Pine Needles

6,435 yards, 129 from the Ross tees

In Southern Pines, Pine Needles was conceived and devised as the popularity of Mid-Pines blossomed. Intended to accommodate residential sites as well as a hotel, the course was intended to manage overflow from the Pinehurst resort and a second eighteen was part of that plan. Construction began in 1927, with Irving Johnson helping with the design plans and Frank Maples in charge of construction. Ross focused on the valleys and low lying areas for the golf so the higher spots could be used for the home sites. The course received overall acclaim upon opening. Pine Needles was not spared from the changes that took place to most all of the Pinehurst courses over the years. From being used by the Army as a training facility during World War II to the modernization efforts of prior owners, to becoming close to shutting down for good a couple times, the course has weathered its share of history. The course, however, remained largely unperturbed throughout. Greens had been expanded, mounds added here and there, as well as new tees installed on certain holes. In the 1990’s, work was done to the bunkers to restore their edges and floors, which had become unbalanced over years of sand being displaced from the bunker to the greens and fairways. The greens that had been previously expanded were restored to their original size. This initial effort was to bring the course back to more of Ross’ intended design.

Pine Needles was selected to host the U.S. Women’s Open in 1996 and 2001. In preparation for those championships, bunkers were moved at the Tenth to preserve the intended challenge of the tee shot, a couple green side bunkers on that hole at the front were restored, as well as cross bunkers short of the Seventeenth green while green side bunkers on that hole saw some revisions. The two U.S. Opens were a success, which in turn resulted in the course selected to host yet another Open in 2007.

John Fought was brought in for additional restoration changes in preparation for this next Open. Using aerials of the course from the 1930’s, 50’s and 60’s, Fought was able to discover the original shaping and size of the fairways and greens, as well as positioning of tees. Fought lengthened in various spots to restore shot integrity, as well as restore a couple holes to their original length (both had been shortened over time). Greens were restored with original macro contours, size and shape, yet re-grassed to perform much better in warmer temperatures. As Richard Mandell points out in his “Legendary Evolution of Pinehurst,” however, the project fell short of a true restoration, as the course continued to overly rely on conditioning while the bunker work did not reflect Ross’ design tendencies with their flat sand bottoms and grass faces that obscured one’s view of the sand from the landing areas; Ross relied on flashing sand to grab the golfer’s attention and utilized an array of sand bottoms, including concave, instead of flat throughout. Despite the shortcomings of the project from a true restoration perspective, Pine Needles enjoyed a renewed nationwide critical reception after the 2007 USO.

The owners of Mid-Pines were pleased with Franz’s work there in 2013, so in 2016, they hired him for Pine Needles, which was completed in 2017. In general, Franz focused on continuing to bring back Ross authenticity and strategy, which was directed at the bunkers and, as mentioned above, reshaped them so they retained their flashing as intended by Ross. Franz was also very cognizant that each Ross course in the area needed to assert its individuality. While Mid-Pines exudes its rustic charm, Pine Needles is a more polished and manicured personality. A few bunkers were added and fairways widened in spots. The more subtle interior contours the greens were also brought back in a bit more detail than Fought’s work. Franz differentiates Pine Needles by pointing out its fall away greens and ridge line tee shots, where the tee shot strives to reach the ridges for those big bounce and rolls towards the greens.

Pine Needles is scheduled to host the LPGA U.S. Open next year.

At the outset, I admit this review will not do justice to the course. Rushing over after my round at Mid-Pines, the effects of the frost delay meant I missed the first few holes and met up with my friend and group at the Fourth. The daylight faded as did my overall swing. As the sun finally came down on us, as well as my trip in general, we were able to play until the Eighteenth, in total dark mind you, at which point the darkness reached a new depth and it was impossible to tell where the shots were going. We walked the finishing hole in the quiet night, a fitting peaceful close to my Pinehurst adventure.

So this review is based on the holes I was able to play and my impressions therefrom. When I return to the area, it will be the first course I play, picking up where I left off, preferably in daylight.

My time at Pine Needles showed an engaging and enjoyable layout for any skill level and deliberate in its varying degrees of penalties for missed shots, with rich variety from hole to hole. The course exudes a grand flowing nature about it. Contours are large, gentle and rounded, following the hills and valleys in their gradual movement. Entry points into the greens are likewise large and sweeping, casually moving around bunkers and slopes that happen to be expertly placed. There’s a polished veneer that ties everything together in a natural presentation, yet gives the course a modern tournament feel. Indeed, the greens were not placed on the tops of hills or plateaus, but rather were on downhills or flatter ridges, which added to the gradual flowing feel of the round.

I missed the first three holes yet saw them briefly as the starter graciously drove me to my group since I was walking the round. The first couple holes are:

  • 485 yard par 5 First (from the Ross tees). It’s a dog leg right, all uphill.
  • 440 yard par 4 Second. I believe it too is uphill yet more straight away.

