When the owner of a new golf club in Pinehurst tells you that every architect – including perhaps the best of the breathing bunch – wants to leave his mark on those hallowed sand hills, at first you take his words with a grain of salt. Then you reflect a moment, and realise that he’s probably right. Throw into the mix the fact that Bill Coore is a North Carolina native and, to be sure, the matter is almost beyond question. At any rate The Dormie Club is the new kid on the Pinehurst block and, as luck would have it, they were kind enough to have us along for a visit on Tuesday last.
Now, the club has hit on hard times – largely a matter of timing, though some would say that as much can be attributed to the business model too – but that’s of little interest value for our purposes, save for the happy coincidence that, as a result, they’re now taking green fee players and thus prepared to entertain degenerates such as ourselves, no doubt in the hope that we’ll say nice things and, if anyone is silly enough to listen, that more will flock to their door than would have otherwise. Fortunately for the club, if they have such a hope, it’s not in vain – at least on the first count! Dormie you see is something of a gem; a worthy addition to the ranks of a golf Mecca and worthy, moreover, of Coore & Crenshaw’s good name.
You can take a tour of the course on the club’s website, which I urge you to do at your leisure. Evan Schiller’s photographs do justice to what is truly a magnificent property of tumbling sand hills and the occasional snake infested wetland (we came across one particularly sinister looking piece of work walking from the second tee to the fairway – Goldy was defiant at the prospect of having to walk off the line of the hole, around the cart path set off to one side, but soon changed his mind when confronted by an opal black water moccasin with its head raised and confrontation in its eyes). You'll have to excuse our own meagre efforts - and the fact that our camera died on the thirteenth.
Incidentally our friend The Itinerant Golfer has also paid a visit and his write up has some delicious snaps of the course in late winter, when the fairways were dormant and a fetching shade of brown.
Events kick off with an inviting tee shot from on high, the first of several slight dogleg lefts unfolding before you. All the world appears before the golfer; all he must do is pick his line and strike confidently into what, even by Coore and & Crenshaw’s standards, is a generous fairway. On closer examination though, down on the battleground, one realises that the landing strip is in fact bisected by a menacing ridge running up the right centre, which has designs no doubt to kick a drawing ball left and a fading ball right into the scrub on either side. A nice touch, to be sure, and one complemented by another I noticed – being that the coffin-like fairway bunkers off to the left slope back towards the fairway rather than away; the result being that a ball bounding towards the brush is more likely to stay in the trap once in, rather than escaping into more perilous territory. (Though a hook of the kind I’m capable of effecting, on a regular basis as it happens, could I’m confident nonetheless skip right through!).
At the second the golfer is invited to bite off as much as he can chew of a sharp dogleg left with a corner bunker. Playing from the wrong position, namely the said bunker, the errant player is faced with the daunting task of landing his ball on what looks like a small turtle. A rise in the front left corner of the green creates the illusion of the green being much smaller than it actually is, and on reaching the surface the author realised that all that anxiety was quite unnecessary. And such is the beauty of Coore & Crenshaw’s fine handiwork.
The fourth is a wonderfully tempting, tumbling par four – again, working its way around to the left. Goliaths among us will take advantage of the launching pad well down the fairway that gives a big ball another nudge towards home – I wonder whether the 10th at Augusta provided inspiration for this one? – though he who ventures too tightly down the left side may find himself in one of two hidden pot bunkers, recovery from which may be beyond most mortals. The approach is no less inviting than the tee shot, a high ball over a couple of cross bunkers 30 yards or so shot being the order of the day. Past them the turf slopes severely to the right, so the player would be well advised to aim left of his target and let the ground do the work – provided, that is, he has enough heat on his ball, for there’s something of a false front that I fell victim to.
Five has something of 15 Pine Valley about it: a heroic tee shot over water required to what is then a more straightforward exercise. Despite playing poor golf to this point, Michael’s and my imagination were nonetheless both sufficiently captured enough to drop a ball down at 150 and bang in a skipping 5 iron for giggles. At Dormie these opportunities are aplenty; those who love the running game can punch and skip ‘til their hearts are content.
