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The Genius of Pinehurst

Mid Pines And Pine Needles
Southern Pines, NC

It was time to go to Pinehurst. Ross first saw the place in 1900, when he was hired by James W. Tufts to become the golf professional at what was then a new resort in an area of sandy soil and towering pines that had previously been utilized for producing turpentine. For the rest of his life, Ross called it his home.

In addition to four courses (he also started a fifth, which was eventually abandoned) for what would become the Pinehurst Resort, he did several others in the immediate area. It was a good canvas for his art. "Soil conditions should be of the very first importance" when selecting a golf course site, he wrote. "A sandy loam is by far the best golfing soil." The Pinehurst area had that in abundance.

Pine Needles, which Ross designed in 1927, and Mid Pines, which he built in 1921, are a little short for championship competition among men these days, but they're both sterling examples of Ross's Sandhills style. The holes are routed through the framing pines, up and over the hills that gave the region its name. Their greens tend to be convex, shrugging off inaccurate approaches and shunting them down into tricky chipping areas.

All in all, the courses are solid, demanding tests of golf. Pine Needles has hosted a couple of U.S. Women's Open Championships and will do so again in 2007. The courses are both owned by the Bell family, whose matriarch, Peggy Kirk Bell, was a charter member of the LPGA. She welcomes players of both genders, but she makes a specialty of teaching women.

All of which was enough to make Mid Pines seem like a good place to give my wife, Ann, a chance to play a Donald Ross course for the first time—and to test the axiom that Ross courses are friendly to beginners. My wife is a good athlete who kicks butt in her weekend tennis foursomes, but she's a novice golfer.

Ann hit the beginner's quota of tops and shanks, but Ross was gentle with her. The third hole was typical. It's a short (for women) par four with a broad fairway, and she got near the green with a couple of her better shots. From there she took five more, but it was an interesting seven. When she tried to chip up to the green, the contours defeated her—as they have many players before her. "It's like trying to make the ball stop on top of a basketball," she said.

But she never had a forced carry. She was always able to divide a hole into manageable pieces. When the round ended, she had a cheerful look and the same ball she'd started with.

It was time for Ross's final examination.

MID PINES: 800-747-7272, pineneedles-midpines.com. Yardage: 6,528. Par: 72. Slope: 127. Greens Fees: $70–$145.

PINE NEEDLES: 800-747-7272, pineneedles-midpines.com. Yardage: 7,015. Par: 71. Slope: 135. Greens Fees: $90–$190.

Pinehurst No. 2
Pinehurst, NC

Pinehurst No. 2 was Ross's magnum opus. He worked on it for much of his creative life. The basic routing was set by the early 1900s, but Ross didn't create the green complexes till the 1930s, when agronomists finally figured out how to grow putting turf that wouldn't die off in the hot Carolina summers.

Ross was a master of undulating putting surfaces. "Nature does this sort of thing best," he wrote. "It can be done artificially, but it must be done with the highest skill of the golf architect, else disappointment will ever be attendant." At Pinehurst No. 2, Ross had the time, the soil and, toward the end of his career, the knowledge to create greens that, though artificial, mimicked and surpassed the finest that nature had done in Scotland.

Unlike most of Ross's resort courses, No. 2 was never intended to be a congenial venue for hackers and pros alike; the resort had other courses for the less skilled. No. 2 was intended from the start to challenge the best, which it did most recently at the 2005 U.S. Open, won by Michael Campbell at even par.

I didn't play the course from the championship tees. I'm not that stupid. I played from the whites. The generous fairways meant that I always got my ball in play and usually had a reasonable iron into the greens. I hit fifteen of the eighteen greens in regulation—but stayed on only nine.

When I did manage to hold the green with an approach, nothing was certain. I hit two good shots to make the green at the fifth, a 431-yard par four. My ball barely stayed on the surface, settling against the collar. I lined up my forty-foot putt.

"Looks fairly straight to me. Might break a little left at first, then back to the right at the end," I said to one of my playing partners, Dutch Stromberg, a Pinehurst resident who marshaled on the fifth at the '99 Open.

"Hit it right at the stick," he said, tending it. I tried to. The ball started breaking left and never stopped. By the time it came to rest, it was ten feet off-line. My only consolation was that Stromberg, who watched the pros play this green for four days, misread it as badly as I did.

I had the chance while I was in Pinehurst to talk to a man who had watched Ross create his infamous greens. Peter Tufts, 79, grew up in Pinehurst when his family owned the resort. He remembers Ross as a kindly, formal man who spent his off-hours tending his roses. "He was just the club manager when I was growing up. He had an accent, not a thick one. He called me 'Pie-ter.' I never saw him in a sport shirt. He and my father [Richard Tufts, a former president of the USGA and CEO at Pinehurst] both wore ties when they played golf."

Peter Tufts remembers that when Ross built a green, he would stand in the middle of the future putting surface. A mule, guided by a laborer, would walk around the circumference, pulling a drag pan. "He'd watch them walk, and he might say, 'Okay, now cut and scoop, now drop.' Sometimes he worked from plans in his hand, sometimes not. After the drag pan, he'd shape with rakes, hoes and shovels. And he took his time. Architecture was in the details, he thought. It came naturally to him."

I had, by then, learned a fair amount about what makes Donald Ross courses so special. Ross generally made it easy to get the ball in play but hard to get it into the hole. His designs often look modest, but they always work harmoniously with their surroundings and take full advantage of the land. They offer strategic options to players of all levels. These are the same virtues that all good architects practice. Ross simply practiced them more consistently, more subtly and more imaginatively.

Finishing my round on No. 2, I followed my second shot up to the eighteenth green remembering the seventy-second hole of the '99 Open. It's hard not to at Pinehurst. In addition to statues of Ross and Richard Tufts by the clubhouse, there's one of Payne Stewart behind the green, frozen forever in his moment of jubilation, fist in the air, knickered right leg thrust behind him. Moreover, this was a Sunday, and Pinehurst has cut the hole every Sunday since 1999 near the same spot it was in for the last round of Stewart's Open. (The hole location was cut just a foot or two to the left for Campbell's championship Sunday this year.)

My ball lay just off the front edge, and I chipped up to about three feet. "That's the line Stewart was on," a caddie informed me. So there it was. To finish with a par, I had to roll in Stewart's winning putt, or at least the last three feet of it. I looked it over from behind the ball and behind the hole. I plumb-bobbed it. I decided it had to break slightly to the right. I stroked it exactly as I wanted to. The ball curled inexplicably left and slid past the hole.

I looked up. Payne Stewart was still triumphant. Behind him, I could see a small and quiet smile playing on the bronze lips of Donald Ross. •

PINEHURST NO. 2: 800-487-4653, pinehurst.com. Yardage: 7,274. Par: 72. Slope: 135. Greens Fees: $150–$345.

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