approach to the steepest approach on the course. Opting to lay up short of the sand is wise, along with that a longer approach to the green. Mind the false front! Shots coming up short will go all the way down the hill and even over aggressive putts to the front of the green run the risk of catching the slope and plummeting. This movement also makes any shot to the rear of the green or beyond delicate in its own right. Overall, this hole emphasizes the theme of Number 2 vividly; control of one’s ball from position is paramount and those that lose that control will feel its reprimand.
The Fourteenth is a 419 yard par 4. Teeing off from the top of Maniac Hill back down to the fairway, the tree line on the left runs straight and rigid the length of the hole. A barrage of bunkers siege upon us here from both sides down the fairway and along the sides of the green. The bunkers are not grouped or placed haphazardly; they are in well thought out progression and each must be accounted for on each shot to the green. While the green sloped off all the sides, it felt like a bit of a reprieve from the others maybe because of the sterner paths to reach it.
The Fifteenth is a 170 yard par 3. Just when I was wondering whether they forgot to include the par 3’s on the back, we get two in the final three holes. If the green at the Fourteenth let off a little, the Fifteenth makes up for it in spades, encapsulating just how confounding the crowned nature can take effect. Approach shots short or even landing at the front will roll off (the fate of my tee shot as seen in the photos below). Too far to the rear and, you guessed it, the ball will roll off that side. The middle of the green includes a ridge line of sorts that runs diagonally and accounting for the roll the ball will take upon landing, it seems center to center right is the best chance of remaining on the green from the tee. I did not mind a second shot from short of the green. It was a challenging putt up the hill but taking the bunkers out of play was all I needed to judge the speed of the terrain and impart a nice balance of firmness and finesse to coax the ball close enough for a real go at par. My interaction with the course was paying off. I was getting to know it and it too, was getting to know me.
The Sixteenth is a 478 yard par 5. The only water on the course is in play off the tee here, on the left side. Mostly an easy carry, but a missed tee shot could easily find it, so focus on the fairway beyond where there’s plenty of room to get it out there. The fairway is narrower than we’ve grown accustomed as it winds its way to the green, swirling at each fairway bunker staggered on either side. The wider portions of the fairway signal the easiest landing areas to go for but by no means should the golfers feel restricted by those. Do whatever it takes to stay out of those treacherous bunkers. Those bunkers become more prevalent closer to the green, yet the path from fairway to green is generous. It’s a great par 5 that shows length is not necessary for greatness and as we have seen time after time, control over one’s ball and resolve is paramount, at all times and especially during the famous closing stretch.
The Seventeenth is a 162 yard par 3. The entry point and green configuration almost instruct the golfer to work a left to right ball right in. The green arches over the sand and native. Feeling adventurous and not so well versed in commanding a fade, I saw the back pin and the room behind it extending off the back of the green and decided on my line. Short of the green would have been fine as well similar to the Fifteenth, but it was time for me to take my bold shot. Indeed it came off well and rolled just off the rear yet from there, I was able to putt my second close enough for the tap in par. Full of glory and bravery, I headed to the last, ready for the culmination of the trip, a finishing touch of my time at the resort, its courses and immersion into Donald Ross.
The Eighteenth is a 366 yard par 4. The short grass of the rear of the Seventeenth flows to this tee and we turn to face it, uphill and the famous clubhouse pillars looking back at us. The history of the hole surged into my thoughts. The sand area to the right is decidedly a deep set area, to be avoided while the left side harkens. Continuing up the left side avoids the sand running up the right and looked to be a better angle into the green. The hole is among the most famous and historical, its green running back to front with bunkers front left and mid-back right. I plotted it out and was ready.
And it all went up in flames. The tee shot went off to the right, into the sandy waste. A tough lie and two strokes to barely get out, the next shot went into the green side bunker on the left. The only nice shot of the hole was out of the bunker, ending up close to the hole. That, my friends, is golf. I shall wait another day for another go at Number 2 and its closing hole. Stinging with disappointment, perspective finally returned as I relaxed on the patio for lunch, watching the groups after us struggle with the hole one way or another (while others showed the acumen I was hoping for!). Number 2 and the game in general will always be waiting with challenge and adventure anew. While we strive for the control this course so skillfully asks us for, there will always be that chaos just below the surface, rearing itself every now and then, much more an appeal of the game than any of us would like to admit.
The back nine was as strong if not stronger than the front. The par 4’s were an astounding collection while the par 3’s outstanding. Starting on rather flat land did not matter in terms of how the design incorporated the natural elements and strategy into its structure, then used a couple of the hills for the closing stretch to elevate the intensity of play as a fitting crescendo to the round. My own ranking of them would be 18, 11, 12, 13, 17, 14, 15, 16, 10.
I remember back in college, I listed to Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd for the first time. I generally knew it was popular and well regarded, yet didn’t know much about its finer details other than most people raved about it in interesting ways that made me think I’d probably enjoy the album. But I wasn’t expecting to be so taken on that first listen, excited at just how much I loved each song and knowing then and there it would hold up to as many times as I wanted to listen to it. That excitement was also from discovering something like that, that I just knew would stick and in some small way, life got a little better by realizing I had something like that now to enjoy. That of course led to getting in to some of their lesser known albums, more profound enjoyment, etc.
I had the same feeling playing Number 2. This is the kind of golf I enjoy immensely. There are no natural wonders to gaze upon, no heroic shots or carries, really not too many places to even lose a ball. It’s simply how the course is laid upon the land amongst sand and greenery. The strategy and character reveals itself over time through angles and placement. The order of the holes, their variety and versatility, allowing a golfer of any skill level to test or enjoy themselves as they see fit. The greens, with their intriguing movement and appearance, regale and intimidate, yet as you begin to appreciate the ways in which to handle them, your entire approach to the course comes into focus. Thoughtful control, always minding the movement of the land and how best to utilize your skillset upon it. The course allows you to do so intensely. As I made my way around, a quiet satisfaction came upon me. Not just because I was finally able to experience Number 2, but for all the times I knew I would be back and how I would carry on in those rounds, in the not too distant, and distant, future. Those rounds would come eventually yet I knew at that point an endless road of enjoyment was discovered and there was a lot to learn between now and then. Both here and elsewhere.
I have always stressed the courses where its designer is able to check in on, monitor and toil as they see fit has one of the best probabilities of becoming great. Number 2 was that course for Donald Ross and as advancements were made in agronomy and greens keeping, he was able to continue evolving the course into his remarkable strategic masterpiece. The course continued to evolve after his passing, changing with the trends and other technological advances. Now returned to Ross’ refined version, it’s a window into what Ross felt was idyllic golf. He could have changed the course to incorporate the more scenic and rolling terrain of Number 4, especially at the flatter holes of the back nine, but he decided against it. The course remained as is, a knowing Ross content with the routing and effect on play.
It’s the best public course I have played and am not sure that will ever change.
Clubhouse/Pro Shop/Practice Area: It’s all part of the main clubhouse as outlined in the initial Pinehurst review.