Skip to content

Perfect Partners

Pinehurst, the USGA and a common purpose

By Lee Pace

Feature Photograph by USGA/John Mummert

Grant Spaeth and David Fay had heard all the arguments about why Pinehurst and its No. 2 course could never host a U.S. Open.

The club, through the mid-1980s, had yet to figure out how to marry climate and agronomy with the sometimes contrasting needs of having good putting surfaces during the spring and fall months for the paying customers, with the stiff and brisk greens mandatory for the Open’s customary third week of June dates.

The town was too remote; the biggest city, Charlotte, was two hours away.

There were two-lane roads in every direction.

There weren’t enough beds and dinner tables.

Still . . . that ambience, that pine scent, that bouncy hardpan sand, the ghost of Donald Ross, the pristine routing, that umbilical cord to the roots of golf in America, that specter of Richard Tufts of Pinehurst’s founding family having been a USGA president and a visionary on matters of agronomy, course setup and rules.

Spaeth, the USGA president, and Fay, the executive director, were unbowed that April day in 1990 when they stopped off in Pinehurst to play No. 2 on their way to Augusta, Georgia, for the Masters.

Fay believed a U.S. Open at Pinehurst could be “Tracy-and-Hepburnesque, a match made in heaven.”

“We agreed: Can’t we take a second look? How can we not go the extra mile to see if it will work here?” Spaeth said.

“Early on in this process I thought Pinehurst No. 2 was one of the great courses in the world,” Fay said. “It’s the United States’ answer to St. Andrews. Opens are usually played in and around large metropolitan areas, but there are a couple of exceptions. It might be that arguably two of the most outstanding sites for the Open are played quite far away from these metropolitan areas — Shinnecock and Pebble Beach. You look at the pattern of the British Open, which is actually played away from metropolitan areas. My feeling was, if you can have an Open at Pebble Beach, if you can have an Open at Shinnecock Hills, you can have an Open at Pinehurst.”

Fay reveled in the tradition and mystique of the golf course, the resort and the village. An avid baseball fan, he believed a visit to Pinehurst was like a trip to Wrigley Field or Fenway Park.

“How many times today do you hear some hot young star in any sport hear the name of a Hall of Fame player in his sport and say, ‘Who was he?’” mused Fay, the USGA chief until his retirement in 2010. “When you get to Pinehurst, that changes. It’s impossible not to get caught up in the history. It’s everywhere. It’s where you look, it’s in the air, it’s in the turf, it’s in the images on the walls, it’s in the church bells. You can almost feel the ghosts coming out.”

And what a story those ghosts can tell over three-and-a-half decades. Pinehurst No. 2 did in fact get its long-coveted U.S. Open in 1999, and the dominoes have been falling ever since.

Look at the Sandhills community and the USGA today: three Opens in the books, another this month and four more set through 2047; two U.S. Amateurs on courses No. 2 and 4 in 2008 and 2019; four U.S. Women’s Opens held just down Midland Road at Pine Needles; and the USGA this spring opens its 6-acre Golf House Pinehurst complex with an administrative and testing center in one building, and a second devoted to a museum and the World Golf Hall of Fame, relocated from earlier homes in Pinehurst and then St. Augustine, Florida.

“There is no better place for the USGA to plant new roots than the home of American golf,” Mike Davis, the USGA’s CEO from 2011-2021, said in 2020 when announcement was made of the satellite facility to complement the USGA’s longstanding headquarters in Liberty Corner, New Jersey.

“North Carolina is a fantastic hotbed of golf, so it provides the opportunity to get closer to our customers, our core golfers,” added USGA chief brand officer Craig Annis. “We also see Pinehurst as striving to innovate, and that is also what we are doing. We are proud of our history. Both the USGA and Pinehurst Resort are celebrating their 125th anniversary this year, but we also need to look for what we can do to bring the game into the future.”