The Third is a 135 yard par 3. I came upon the group as they were completing the hole, so saw it as a forced carry tee shot over water to a generously deep green with an array of undulations. I was able to take a photo looking back from green to tee.

The Third, looking back to the tee

The Fourth is a 385 yard par 4. A slight dog leg left with a forced carry tee shot over water that climbs uphill to the green. While I just finished remarking how the greens don’t really sit on uphill ridges, this is the exception, as it awaits at the top of the hill. Bunkers are placed around the green and note that the front right bunker is not set against the green but is a bit further away. Just coming from Mid-Pines, the first green putted here felt mellower, yet more of an emphasis on the pull of the larger terrain as opposed to the machinations of smaller juts and hollows.

The Fourth
Approach shot territory
Looking back

The Fifth is a 180 yard par 3. The tee shot must carry the valley below to the green on the other side. Falling off of the front, the left side is all short grass where the right side is essentially a bunker hillside. A bunkerside if you will. Suffice to say ensuring the tee shot reaches the green and stays on it is paramount yet the movement of the green takes a good deal of study in any position.

The Fifth
From the right

The Sixth is a 410 yard par 4. The ridge line can be seen from the tee and those who can reach it will indeed be rewarded with a propelling forward. The fairway starts to move downhill at that point towards the green, deep set bunkers at its front on either side. While the tendency will be to boom the approach and have it float down ever so elegantly, the entry point and contours also set up a nice running shot in. Regardless, the course starts to stretch out its scale here.

The Sixth
Moving down the fairway
Approach shot territory

The Seventh is a 405 yard par 4. On the same hill and returning in the opposite direction, the ridge line play off the tee is alive and well here too. The fairway likewise moves downhill to the green after the ridge just like the Sixth, yet more gradually, and just before it, rises above the fairway. There’s a single green side bunker off to the right, so the focus is more on adjusting to the contours and movement of the green, which moves to the front left and will continue rolling down on that side. It’s a great green site, hugging the terrain and highlighting the randomness of its contours.

The Seventh
Approach shot territory
The green

The Eighth is a 355 yard par 4. The fairway is set in a valley, with the tee shot on a hillside to its right so that the golfer must carry the native sand and plants encompassing the hillside to reach the valley below. The angle of the tee shot means the golfer must decide how much of the hillside to take on, of course considering the tree line on the left will take care of those who get too aggressive on a more conservative line (see what I did there). Once in the valley fairway, the green is in front of us, level with the fairway. Greenside bunkers are below ground at the front on either side, with a run off area to the right rear. It’s a wonderfully set up hole for both shots, Ross once again accentuating the strong points of the land.

The Eighth
Moving down the fairway
The green
Looking back

The Ninth is a 370 yard par 4. A shorter hole with an inviting enough tee shot yet is some what imperative that we end up in the fairway with the dense tree lines on either side looking rather uninviting. Like the tee shot, the approach looks inviting enough with its large green and fairway feeding right into it but it’s only after closer inspection that the hollows before the green and steep depression on the right side show that the approach must actually be fairly precise or else it is liable to fall off into one of these awaiting maladies. Even my prized running shots are not immune from the pull of the green to that right depression. The precision of the approach of course makes the tee shot even more vital. So what seems like a nice short charming hole on the surface is actually deceivingly challenging.

The Ninth
Approach shot territory
Looking back, the sun hanging in there

The front nine careens about the hills in sporting variety. The flowing contours were a delight, regardless of the challenge they presented. Of the holes I played, I would rank them 8, 9, 7, 6, 5, 4.

The back nine starts with the 480 yard par 5 Tenth. An uphill dog leg left with a large bunker on the left that the longer hitter may flirt with off the tee for a clear look second shot at the green. The rest of us have a wide fairway to aim for to the right of the bunker and then will negotiate the tree lines and bunkers as we make our way to the green. Bunkers are staggered on the approach, placed right, then left, then green side right while the fairway has a slight right to left tilt. It’s a great par 5, a combination of heroic and strategic in a wonderful setting.

The Tenth
Moving up the fairway
From the front right

The Eleventh is a 370 yard par 4. A slight dog leg right, the fairway runs downhill from the tee and dog legs slightly to the right. Bunkers flash and smile at us from the tee on both sides, achieving their intended effect of pondering which side to favor on that first shot. While the right side means a shorter approach, the left side is safer and arguably a better line into the green, avoiding the bunkers near the green on the right. It’s a well shaped green, where the run offs flow seamlessly in and out of it, its wavy undulations abounding. Another tremendously terrific hole.

