You know a famous golf place is on a strong track when you just feel at home there, in a close and natural way, as if you’d lingered a few decades exploring its every mystery though, in reality, you’ve spent a few all-too-brief days enjoying a few rounds with friends old and new. With the opening of the new Pinehurst No. 4 after a year-long renovation under the direction of architect Gil Hanse and his longtime business partner and lead shaper Jim Wagner, the “Home of American Golf” mystique is magnified, deepened and elevated to a realm reserved for royalty — St. Andrews-Long Island-Monterey Peninsula royalty.
After spending a flawless fall afternoon on the new Pinehurst No. 4 — which occupies some of the sprawling Pinehurst property’s most dramatic real estate, right next to No. 2 — I couldn’t get over how much more alive the entire enterprise feels compared to my previous visit nearly a decade ago, when the nation was in the throes of near-economic collapse and many destinations were struggling to find their way forward.
A few sights and feelings flowed through me:
- A surge of fresh energy
- The fading away of old-school stodginess in favor of golf for fun’s sake, while maintaining a clear connection to a past as rich as there is in American golf
- The way young men and women are flooding Pinehurst’s tees, practice ranges, restaurants, bars and Hanse’s other two recent contributions — an absolute blast of a par-3 course dubbed The Cradle (which he called his “practice” for No. 4) and a rollicking putting course playfully named Thistle Du (as in “this’ll do!”), complete with drink holders on each tiny tee
- How Pinehurst ownership and management has confidently invested in an inclusive future while playing up elements of an exclusive past. President Tom Pashley and owner Bob Dedman, Jr., did their homework on what 21st century golf travelers want, and they aced the exam
In short, I felt a fresh magic in the Sandhills. That’s not overstated, it’s just what is there, wafting among the pines, and in part we can thank a bunch of Cavemen for it.
SHAPING THE FUTURE
“The Cavemen” is Hanse’s nickname for the handful of skilled sculptors and tenders of turf who turned his and Wagner’s vision for Course No. 4 into roiling, rangy, championship-caliber reality. Under the direction of Wagner and superintendent Kevin Robinson, the Cavemen transformed what had been wall-to-wall turf and trees, originally laid out by Donald Ross but tweaked over the decades by Tom Fazio and others, into a glowing necklace of swooping, heaving holes that, like Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw’s careful reworking of Ross’s No. 2 masterpiece next door, bring the Sandhills’ original golf look back to the fore.
“The most underappreciated people in golf are the superintendents, the guys that take care of the golf courses,” Hanse said before hitting a ceremonial opening tee shot, after which I and other fortunate media got to preview No. 4 before it opened to the public the following day. “The architects get to stand up and take the bows, but those are the guys who make it work. You’ll see a golf course that doesn’t feel like it’s brand new. A lot of that was the work through construction — flipping the existing sod, leap-frogging it throughout the course so it’s mature. It was a challenge. Storms threw everything they had at us, but [the Cavemen] put the course back together. There’s a lot of exposed sand out there, a lot of slope, but what they’ve done is phenomenal.”
Secret Golf’s Steve Elkington visits Pinehurst #2 and Tobacco Road Golf Club in North Carolina, and reunites with legendary caddies, Willie Miller and the late Willie McRae.
Their work, and Hanse’s, also stands starkly apart from Coore and Crenshaw’s in flow and feel, though at first glance they appear quite similar — tight fairways bleeding into rough-edge “blowout” bunkers and waste areas, which blend into primary rough punctuated by tufts of tall wire grass, which finally give way to the loblolly pines that have given this place its golf identity for more than a century. While the “new” No. 2, which reopened in advance of the back-to-back men’s and women’s U.S. Opens in 2014, builds its power via individual “set piece” holes, No. 4 offers more collective visual drama. Parts of 15 holes are visible from one of the course’s high points, the cliffhanging green on the par 3 sixth hole; a deep bunker separates the putting surface from the large lake that most fully illustrates how different No. 4 truly is from its famed sibling, though Hanse credits No. 2 for his chief inspiration.
“With Course 4 we tried to reconnect the landscape,” Hanse said. “When we looked across at No. 2 and what Bill and Ben were able to do, that’s what started this. Bill tells the story that prior to the start of Course No. 2’s restoration, some mythical figure popped out of the mist and said to him, ‘Don’t F this up.’ He knew how important Course No. 2 was to this community, this resort and this population. They did as good a job as anyone in the world could do. For us to walk through their work, their interpretation of what Ross did, that was really a great opportunity.