On six – a par five that plays up over a vast waste bunker to a fairway that narrows and gently drops like 15 at Cape Kidnappers – the course really started to show its class. The long, narrow green appears almost as an impossible target from 250, but he who is lucky enough to run a low 2 iron in by some accident will be delighted with the results. Certainly it was one of the most exhilarating moments of the adventure for yours truly.
There are some real showstoppers to savour, and eight must be one of them. At 488 yards from the back it’s no dawdle of a par four, but the second shot plays down hill, again around a bend to the left, and there’s plenty of room out to the right for the ball that doesn’t draw or indeed for the ball that’s protecting his lead. A poorly executed tee ball may end up down to the left, blocked out and requiring a strong hook to get home – but the golfer is at least playing from short grass and in all probability feels like he’s still in with a chance. This is one of the features of Coore’s brilliance that finds great sympathy in a happy hooker such as myself. Really eight is a magnificent hole and its simple green complex sitting naked, surrounded by ample but rumpled pitching ground, is an apt finish to the endeavour.
Nine is a wonderful uphill par three on which not much needs to be said, other than that its proportions are a thing of beauty – to the extent that even a non-golfer would surely appreciate its geometric proportions as she would a Rembrandt, Da Vinci or, for that matter, number six at Royal Melbourne West! A crafty tier running from left to right across the green is hardly visible from the tee; standing on the green you realise that, to get to that back pin, you need to be either aggressive or lucky – and he who ventures long does so at his peril, for there are a couple of MacKenzie-esque traps lurking with a none too pleasant intent. Find yourself down in one, with the pin cut on that back tier, and you might well surrender there and then, and walk in – for up and down is a proposition as unlikely as a birdie at sixteen Cypress.
The weary golfer, his ego bruised and his accounting skills put to the test, will take some comfort in the offer of peanut crackers and refreshment at the “honesty box” half way house en route to ten tee.
Seconds later he who already knows his back’s against it has another nail driven into his coffin. Six hundred and fifty three yards stand between him and a small hole cut in a green that seems light years away. Three well struck blows are no doubt required if he is to have a putt for birdie – and along the way he’ll need to navigate an encroaching wetland (which used to run right across the fairway thanks to the bidding of the environmental crowd, but thankfully has now retreated a little on the right side to allow the modest hitter to play his way around) and a pair of Principal’s Nose bunkers at roughly one forty out. In a token gesture of generosity the green entrance falls down to the surface, so a running ball gets a helping hand onto the dance floor, and hopefully to glory beyond. Michael flew a glorious nine iron in for his third to just a few feet, yielding a rare birdie that deserves a mention.
Revelling in the experience I remember, at that point, pausing on my short walk to the eleventh tee to observe just how peaceful it is at The Dormie Club. Not a sound in the air save for the odd tweet or the rustle of a squirrel darting through fallen leaves, it’s really a serene place to golf one’s ball around.
On eleven one’s asked to play semi-blind, up hill to a green complex that beckons you out left to safety, from where up and down is a more reasonable proposition than it is from behind number nine.
Then on twelve – the short hole – Coore & Crenshaw give you the chance to hit that crisp wedge shot you know you can hit when no one’s looking; but woe betide he who fails, for the apparently benign one thirteen yarder has a green reminiscent of a crumpled duvet, pitched sharply from back to front with several tiers on which you don’t want to find yourself on the wrong side. Rudovsky had told me before address that the green slopes down from the front bunker to the pin – a falsity that I was stupid enough to swallow and thus had only myself to blame when I came up short, though thirty feet of backspin down a couple of tiers might also have had something to do with it!
