Pinehurst goes from empty to overflowing
By Lee Pace
It was a moment straight from The Shining, Danny Torrance pedaling his tricycle through the abandoned hallways of the Overlook Hotel. Only this was Matt Chriscoe riding a bicycle down the hallways of the 120-year-old Carolina Hotel in Pinehurst. It was late March 2020, and the hotel operation had shut down in the wake of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. Chriscoe, the resort’s director of lodging, and another staff member were endeavoring to move the bicycles kept out front for guest use into storage for an unknown period of time.
“It was eerie,” Chriscoe reflects a year later. “We were riding bikes down that long hallway. The lights were turned off, the phones were re-routed. We had no idea how long it was going to last.”
When Pinehurst officials made the decision on March 22 to shut down the operation of its three hotel facilities — the Carolina, the Holly and the Manor — they realized the front doors under the porte-cochère of the Carolina had no locking mechanism.
The hotel had never been closed.
“We literally used chain link and a padlock,” says Tom Pashley, president of Pinehurst Resort. “That was the only way we could secure the doors.”
Pashley shakes his head thinking back one year to the trauma of the spring of 2020. He’s sitting on the veranda on the south side of the original Pinehurst golf clubhouse, looking over The Cradle short course. On this morning in late April 2021, the club and resort have come full circle, from the hotel operation shutting down to 12 months later being a beehive of activity. Tee sheets are full. The Maniac Hill practice range is lined with golfers. Parking spaces are at a premium. Within Pashley’s field of vision are two construction projects — a bulldozer at the far end of the short-game practice area is shaping a foundation for a new permanent beverage facility to service golfers on The Cradle, and construction workers are hammering and nailing on a golf shop expansion.
“We’re building a new home for the Pine Cone,” Pashley says of the vintage beverage cart located behind the third green of The Cradle. “It’s served us well, but we need a permanent beverage facility, there’s so much traffic out here. And we need more space in the golf shop. We’ll start selling 2024 U.S. Open merchandise before long.”
The resort booked a record amount of business in 2019 and was primed to eclipse that in 2020 before COVID-19 ground business and travel to a halt. The hotels and the resort’s 10 restaurants were closed for two months, then began welcoming guests again on May 22 when North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper allowed restaurants to reopen under certain procedural guidelines.
“There was still activity here on the golf side,” Pashley says. “But at the hotel it was sad. When restaurants had to close, we made the decision to close our lodging. We had to feed people and couldn’t do that. I remember the weather was perfect, it was a great spring. I was thinking, what a shame that guests can’t be here. The members were here, but no guests.
“Pinehurst was in the golf business, but not the hospitality business.”
The resort had to lay off more than 1,000 employees during the thick of the pandemic. Pashley nods to the front entrance of the clubhouse, where Larry Goins and Frolin Hatcher have a century of combined experience welcoming golfers to the clubhouse, unloading their golf bags from the hotel shuttle and getting them acclimated to the hubbub of the resort.
“We had to say goodbye to guys like Frolin and Larry,” Pashley says. “All of a sudden, it became personal.”
Pashley remembers fighting off the “woe-is-me” syndrome at the outset and brainstorming ideas to help employees during his regular 8-mile morning walks.
“My brain was churning,” he says. “I thought, ‘We have all these amazing experiences we can auction off and raise money.’”
In quick order the resort raised more than $300,000 for an employee relief fund — much of it earmarked to continue health benefits through June — by selling a low-ticket item like a golf ball for $25 to a high-dollar offering of a three-day golf experience with lodging in the Dornoch Cottage for $25,000. The fund got one contribution from a former executive retired in Florida for $1,895 — hearkening to the year of the resort’s founding.
“It was heartwarming seeing people overpay for things just knowing the money was going to a good cause,” Pashley says.
Now in the summer of 2021, those employees have returned — and so have the travelers. Pinehurst is back in the hospitality business.
You see it in the caddie area in the basement of the clubhouse.
“I’ve got 150 caddies, and I need 20 or 30 more,” says Jimmy Smith, the caddiemaster. “It’s insane. We just hired caddies from places like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. They know we have work for them. My biggest problem is, ‘Where do they park?’”
You see it a half mile away in the village, where shop owners like Tom Stewart at Old Sport & Gallery have transitioned from running online auctions of his paintings, books and collectibles during the thick of the pandemic to welcoming a brisk flow of foot traffic a year later.
“It blows my mind,” says Stewart. “Real estate is unbelievable here. My business, knock on wood, has been better this spring than in 10 years. People who have bought these houses come in and say, ‘I need something, I need artwork and books.’ I’ve sold a couple of big-ticket paintings, and that hasn’t happened in a while.”
Pashley and his staff are faced with the unprecedented challenge of having so much interest from leisure travelers — that group of eight guys coming down from Cleveland — that there isn’t enough golf inventory in the near term for a business group that wants to come for meetings in the morning and golf in the afternoon. Certainly, that will change when golfers are more comfortable traveling to Scotland and Ireland and take some of the demand off domestic travel that ratcheted up during the pandemic, and business travel will return more to its pre-pandemic level.
And, of course, the 2024 U.S. Open on Pinehurst No. 2 is on the horizon, not to mention the new USGA facility to be built next door, and the approval and permitting process for a potential new hotel facility next door to the Pinehurst clubhouse.
It goes to show that what goes around, comes around at Pinehurst. One century before, the founding Tufts family had the happy problem of what to do with all the golfers visiting its four golf courses.
“It has been necessary to turn away from Pinehurst some 15,000 people who wanted to come in February and March,” noted a 1923 publication. The Tuftses were getting more business at their resort than they could handle during the winter “high season” — more than 100,000 rounds a year were being played in the mid-1920s — which led to new ventures to the east in Southern Pines with what would become the Mid Pines and Pine Needles clubs.
Which leads Pashley to nod again toward the south, toward Aberdeen, where the resort owns hundreds of acres it bought nearly a decade ago. The architects Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw routed a course on land once occupied by The Pit Golf Links, and Pinehurst Resort owner Bob Dedman gave serious thought in 2011 to green-lighting the project. He decided against it, but now, amid a healthy golf economy at Pinehurst, that idea is back on the table.
“Down the road, we’ll have to have a more serious conversation,” Pashley says. “It’s nice to not have to go out and buy land. We’re sitting on 900-plus acres and can dream about what’s next.”
At Pinehurst, what’s next has always been part of the equation. PS
Lee Pace’s first book about Pinehurst and its history, Pinehurst Stories — A Celebration of Great Golf and Good Times, was published 30 years ago.