At Pinehurst Resort, the Golf Courses Are Getting Their Grooves Back

(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- Gil Hanse was confused. He was standing in the fairway on the 18th hole of the No. 4 course at Pinehurst Resort in North Carolina and looking toward the clubhouse. From the topography maps he’d studied, he knew the previous architect had raised the ground here 6 feet. He turned to Bob Farren, the head superintendent, and asked, “Why the hell would he do that?”

Hanse is the hottest architect in golf. A student and practitioner of minimalism, he brings a back-to-the-land approach to course design. Known for being one of the few architects who still regularly climbs aboard a bulldozer, Hanse has become almost a household name for his work on the 2016 Olympic course in Rio de Janeiro and his appearances on U.S. Open telecasts during the past four years. Hanse’s claim to fame are inventive, striking designs including those at Boston Golf Club and Castle Stuart Golf Links in Scotland. Last year his Black course at Streamsong Resort in Florida was named the best new course in the U.S. by Golf magazine, and he’s been busy renovating a number of the country’s premier championship links, including Merion and Winged Foot.

He’s been everywhere and seen a lot, but Hanse couldn’t figure out the rationale for raising golfers 6 feet for their second shot, playing into the green.

Farren knew why. “I was there when it was done,” he tells me later. “The idea was so you could see the arches of the clubhouse as you readied to hit your shot.” Farren, a silver-haired West Virginian, has worked at the resort for 30 years, and he’s driving me around the newly reimagined No. 4 course, pointing out the work Hanse had performed during a renovation that ended last month. The artificial height had been removed, returning the terrain, in part, to Mother Nature’s original design. “Now when you hit your shot and walk to the green, the arches will reveal themselves to you,” Farren says. The gentle rise of land gives golfers a sense of accomplishment as they approach the final green; it is, as he says, “more dramatic this way.”

One of the key things Hanse has done to No. 4, which opened on time despite the barrage of rain from Hurricane Florence, is to introduce more drama to the course with natural sand and brush—not the overly manicured, heavily sprinklered look you often see on TV.

At Pinehurst Resort, the Golf Courses Are Getting Their Grooves Back

No. 4 is memorable, but it’s not the resort’s most famous course. That’s No. 2, which has hosted Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, and other legends and more significant championships than any other course in the U.S. It’s also primarily flat. No. 4, on the other hand, moves between ridges and natural valleys, and its greens sit on high ground. It looks much like it would have when it was first designed at the turn of the 20th century by Donald Ross, a venerable Scot who did more than anyone else to introduce golf to the American public.

At Pinehurst Resort, the Golf Courses Are Getting Their Grooves Back
At Pinehurst Resort, the Golf Courses Are Getting Their Grooves Back
At Pinehurst Resort, the Golf Courses Are Getting Their Grooves Back
At Pinehurst Resort, the Golf Courses Are Getting Their Grooves Back
At Pinehurst Resort, the Golf Courses Are Getting Their Grooves Back
At Pinehurst Resort, the Golf Courses Are Getting Their Grooves Back

Pinehurst Resort was his home base from 1900 until he died in 1948 at the age of 75. A pro golfer, Ross fell into designing when Pinehurst needed to expand. The resort’s growth mirrored the country’s during the Gilded Age; golf grew popular, and robber barons wanted places to play. In addition to four courses at Pinehurst, Ross created or redesigned about 400 others (domed greens were his specialty), including still-famous courses like Aronimink in Pennsylvania, Seminole in Florida, and the PGA Tour stop East Lake in Atlanta.

Founded in 1895 by Boston philanthropist James Tufts, Pinehurst has 10 courses. It hosts dues-paying members and visitors. Many hope to check No. 2 off their bucket list, where the soil crumbles at the edges of the playing field and smatterings of wiregrass and tall pines line the fairways. The resort offers various packages, the most popular being the Donald Ross: a two-night stay at the flagship Carolina Hotel, breakfast and dinner, and three rounds of golf, starting at $1,401. For an upcharge of $195 on any package, guests can play No. 2.

The first time I visited Pinehurst, in 2010, coming up from the parking lot I immediately encountered two immaculate croquet courts, which featured the flattest lawn and greenest grass I’ve ever seen. Retirees in all white were playing intensely; the feel was more Wimbledon than public resort.

That genteel sense of history has been the most powerful engine behind the success of the resort and the Village of Pinehurst. Each year, 60,000 golfers travel from around the world to walk the same ground their heroes once did. Thousands of fools, myself included, stand before the bronze statue of champion Payne Stewart—forever frozen, fist spearing the air, one foot off the ground—after sinking a 15-foot putt to beat Phil Mickelson at the 1999 U.S. Open.

