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A Sandy Recovery

The scrubby restoration of Pinehurst No. 2 by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw has emphasized the strategy, unpredictability, and fun of Donald Ross' magnum opus

Appeared in Winter 2011 LINKS

Golf celebrates a quiet but significant anniversary in 2011 with the centenary of the opening of Long Island’s National Golf Links of America, C.B. Macdonald’s masterpiece that was not only was the first great course in the United States, but also the layout that ushered in the Golden Age of course design.

In the century since, American architecture has embraced varying features, landscapes, and technologies to articulate evolving schools of thought in strategy, playing conditions, and aesthetic archetypes. But now more than ever, the platinum standard remains the Golden Age philosophies of multiple playing options, lay-of-the-land features, and naturally firm, fast conditions that make for fun, engaging golf experiences.

In addition to representing the pillars of our “A Simpler Game” campaign, these qualities are the hallmarks of recent masterpieces like Sand Hills and Bandon Dunes, which were designed as throwbacks, where the golf is played not on wall-to-wall green carpets but on surfaces of varying colors.

But it’s not just the new courses that are consciously returning to golf’s foundations. In recent years, a small but influential movement among America’s classic courses has sought to undo decades of ill-advised changes and restore the original intent of Golden Age architects like Alister MacKenzie, C.B. Macdonald, and Donald Ross.

The movement has a new standard bearer with the reopening of Pinehurst No. 2 following a restoration by Bill Coore and Crenshaw. The host of the back-to-back 2014 U.S. Open and U.S. Women’s Open has a striking new look after the duo replaced 26 acres of grass around the perimeters of holes with sandy scrub and wiregrass, which now covers the area from the edge of the fairway to the tree line.

Although the course has less grass, the reshaped and recontoured fairways are actually wider, to offer more options off the tee. “The look, outline, perspective, and shapes of the holes are what we’re after,” says Crenshaw. “Pinehurst No. 2 has been one of the great strategic golf courses in the world. We think that Mr. Ross intended you to play on certain sides of the fairways based on how you wanted to take different angles into the greens. With severely constricted corridors of play, those options were taken away.”

The new design reduces water usage, as the native areas receive no irrigation, and the fairways are maintained firm and fast. “Mr. Ross laid the fairways in and among the native wiregrass and the sandy rough habitat in such a way that if you missed the fairways, there was uncertainty,” says Coore. “The ball may roll and come to rest in perfect lie in the hardpan sand. Or it may nestle against a small wireglass plant; it may go into a bit of the pine needles.

“It was just unknown, and yet for the most part, it allowed recovery. That’s what we’re trying to go back to.”

Until the 1970s, these unkempt areas had outlined nearly every hole before the resort’s then-owner, Diamond Corporation, replaced the scruffy turf with thick bermuda grass. (At one point, they even installed greenside rough, hiding the genius of Ross’ green complexes.)

Although some of the sandy areas had been restored since, planted grass was still the norm off the fairways, especially during Pinehurst’s previous two U.S. Opens, in 1999 and 2005. Not coincidentally, the restoration is in lockstep with the U.S. Golf Association’s emerging championship philosophy, which has eschewed lush uniform-height rough in favor of allowing some vagaries in punishment for wayward shots.

“The USGA is certainly excited about the project,” says USGA President Jim Hyler, who has been at the forefront of pushing for less water use and more sustainable conditions in golf. “To have Pinehurst in its original state is a meaningful statement, and something we’re really glad to see.”

From a competitive standpoint, the native areas are a perfect complement to Ross’ raised greens (which haven’t been touched), as players missing the fairway may now encounter decent lies that should tempt them into trying to go for the green instead of automatically laying up. This risk-reward proposition will bring an added layer of excitement in 2014.

“In 2005 I felt like took the skill level out of play,” says 2010 U.S. Open winner Graeme McDowell. “Anybody can miss the fairway by a couple of feet, be in big trouble, hack it out to wedge distance. These greens are designed so they want you to go into them with 4, 5, and 6-irons.”

While McDowell and his fellow pros will have to wait three years before taking their turn on the restored layout, the public now has its chance to appreciate this window into the Golden Age.

“This is something the average golfer is not going to encounter on a regular basis,” says Mike Davis, the USGA’s director of rules and competitions. “This is back to what golf used to be. When they built golf courses back then, they would be concerned about having good teeing grounds, good fairways, and good greens. Everything else was essentially the lay of the land, what was natural.”

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