Thirteen for me is the high point of The Dormie Experience. The hole is not, in fact, the most beautiful to look at, but rather draws its charm from its absolute simplicity. From down below you drive, in theory, up to a wide fairway from which the task ahead is an unmistakable one: thump your ball from (probably) over two hundred yards down a wide corridor that fades gently to the right, to a green that’s unprotected by anything other than the soft contours of its mown surrounds. At four hundred and ninety two it’s no baby, but neither is it a Leviathan such as you may find at, say, Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course, on which anyone but the masochist will find themselves a little dejected. Other than a depression of dead ground some fifty yards short that’s hardly visible from up on high, there’s nothing to speak of to prevent the golfer from realising his dream. Just stand up and deliver a long iron – maybe a three spoon or, for the American friends we make fun of, a fairway rescue – on its way and the contours will do the rest. Absolute simplicity and, by extension, absolute beauty. For “shits and giggles”, as we crassly say in New Zealand, I dropped a ball down from two sixty and punched a two iron – much to my delight – all the way to the back edge of the surface. It must have bounded no less than a hundred yards along Dormie’s crisp turf to its destination, and in that moment I felt as strongly connected to golf as I think I ever have.
The finish doesn’t disappoint from there either. Fourteen’s a short, risk-reward par four that plays slightly up to a long, thin green guarded by a front right bunker and sharp fall off down to the right. Those bold enough to pull driver and swing for dear life may reap their reward if their line is true, but if that ball strays just a little to the left it will find its way into the pine forest, from which recovery is no mean feat – or equally troublingly, down to the right, from which the golfer must pitch up over the bunker without full view of his landing zone. A wee gem and one reminiscent of another good short ‘un that Coore & Crenshaw installed at Hidden Creek up in the pine barrens of New Jersey (incidentally, also worth a visit if you have the opportunity).
Fifteen is a strong cape hole, the trouble being several times more harrowing than its ancestor at North Berwick. Seventeen is another heroic beast, a climbing par five at which the fading soul is invited to blast his second over a waste area up to the promised land – or, for those inclined against such bravery (like Goldy), to lay up and leave a semi-blind wedge in. Having struck one of very few pure blows with a three metal in the direction of the stick in the distance I was tortured to find that my drawing ball had been kicked right into the front right trap. How could such a travesty have befallen me you might wonder. Well, that nasty piece of work Coore shaped the green entrance with a mini-hogs back – the result being that anything less than the Perfect shot that lands short will likely find a sandy grave. Dejected as I was at this most unfortunate of outcomes, I had to give it nonetheless to Bill for what is really a nifty piece of architecture.
The home hole does not disappoint, though it doesn’t quite have the drama of certain of its predecessors if I’m being frank. A cross-waste area – if such a thing exists – lies in waiting at circa eighty yards short, so he who drives errantly may think twice about the miracle recovery. Depending on how the match is panning out, he may lay up and leave himself a straightforward-ish wedge to the huge square surface ahead. If he is bold enough to take the waste area on, and fails to keep his ball far enough to the right, a long coffin bunker awaits. Paul and I found ourselves in that very corridor of sand, faced with fifty yards of carry – in the circumstances, an order too tall for both of us! Walking off what is one of the better greens on the course for mine I looked back, in the baking heat, and reflected on what an experience we’d just had. Abominable golf could not so much as tarnish even to the smallest degree what really is a rewarding and worthwhile adventure into the sand hills.
If there is a criticism to be made of the course itself, it might be that there are perhaps too many holes that favour the hooker, being doglegs to the left. The occasional walk off the line of the hole, around wetlands, is an evil that for conservation reasons cannot be avoided – and to be fair the inconvenience is not nearly as severe as it is at the nearby Tobbacco Road. Some say that Coore & Crenshaw never finished their work – a few holes being half baked as a result – because the club got into financial strife and the best boys in the business are still owed money. Not knowing the true story I won’t speculate, but if that’s the case, the overall result is not to my mind an unfinished one – perhaps to the better trained eye of the more seasoned observer there are I’s to dot and t’s to cross, but at first glance they didn’t register with me. Who knows, on a second visit that may not be the case. But one thing’s for sure: if I had the chance to go back and have a second look, I’d jump at it without pause. And that’s the sign, for me, of a great experience.