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Pearl of Pinehurst

Tryon, North Carolina

By: James Dodson

Appeared in May/June 2005 LINKS

On a golf pilgrimage to Pinehurst, North Carolina, you stand with feet shoulder-width apart, waggling a 9-iron and summoning your powers of concentration for the tender little chip you’ve come all this way to play.

But you put too harsh a swing on it and send the ball high and off-line. It hits a fireplace mantle, ricochets through a crowded bar and shatters a framed picture on the wall. Gasps give way to uproarious laughter, and the “Chipping Board”—that rowdy parlor game known so fondly to loyal patrons of the Pine Crest Inn—gains yet another measure of fame.

Me, I’m the older and wiser pilgrim welded to his barstool and confining his golf mishaps to Pinehurst’s outdoor venues numbered 1 through 8 (particularly old No. 2, which on this particular afternoon has taken the measure of me). Not to say I don’t feel tempted at times to try chipping a golf ball through that foot-wide opening in a wooden board set in the fireplace eight feet away. Everyone from frat boys to tour players to golf widows to movie stars has taken a shot at the Chipping Board since Pinehurst golf pro Lionel Callaway (inventor of the handicapping system of the same name) introduced the popular diversion a quarter of a century ago.

Ben Crenshaw once chipped 10 balls in a row through the opening, gaining Pine Crest immortality for something other than his velvety putting touch. The ape who actually hit the pinball shot described above nearly KO’d longtime piano player Clarence Levine with it. Clarence was midway through “Taking a Chance on Love” and managed to duck his head in the nick of time.

“You ever try that?” the guy one barstool over inquires.

“Enough to realize I couldn’t do it very well,” I tell him. And for that reason I am content to simply watch others make pleasant golfing fools of themselves on a rowdy Friday night here at the Pine Crest.

He smiles and cranes his neck in a few directions. “This place is a party with four walls around it. Wonder what it’s like to actually stay here.”

“Fabulous. An experience not to be missed,” I assure him. “It’s like stepping back 50 years and staying over at your grandmother’s house. I sleep like a baby at the Pine Crest—do some of my best work here, too, come to think of it.”

Work as in—what? Hedge trimming? Ghostbusting? I confess to my new drinking buddy that I’m a golf writer hiding out from his editor and the world at large. The Pine Crest, I tell him, has a long tradition of golf scribes bellying up to its bar. Dan Jenkins, Dick Taylor, Bob Drum and Charles Price have been devoted habitués of the Pine Crest Bar. So, in his time, was my personal hero, Henry Longhurst. I’ve been doing my part to uphold the tradition.

 What I might have added was that just that morning in a third-floor room under the southwest eaves, where innkeepers Andy Hofmann and Linda Tufts normally squirrel me away from the livelier guests, I’d put the finishing touches on an authorized biography of Ben Hogan. The pile of pages two stories above us represented the third book in a row I had completed while ensconced here in the golf world’s most beloved and eccentric hostelry.

I could have led him point by point through its assorted homey charms—its chenille bedspreads, its sweetly bossy staff, that fabulous dining room, no chocolates on the pillow, no valet anything, a great piano bar, a hotel cat named Marmalade and a long-tenured staff that always seems to know your name. Did anyplace in the wide world of golf offer anything better than this?

In my book, not by a long shot. Scarce wonder Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus both sing the Pine Crest’s praises, and on any given night when something golf-wise is stirring in greater Pinehurst you’re likely to glance over and see Davis Love or Fred Couples rubbing elbows with the regulars. Payne Stewart loved the Pine Crest so much he once signed his name above the low entry door to the downstairs gents’ room—a bit of poignant graffiti protected for the ages by a square of Plexiglas. Early in his career, the story goes, after failing to make it through PGA Tour qualifying, Stewart offered to put the Pine Crest logo on his golf bag for $500 as he set off for the Asian Tour, but manager Peter Barrett politely declined. On the Sunday before Stewart captured the U.S. Open in 1999, he came to the Pine Crest for dinner and at Barrett’s request put his signature in that well-trafficked spot, where it’s become part of the legend and lore of the establishment.

“I’ve always said the Pine Crest is a third-rate hotel for first-class people,” offers Barrett, whose family has owned the inn since 1961. “The beauty of this place is it’s not the Waldorf-Astoria and everybody who comes here knows it. That’s part of the charm. We almost never hear complaints.” 

A town known worldwide for its spectacular golf courses and world-class resort accommodations, it’s exactly this kind of low-key presence and tradition on shady Dogwood Road, just a pitching wedge down the hill from the tidy main square of the village center, that’s always made the humble Pine Crest feel like a welcome harbor to generations of golf travelers.