But the pretense that surrounds the game of golf—its hushed reverential tones and insistence on silence while still banging the drum of history—has kept many people from taking it up. Twenty years ago, Tiger Woods reversed the trend for a while. His high-energy style made the sport cool and led fans to believe good golf meant hard golf. Courses were built longer and longer, with heavy, thick rough off the fairways and fast greens.

These were the kinds of courses Tiger was taming: lush and impeccably maintained. But in the prerecession investment boom that came along with his popularity, there was also room for minimalist architects to experiment, creating courses that fit into the landscape rather than using heavy equipment to indulge an architect’s imagination. Minimalist courses are almost found more than they’re built, a style that mirrors the origin of the very first courses on the coasts of Scotland, without pomp or pageantry.

By the time the minimalist trend arrived, Pinehurst had moved far in the opposite direction, driven by the made-for-broadcast template of Augusta National Golf Club and its annual Masters Tournament. By 2004, the only remaining element from Ross’s design was his signature greens, which repelled shots with the same ease as an overturned bowl besieged by marbles.

To bring No. 2 back to its early character, 40 acres of turf on its edges were removed. Now golfers must deal with sand, pine needles, and the occasional bush. When the resort unveiled the restored course in 2010, reviews were so wildly positive that Pinehurst’s managers looked to the next step. “No. 2 showed us that our future was in our past,” says Tom Pashley, the resort’s president. And the past, well, was more fun.

Take the Cradle: The nine-hole, par-3 course measures just 789 yards, but in terms of delight and atmosphere, it might as well be 10 miles. Created by Hanse and opened in October 2017, it completely changed the dynamic of the resort as golfers set out with two or three clubs looking to have fun, unworried about scores or swings.

For No. 4, the managers told Hanse to think about what golf in the Carolina Sandhills should be like. The course had lost all sense of what it once was, becoming a kind of Frankenstein version of Ross’s original design with each subsequent architect’s “improvements.” “They told us to hit it with the No. 2 hammer,” the architect recalls. That meant cutting back soil and reestablishing the classic North Carolina ridgelines and valleys that help frame the golfer, letting even a middling duffer like me see different avenues of play instead of standing on a tee looking at wall-to-wall Bermuda grass.

One ingenious idea Farren had to help give the course a sense of timelessness was a process he calls “chunking.” He went off-site and picked up large mounds of earth that still had wiregrass and trees rooted in the soil, then he simply dropped them at the edges of fairways and greens complexes. Over time the surrounding landscape grew into the chunks, giving those natural elements the appearance of having been there for a hundred years. “Because they have,” Farren says, “just not on this site.”

No. 4’s elevated tees allow for speed slots—downhill zones that catch drives from the tees and give golfers more distance—and, because Hanse has widened the fairways to 50 yards on some holes, even a bad golfer won’t always find herself with a difficult second shot. “I’m not a great player myself,” Hanse says. “So I think I have more sympathy for bad golfers than some other architects.” He believes “recovery shots”—from just off the green—“are the soul of the game,” so he’s constantly thinking about the challenges he can bring to those.

Courses such as No. 4 and the Cradle embody what the golf industry is embracing after a long, hard winter, so to speak, of difficult courses and a difficult economy. Making golf fun again and making it inclusive, which the Cradle does by stripping the sport of its fussy airs, is a strategy that’s paying off for Pinehurst. “Who doesn’t want to be all things to all people?” Pashley asks. “The Cradle does exactly that.” And the resort isn’t stopping at golf: This fall it opened the Pinehurst Brewing Co. in the village’s old steam plant, just a few blocks from the Carolina Hotel. All told, the resort has spent $20 million on improvements, beginning with the renovation of No. 2.

When I drove up in August to see the new No. 4, the croquet players were still there, but in the distance, shining like a fresh penny, was the Pinecone, a camper-trailer-turned-bar with gleaming pine laminate, gold-accented trim, and three beers on tap. It sits next to the Cradle’s ninth tee, where golfers take their drinks to a set of Adirondack chairs. The seats, far from the clubhouse, offer a perfect view of near-hole-in-ones on the short course and a mishmash of mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, and 12 buddies from college on the bachelor trip of a lifetime. This is golf without pretense, eschewing the country club vibe and encouraging players to stop and have a drink in the grass. It’s different from what you’re used to, but it feels totally natural.

At Pinehurst Resort, the Golf Courses Are Getting Their Grooves Back

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