The Pinehurst Look

The natural treasure of the Sandhills

By Lee Pace

Three years into the Robert Dedman and ClubCorp era of Pinehurst Resort and Country Club in 1987, green fees to play Pinehurst No. 2 were $24 with a $15 surcharge for hotel guests. That year Don Padgett Sr. joined the staff as director of golf, and the former PGA of America president and long-time golf industry insider immediately moved to double the base fee to $48.

“It was not as if we were trying to make more money,” remembers Pat Corso, the resort CEO from 1987-2004 who hired Padgett. “Don said if our value is that low, people will perceive us to be that low. We had to do better than that.”

Today most rounds of golf on No. 2 are factored into a golfer’s membership at the private country club or a visitor’s hotel package, but the rack rate is upward of $500 in high season.

Talk about inflation — not only in dollars but prestige.

The 2022 U.S. Women’s Open was held recently at Pine Needles Lodge and Golf Club, unofficially launching the next high-water mark in the Sandhills’ visibility in the national golf scene.

The day following the Women’s Open, the USGA broke ground for its $25 million Golf House Pinehurst, the equipment-testing facility, innovation hub, museum/visitor center and offices on ground adjacent to the Pinehurst member and resort clubhouses.

Later this month, the USGA launches the inaugural U.S. Adaptive Open, to be held at Pinehurst No. 6 and contested by players with physical, visual and intellectual impairments.

And in two years, the U.S. Open returns to No. 2 for its fourth rendition and the first of five Opens it has secured within the framework of having been designated in 2021 as an “anchor site” for the American national championship (the others coming in 2029, 2035, 2041 and 2047).

“It’s more than just a championship for us here in the Sandhills,” says John Bodenhamer, the USGA’s director of championships. “The players can speak to it. They love a golf course like Pine Needles. Great golf courses produce great champions. How do you argue what’s come about here?”

Michelle Wie West, who won the 2014 Women’s Open on No. 2, and Lydia Ko, who finished sixth at Pine Needles, were among the players who soaked up the Sandhills vibe.

“There’s so much history around this place,” Wie West said of a morning stroll through the village of Pinehurst. “Just to be walking here and playing, it’s a huge honor.”

“This is a huge golfing community,” added Ko. “It’s actually nice to go to places where people love it, people are excited about women’s golf being here, people are excited about golf in general.” 

The 2014 USGA doubleheader on No. 2 with the men’s and women’s national championships just after the Coore and Crenshaw 2010-11 course restoration combined with the recent event on a Pine Needles course similarly renovated by Kyle Franz have cemented what has evolved into “The Pinehurst Look” — a distinctive array of sandscapes, wispy grasses, jagged edges and towering pines that reflect the native environment.

That’s as it should be and is a style to be embraced by the Sandhills golf community. Televisions at various corporate entertainment venues at Pine Needles through the weekend showed simultaneous coverage of the golf at Pine Needles and from the Memorial Tournament at Muirfield Village on the PGA Tour.

Visuals from the Memorial screamed of green, green and more green in an organized and seamless fashion. Golfers missing fairways and greens bent over and peered into the lush rough to figure out how much of their ball was accessible.

In contrast, the views from Pine Needles reflected haphazard displays of Mother Nature doing her Sandhills thing — random and arbitrary plant growth, and fairway edges and tinges of brown in the bouncy fairways. Franz in his restoration of the 1928 Donald Ross design over 2017-20 removed 11 acres of Bermuda rough, leaving wayward shots finding an infinite array of lies and challenges amid the wiregrass and volunteer vegetation.

“This look brings out the architectural features that Donald Ross envisioned before irrigation and takes much less water to maintain,” says Jim Hyler, the 2010-11 USGA president and a part-time resident of Pinehurst. “It emphasizes the ground game, which places a different set of demands on the player than a green, lush course.”

Elsewhere around the Pine Needles campus, the USGA erected large banners heralding future Women’s Open venues. Each golf course reflected its essential nature and calling card — the ocean at Pebble Beach, the fescue roughs and treeless landscape of Erin Hills, the eucalyptus trees and kikuyu rough of Riviera, the notorious bunkers of Oakmont.

There was a time when Sandhills golf courses had lost their way, when the 2005 Open was played at No. 2 and the 2007 Women’s Open at Pine Needles and the visuals were dominated by narrow, bowling-alley fairways, layers of different mowing heights for roughs, and a misguided effort to look like Augusta National North.

“You could have been anywhere in the southeast United States where there is Bermuda grass and pine trees,” says Ran Morrissett, a Southern Pines resident and curator of the Golf Club Atlas website. “Pinehurst No. 2 no longer reflected that it was in the Sandhills of North Carolina. The golden age fairways typically were 42 to 47 yards wide. At one point before the Coore and Crenshaw restoration, I paced off the first fairway at 24 yards and at one point on the seventh fairway — I think the crook of the dogleg — it might have been 12 yards wide.

“That’s not how Donald Ross defended par. He defended it at the greens. But what happened was some guy plays it for the first time and you ask, ‘What did you think of 13?’ and he says, ‘Well, which hole was that?’ The holes were no longer distinctive.”

Minjee Lee, who won the Women’s Open with a four-shot margin and a 13-under-par total, certainly understood the distinctiveness of these Ross-designed courses through her final round. On the sixth hole, she missed the fairway left and had to thwack her ball through a tuft of wiregrass. On seven, she was wayward right, her ball sitting clean on the hardpan sand, but at address her clubshaft was swallowed by a willowy wiregrass plant. And on the par-5 10th, her second shot missed the green left and came to rest within a nesty enclave of dead grass.

So what if the scores were relatively low and Lee won with a 271 total, the lowest in the history of the Women’s Open? You had good weather and little wind. 

“All great architecture is prone to players playing really well on it,” Franz said. “The conditions are right, and that’s the greatness of Ross’s style.”

Low scores and the pure Sandhills look beat higher scores artificially promulgated by fertilizer and irrigation. The template has been properly reinstituted, these Donald Ross treasures coming full circle to when the young man from Dornoch embraced the similarity of the Pinehurst ground to that of his homeland in Scotland. 

It’s a look of its own and one that prompted USGA President Mike Whan to remark in lengthening shadows of the 18th green Sunday evening at Pine Needles, “You feel like you’re at the home of golf in America.”

Treasure that and lock it down. PS

Lee Pace has written about the Pinehurst-area golf scene for more than 30 years, including authoring Sandhills Classics — The Stories of Mid Pines & Pine Needles. Write him at and follow him @LeePaceTweet.

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