“I told my guys to look at something on Course No. 2 every day — the features, the subtleties, how the fairways bleed into the wire grass, which then bleed into the trees. With that as our template, we set about one of the bigger earth-moving projects we’ve ever had [400,000-500,000 cubic yards]. Hopefully you won’t know we even did it. We just put the ridges and valleys back where they should go, tied into the treelines, made this feel seamless as it transitions from Course No. 2. We looked at old aerial photographs and tried to take some of Ross’s bunker placements, glean his strategies and thoughts. So it’s a tiny bit of restoration wrapped around a giant renovation, with a couple new golf holes. We looked at it as a new golf course. We hope what we’ve done is not only a complement to No. 2, but that it becomes a must-play alongside it.”
THE PERFECT ANSWER TO NO. 2
No argument here. No. 4 is now an absolute must, and the reasons are legion. It’s is more player-friendly than No. 2, especially on and around the greens. Hanse lowered them to be more in harmony with the terrain while Wagner shaped them to be more “accepting” rather than “rejecting,” as Ross’ greens often are to stirring (and sometimes frustrating) effect. Bunkers are bigger, bolder and wilder, pushing into and across fairways to create more definitive aim points and broaden strategic choices — as on the stout par-5 ninth and the “gettable” par 4 15th, which yielded one of two birdies on my card. The other came at No. 11, the third of four gorgeous par 3s; No. 14, meanwhile, is the lone lakeside one-shotter, the perfect follow-up to the Cape-styled par-5 13th.
From the opening sharp dogleg-right to the slightly uphill, left-moving 18th, No. 4 unfolds in this way, maintaining a firm rhythm throughout even as Hanse works in pleasant grace notes and surprising shifts in tempo. For me the round reaches its crescendo at the straightaway par-5 17th, which moves beautifully through a shallow valley with two bunkers jutting sneakily into the lay-up zone. I went driver, 8-iron, 8-iron to get home in three, then goosed a downhill birdie putt to leave a wicked comebacker, which I missed. Too bad I couldn’t go back and play that instant classic again to atone, but I can’t complain — Hanse gave me a clear and friendly shot at glory there and several other times during the round. I felt both welcomed and challenged.
To me, that’s the clearest difference between No. 4 and No. 2: The former is a credentialed bucket-lister that tends to take no prisoners, leaving the average golfer bloodied but feeling blessed to witness Ross’ genius in the flesh. With its friendlier greens, wider driving lanes, new-but-old charm and epic, inviting scale, No. 4 begs for an immediate replay. It also puts Pinehurst as a whole onto a path of come-one, come-all popularity that, from where I stand, has no end.
BEYOND NO. 4: BEER, BITES AND BEDS
While No. 4 starts racking up the accolades on the Pinehurst golf front, there’s plenty of new activity elsewhere at the resort, especially if you like to eat and drink.
Overlooking the 18th green of the No. 2 course is The Deuce, a cut above most golf grills in that, well, it’s next to the most famous course in North Carolina, and also happens to be stuffed with images and memorabilia of the area’s deep golf history. The burgers, appetizers, salads and entrees offer Southern flair in getaway-friendly abundance, and its bar’s taps — as with all of Pinehurst’s saloons — pour one or two local and regional microbrews.
Speaking of which, the Pinehurst Brewhouse opened in mid-October in a former steam house that dates to 1895 and provided heat and electricity to the Holly Inn just up the road. The handsome, impeccably restored brick building immediately filled to the brim with golfers, other vacationers and thirsty Village folk. Pinehurst management lured master brewer Eric Mitchell away from Heist Brewery in Charlotte, where his IPA, Citraquench’l, was a perennial Top 10 award winner; he’s now putting his talents into producing killer pale and brown ales, witbiers and blondes in Pinehurst’s 10-barrel facility. The restaurant’s barbecue dishes are smoked in-house, and most herbs — used in food and some of Mitchell’s concoctions — are grown onsite. There’s a year-round heated patio, beer garden and plenty of frothy mirth to go around.
Of course, Pinehurst offers its traditional charms, too — the intimate and historic Holly, the stately Carolina Hotel with its unbeatable breakfast buffet, the Manor Inn, a full-service spa and a wealth of pubs, and restaurants and shops in the Village. And, oh yeah, a few world-class golf courses.
KEEPING UP THE PACE
During the busiest seasons — which is just about every season at Pinehurst these days — pace of play is an issue. Or was. In keeping with Dedman’s commitment to modernizing the resort on all fronts, Pinehurst has partnered with Tagmarshal to install its sophisticated geo-tagging and pace algorithm software into its marshaling and player tracking system. More than 200 golf courses across nine countries use these small “tags” clipped onto golf bags or installed on carts to identify slow groups so on-course marshals can take care of pace challenges before they get serious. Pinehurst is seeing a 15-17 minute decrease for each round on every course, including on Nos. 4 and 2, so you can keep that magical Sandhills rhythm going.
For tee times and reservations: www.pinehurst.com
See more photos from Pinehurst No. 4.