Its doors first opened for business on Nov. 1, 1913, offering 50 modest guest rooms, 14 bathrooms, a sunlit dining room, and “good cheer and hominess,” according to an early newspaper advertisement. The original owner was Mr. E.C. Bliss of Edgewood, R.I., but the most distinguished owner became Pinehurst resident Donald Ross, famed architect of Pinehurst No. 2 and 600 other golf courses, who bought the hotel in 1921 with his good friend James McNab and owned the place until his death in 1948.   

Ross, who supposedly loved sitting on the porch of his inn greeting guests during busy times, added a new wing to the modest structure, including several suites with bathrooms. But by the time Erie, Pa., newspaperman Bob Barrett and wife Betty dropped in for a vacation around 1960 and found themselves completely smitten with the hotel’s easy charms and friendly staff, the Pine Crest was showing its age. After their fourth visit to the premises, the couple used Betty Barrett’s inheritance to purchase the property for $125,000.

“The rooms were small and only a few of the larger ones even had working bathrooms,” Peter Barrett remembers. “The inn needed a lot of work but my dad clearly loved what he found here.” Bob and Betty immediately began making upgrades and improvements to the Pine Crest, failing to break even for several years.

 The Barretts also inherited some of Donald Ross’s staff, including chef Carl Jackson, who clocked nearly 50 years of service—producing some of the Sandhills region’s most admired cuisine and developing dishes from interesting recipes owner Bob Barrett brought back from his own travels—before his nephew Peter Jackson took over the cooking duties. The younger Jackson, 64, has been on the job for almost 40 years of his own, although his duties these days are limited to breakfast, giving him a well-earned break from the evening dinner rush that’s now overseen by executive chef Paul Johnston. The housekeeping staff, meanwhile, has its own impressive “lifers,” including head housekeeper Mary “Tiz” Russell and her sister Josephine “Peanut” Swinnie, who between them have logged nearly a century of service.

As a result of such intimacy and devotion to tradition, the Pine Crest enjoys a phenomenal repeat customer rate—well over 90 percent, according to Barrett—many of whom book the same room for the same week, year after year. “It seems everyone comes here for a different reason,” muses Andy Hofmann, Peter Barrett’s sister-in-law (her husband Bob is the hotel’s accountant) and the Inn’s female major domo and golf coordinator.  “Some people like the unfussy guest rooms, others the dining-room menu or the busy bar. Some even come for Marmalade.”

I count myself among that latter group. Like any respectable house ghost, a hotel cat says a lot about the joint it chooses to haunt. My first experience with Marmalade goes back to Payne Stewart’s Open, when I dragged a journalist friend from Chicago through the fan-clogged streets of Pinehurst late on Open Saturday afternoon to have him experience the rowdy magic of the Pine Crest for himself. I’d hoped we might grab a drink and take a crack at the infamous chipping board. We arrived to find a couple thousand people trying to do exactly the same thing, sagging the porches while they waited in a swarm around the outdoor bar. With brews in hand, we retreated to a corner of the porch and found seats from which to people-watch, à la innkeeper Donald Ross, and soon I discovered a friendly orange feline rubbing gently against my leg.

What I later learned from Linda Tufts at the front desk, as I gave the wee beastie a good scratch, was that Marmalade had been something of a wildcat when she wandered up to the Pine Crest several years earlier. Another cat named Fritz had just passed on, and longtime doorman Dick Broder sensed a worthy successor. He gave the newcomer her name, and began feeding and caring for her, as did several local patrons. “She was very stand-offish for that first year,” Linda recalls, “but after she relaxed and became familiar with the guests, she became the grand dame of the porch. She greets everybody now.”

Every time I’ve returned to the Pine Crest since then—perhaps eight or nine occasions to either play golf or squirrel up and finish a book under the eaves—Marmalade the cat has been sitting faithfully on the steps beneath the long green canopy of the inn when I arrive. She rises when she sees me approaching, perhaps anticipating another good scratch.

Her continuing presence says a lot about the essence of hospitality found there, I think, and helps explain why we Pine Crest partisans are so hopelessly devoted to the place, praying it never changes, returning year after year. For this year’s Open, Peter Barrett plans to put up a big barbeque tent and add on barkeeps, which means the crowds there may be of Biblical proportions. My game plan is to get there early on Open Saturday, grab a cold one and visit with the grand dame of the porch while watching the whole world pass through the friendliest front doors in golf.   

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