Left: USGA/Chris Keane

Right: USGA/Jason E. Miczek

The $54 million Golf House Pinehurst facility is situated on the former site of club tennis courts on the west side of Carolina Vista Drive. The design for the buildings evokes the architectural heritage of Pinehurst with wide verandas punctuated by columns, hipped-roof features with dormers, large windows, and textured clapboard and shake siding details. The landscape around and between the buildings highlights the USGA’s ongoing work to help make golf more sustainable with native plants and pollinator habitats.

“We’ve spent more money on the façade and the grasses and the outdoor walking gardens than you can imagine, making sure we look like a 125-year-old neighbor and not a 12-year-old neighbor,” says Mike Whan, who followed Davis as the USGA’s CEO in 2021.

Six hundred yards to the north is the Carolina Hotel. Three hundred yards to the east is the first tee of Pinehurst No. 2. Four hundred yards to the south are The Cradle and Thistle Dhu, the immensely popular duo of ancillary golf venues just outside the resort clubhouse at Pinehurst Country Club.

The new USGA Experience Building and World Golf Hall of Fame are in the thick if it all — in contrast to the first rendition of the Hall of Fame in Pinehurst from 1974-98, when it was situated in the woods on the opposite side of the fourth green and fifth tee on No. 2.

“The original hall was not on the beaten path for golfers going to play Pinehurst No. 2 and all the other courses at the resort,” Whan says. “If you’re at the Carolina Hotel or in the village and you’re going to play No. 2 or The Cradle, you’re going to be within walking distance of the World Golf Hall of Fame. That’s very different.”

The Test Center and Administrative Building has been occupied by approximately 70 USGA staffers since late 2023. Next door, the USGA Experience Building with the World Golf Hall of Fame on the second floor opened in May.

This second building is open to the public. With the lower floor at 9,500 square feet and the Hall of Fame at 8,000, the building is large enough to display a significant amount of educational content about the game of golf and historical artifacts saluting its history, without being saddled with exorbitant maintenance costs.

“Everyone who plays golf will make the pilgrimage to Pinehurst at one point or another,” Whan says. “This is not a separate trip. Golfers are already coming. Together with the Hall of Fame, we’re more committed than ever to delivering experiences that build even deeper connections between golf fans and those who have truly led the way in this great game.”

The USGA Experience tells the story of golf’s governing body in America, beyond the national championships it conducts. One gallery highlights the science of the game with agronomy and equipment testing, the two areas in which the USGA has significant footprints. Another gallery embraces the U.S. Open and all the other championships, a total of 16 annually. One area will be devoted to a rotating exhibit, with some artifacts and memorabilia coming out of storage from the USGA’s headquarters in New Jersey.

Appropriately enough, that area for its debut theme will feature Pinehurst history and how the resort and town evolved into the “St. Andrews of American golf.” Interactive displays and kiosks, along with film and video snippets, enhance the experience. The area pays homage to a Pinehurst/USGA marriage that grows deeper in years to come.

In addition to the Opens set for 2029, 2035, 2041 and 2047 on No. 2, the USGA has set Pinehurst for the 2027 U.S. Women’s Amateur, the 2032 U.S. Junior Amateur and U.S. Girls’ Junior, the 2038 U.S. Amateur, the 2044 U.S. Women’s Amateur and a future U.S. Adaptive Open. The 2027 and 2044 U.S. Women’s Amateurs and 2038 U.S. Amateur will also be held on Pinehurst No. 2.

Middle: USGA/Jason E. Miczek

Right: USGA/Jason E. Miczek

“Bringing more championships to a venue like Pinehurst is a testament to the USGA’s commitment to our long-term partnership with the resort and our promise of expanding the presence of our organization in the area,” says John Bodenhamer, USGA chief championships officer. “Pinehurst’s rich golf heritage and commitment to excellence make it the perfect setting for all of the USGA’s world-class events. Their commitment to our Open championships is incredible, and now we are able to shine a light on the amateur game here as well.”

