Pinehurst: The best and the toughest

Two stories with my byline appeared in a special US Open supplement today. Here’s the first:

The best – and toughest
National Post Tuesday, June 14, 2005
Byline: Robert Thompson Source: National Post
To most, Pinehurst No. 2 is the masterwork of Scottish architect Donald Ross. Public golfers pay up to US$375 to be beaten up by the course and to try — often without much success — to putt on its famed domed greens.
But the reality is the course, which will host this year’s U.S. Open and is regarded as “the St. Andrews of American golf,” is a supreme test of all facets of the game, which is why it is perennially ranked among the best golf courses in the world.
Canadian golf architect Ian Andrew, a member of the American Society of Golf Architects, argues that Pinehurst No. 2 is the standard against which all golf courses are designed.
“It is almost the perfect example of what a golf course should be,” says Andrew, who works for Toronto firm Carrick Design. “It is difficult for the good player to score well there, but if the lesser player is not as aggressive, they can post a good number. The more aggressive you get, the nastier the punishment for failure becomes. It is a flawless course.”
Even before it gained international attention for hosting the 1999 U.S. Open, Pinehurst was best known for its difficult greens, which some characterize as unfair.
Unlike many greens, which offer rolls within a subtly undulating surface, Pinehurst’s greens appear like inverted bowls, rounded at the top with edges that slide away.
The reality is the greens at Pinehurst, which have come to be representative of Ross’s style, actually have little to do with the architect.
It was famed golf designer Pete Dye who first pointed out Pinehurst No. 2’s greens had evolved since Ross created the course in 1935 as a resort destination. Dye, who first played the course nearly 50 years ago, said the greens were far less severe than they are today.
Dye’s notion was supported by a recent Golf Digest story by architecture editor Ron Whitten that suggested the greens had been altered several times over the past few decades, most recently by Rees Jones in preparation for the 1999 U.S. Open.
Whitten argues that the greens built up over time due to maintenance procedures, but rather than having curved sides, as they do today, the fall-off areas were once more severe. A previous owner of the course, for reasons no one is certain of, used a bulldozer to smooth the edges and make the fall-off areas more curved.
“Those crowned greens are not really what [Ross] did anywhere else,” Dye said in the introduction to Brad Klein’s book, Discovering Donald Ross. “This is because they’ve been top-dressed so much that they now look like perched-up angel cakes … So they are quite different from what Ross planned.”
The diabolical nature of the greens was highlighted six years ago, when the best golfers in the world last tested Pinehurst No. 2 under U.S. Open conditions. Most notably, long-hitting John Daly struggled mightily with the testy surfaces, though he shot a 68 during the opening round.
But at the eighth hole in his final round, Daly lost it, taking a total of 11 strokes to complete the hole. Daly’s most notable meltdown on the hole occurred when he swiped at a ball that was rolling back off the putting area, incurring a two-stroke penalty.
Daly complained loudly after his round, saying the United States Golf Association, which sets up the course for the tournament, had gone too far.
“I think the USGA likes to embarrass people who play in this tournament,” he said. Despite his comments, Daly will be back in the field at this year’s open.
Many have difficulty seeing the course as great. Rather, they view it as relatively straight-forward tee to green, with unfair putting surfaces.
“All of No. 2’s difficulty lies in its greens, which resemble a stainless-steel bowl turned upside down,” Tim McDonald, editor of, noted in a recent Web site posting. “You could throw a dart in the middle of most of those greens and it would roll off.”
Despite its detractors, Pinehurst’s greens were central to the drama of the 1999 U.S. Open, won by Payne Stewart. Stewart holed a remarkable, snaking, 20-foot putt on the final hole to make par and win the championship, narrowly avoiding a Monday playoff with Phil Mickelson.
“I said to myself, “You’ve always wanted a putt to win the U.S. Open,'” Stewart noted following his victory. “I can’t describe the feeling in my body when I looked up and the ball was going in the hole. It was unbelievable.”
Expect more unbelievable moments this year, as the best in golf challenge what many think is one of the best and most difficult golf courses created.

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Jeff Lancaster

Jeff Lancaster is the Publisher of

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