The Eleventh
Approach shot territory
Looking back and taking a look at the off green area

The Twelfth is a 350 yard par 4. The daylight quickly moving out, the race was on to see how many holes we could get in before darkness settled in. Here, the tee shot features another ridge that sets up a blind shot yet once over it, the fairway tumbles on to the green. The bunker positioning means complicates the ideal approach angle from the left while those choosing to avoid the bunker will come in from the center or right side, which will succumb to unfavorable movement of the green. Yet again, we see a green set in a natural lower area where the steeper contours of the fairway give way to a more subtle lower lying green site.

The Twelfth
Short approach shot territory

The Thirteenth is a 180 yard par 3. Downhill to a deep green, it’s another great site as the hillsides on both sides converge to the green. Bunkers are short on either side and the green rolls off at the rear, so figuring out an acceptable landing spot considering the elevated tee shot, movement of the green and challenge of any hillside lies on either side.

The Thirteenth
From the high right side

The Fourteenth is a 400 yard par 4. A dog leg right with bunkers and native area on the right side, the area between the green and the right fairway bunker is ideal, as bunkers are left then right, again the green is minimally pushed up, almost at grade, adding to the flow you feel out there.

The Fourteenth
Approach shot territory
The green

The Fifteenth is a 485 yard par 5. A straightaway par 5, bunkers encroach and lurk about the wide fairway off the tee. Bunkers then encroach from either side closer to the green while there’s a right to left tilt. The entry point is generous as is the green.

The Fifteenth. Much darker than it looks in the photos
Approach shot territory
The green

The Sixteenth is a 170 yard par 3. It was essentially night at this point and I remember having to listen for where the shots landed as we could not see them at all. A forced carry over sand and wire grass, there’s a ridge running through the green so that shots near the rear move in away from center and again at the front. Room to miss over on the front left.

The Sixteenth. Basically guessing where the shots are going, or tracking them by sound.
The green, from the back right, looking back

The Seventeenth is a 430 yard par 4. Lights of a few scattered homes shined through the pines in a millions different dim rays while the remnants of the sun could only offer the softest of glows as the day began to makes its way elsewhere. The photo below is from the fairway, after the hard turn left from the tee yet shot the left fairway bunker to avoid at all costs. The sand takes it turns from the sides as the fairway feels like it’s winding to the green when in reality it’s the sand coming in from this way and that. The bunkers continue to the green, more of a Mid-Pines scruffiness to them here.

The Seventeenth
Approach shot territory
The green, from a front right bunker

The Eighteenth is a 405 yard par 4. I could only say this is a dog leg left that runs downhill the entire way. The fairway runs right into the green, as we can see from the foggy blurry photo below. It looked like a very cool hole and as we walked along its fairway and around the green, I locked it in the old memory bank. I’d be here again, my ball would delight as it somersaulted down this fairway and finally comes to rest in the bottom of the hole. Perhaps months away, or years, who knows when. Only that it will.

The Eighteenth
The green, darkness set

The back nine continued the terrific routing in the hills, contrasting the hills with the level areas in a nice balance that instilled that sense of flow I felt throughout. The locations of the green sites were a big part of this. From the holes I played, I’d rank them 11, 12, 17, 14, 10, 13, 16, 15.

Generally, Pine Needles is a grand tour that can play as tough or gentle as you’d like. It reminded me of Pinehurst 4 in that way, but here there was more interest, especially with the placement of the greens in the low lying areas, which really sets this place apart in a very good way. Ross sought the more level areas for the holes, which actually gave it that flow and a more rounded, polished elegance than others in the area. Bunkers come into play but are not as prominent a feature than they are at Mid-Pines. Here, it’s the large gradual swales and swales swirling and arching, while the bumps, hollows and depressions around the greens test a golfer’s acumen with the short game. If Mid-Pines is that fellow you know who rolls up the sleeves of his flannel button up to chop his own wood before letting you know directly you will not leave the round unscathed, Pine Needles is the gentleman you know who talks the whole thing over with you in the smoking room with snifters of Brandy as a fire gently dances some where. You feel great after speaking with him and the round in general, only to realize your wallet is gone and dog is all of a sudden missing. The strokes add up slowly and usually without suspicion, all until it’s too late.

Perhaps my foray at Pinehurst had to end like this. Ambitious in my endeavor to try and inhale as much of it as possible, in the end it let me know I’ll have to come back to continue in that regard. I left satisfied, enlightened, fulfilled, yet knowing I needed to return again. Soon.

I wasn’t ready to retire home just yet. It was decidedly night time and the town settled into its quiet conversation. I packed, went down to the hotel porch, and enjoyed one last bourbon as the still of the air seemed to forbade the coming of winter a few weeks away. And that was it. I went to sleep for a few hours and woke up in the very early morn, the darkness of this round still there. Driving through that darkness out of town, I had one more thing to do. One last dance before winter came for me. The pines and sand now a blur to my sides as I rushed northward. The journey never ending.