The headline display area in the World Golf Hall of Fame will be the locker room concept relocated from St. Augustine. Lockers assigned to its 164 members feature personal memorabilia stored behind plexiglass walls, items such as Johnny Miller’s clubs used in shooting a final-round 63 in the 1973 Open at Oakmont; Jack Nicklaus’ MacGregor bag from the 1965 Masters; Bob Jones’ Spalding 9-wood; the Wilson Pay-Off putter Sam Snead used throughout most of the 1950s; Beth Daniels’ 1990 Solheim Cup bag autographed by both U.S. and European teams; and a pair of plaid golf shoes and black and white-checkered houndstooth cap and white plus-fours worn by Bob Hope. Visitors can access a mobile app on their phones to hear voice recordings and footage from various inductees.

“Putting these displays in Pinehurst in front of the hundreds of thousands of people who come here every year will be a major benefit to the game of golf,” says Hillary Cronheim, senior director of the USGA Golf Museum and Library. “St. Augustine wasn’t particularly easy to get to. We certainly have our challenges in Liberty Corner. Pinehurst is just such a mecca for golfers, we’re confident we’ll get a lot of people here.”

It has been 31 years since the USGA announced at the 1993 Open at Baltusrol that it had awarded the Open to Pinehurst six years later, and Reg Jones has been a central part of the USGA/Pinehurst relationship for all but one of those years. Jones was fresh out of Wake Forest University and was hired as an intern in 1994 by Pinehurst Championship Management, a department within Pinehurst Resort & Country Club created to market and manage the golf championships set for the Sandhills in the 1990s — the 1991 and ’92 Tour Championship, the 1994 U.S. Senior Open, the 1996 U.S. Women’s Open at Pine Needles, and the big one, the U.S. Open itself in 1999.

His first office was in the catacombs of the Member Clubhouse, and from there he learned the gritty details involved in setting up the mini-city a golf tournament becomes — how to find and manage volunteers, where to rent Port-A-Lets and buy ice, where to position concessions and grandstands. When the ’99 U.S. Open arrived, “our tents, signage and landscaping all needed to look like what you would expect to find at Pinehurst 365 days a year,” Jones says. The corporate village had white columns to match the look of the Carolina Hotel. The media center featured 300 custom-built desks with state-of-the-art communications. Signs welcomed you coming in and thanked you going out. “Over the years, we’ve developed the ability to give each Open a flavor of its own. It’s not just a cookie-cutter operation.”

Jones was promoted to championship director for the 2005 Open at Pinehurst and then was hired by the USGA to manage the outside-the-ropes operation at all its U.S. Opens. He was allowed to maintain his base of operations in Pinehurst, and for nearly two decades Jones and his staff worked out of offices on the second floor of the Department Store Building in the village of Pinehurst.

Now he runs the Open from the sparkling new USGA building on Carolina Vista. “Going back to ’99, I remember the newness, the anticipation, the excitement, sometimes the trepidation,” says Jones. “There was the question hanging over the week of whether or not Pinehurst could host the championship from an agronomic and logistical perspective. I think we answered those questions. Then there was the finish — the weather, how eerie it felt to have Scottish weather in June in North Carolina, the one putt by Payne Stewart to win it all.

“Then you go to 2005 and the memories are a lot about the people, the spectators, the volume of the galleries. The sheer numbers were incredible — right around 325,000 for the week.

“And 2014 was all about having the men and women back-to-back. On Sunday the first week, we had Martin Kaymer and Ricky Fowler warming up on the range getting ready to go out, and the women were arriving to register and practice. It was really cool having the leaders of the men’s championship on one side of the hitting area, and Michelle Wie and Paula Creamer on the other.”

Ticket sales will be limited to 35,000 per day for the 2024 championship, the same as the 1999 Open. The USGA could handle a larger crowd but learned in 2005 that bigger is not necessarily better.

“In 2005, it was cool to see all the people and the energy, but I’m not sure it was the best spectator experience. We want to make sure that our fans that come here have that bucket list experience,” Jones says. “It’s the little details that make the experience that much better. We’ve learned each year, and that’s why coming back to Pinehurst is so good for us because we’ve got a plan that has worked so well. We like to say, ‘This is a home game for us.’”  PS