Appeared in Summer 2014 LINKS
A dozen years ago this June, I was having a late breakfast with amateur great Harvie Ward at the eccentric and deeply beloved Pine Crest Inn in Pinehurst, when he looked across his bowl of buttered grits and gave me a lazy catfish smile.
“Here’s what I think,” he drawled. “You can take the boy out of Carolina but not the other way around. You need to come on back and get the Pinehurst Cure—just the way I did.”
We had been talking for two hours about collaborating on a book about his return to Pinehurst after one of the most sensational careers in golf, a rise and precipitous fall from grace followed by a true rebirth in the game. Seemingly out of the blue in 1948, to briefly review, Ward knocked off flamboyant Frankie Stranahan at the North & South Amateur Championship and went on to win consecutive U.S. Amateur titles in ’55 and ’56, only to be sanctioned
for allegedly violating his amateur playing status by attending tournaments paid for by
“It took 30 more years and finally coming back here to save my life,” he solemnly explained to me that morning. “I like to call it the Pinehurst Cure.”
As someone who grew up in nearby Greensboro and learned much of his game playing the Pinehurst courses, I knew some of what he was talking about with this romantic notion of a “Pinehurst Cure.” The sedate and mannered golf courses of the Carolina Sandhills—43 by my count, or “two for every stoplight in the county,” as a golf buddy of mine likes to say—have long held an element of the mystical about them and always felt like places magically set apart from the rest of the world.
This was certainly what Pinehurst founder and Boston do-gooder James Walker Tufts had in mind when he heard that the air of the desolate pine barrens of south-central North Carolina held mysterious healing properties believed to come from the “ozone” given off by the region’s fabled longleaf pines. In 1895, he came to see for himself and wrote out a down-payment check of $600 for 5,800 acres of sandy wasteland that had been left behind by logging crews who razed the land for its bounty of trees. Locals decided the gentleman was rich—and blinking mad.
But Tufts had something grand in mind: a health resort—an entire New England-style village, in fact—devoted to serving the ailing body and spirit of all classes of travelers. The age of American leisure had just begun and tuberculosis was ravaging northern industrial cities. Five miles to the east, the new town of Southern Pines was already laying out grids of lots and flogging its own pine-scented charms in big-city newspapers. “Come to Carolina Pines,” went one such memorable advertisement, “to find rest, relaxation and a cure for your winter ague!”
Ward’s “ague” was cured, and a poignant rebirth enacted, when after four failed marriages and a failed attempt at professional golf he finally met the right woman, who cleaned him up and moved him home to Pinehurst where he’d known his happiest years and where he would become one of the finest teachers in the game. Days before the start of the U.S. Open of 1999, he had a warm reconciliation with his most famous pupil, Payne Stewart, who went on to win and join the list of immortals who found glory on the fairways of Pinehurst.
That morning at the Pine Crest, Harvie and I agreed to start work on a book we planned to call The Last Amateur, as soon as I finished up an authorized biography of Ben Hogan. I remember telling him how excited I would be to reconnect with my boyhood roots and perhaps get a taste of what it would be like to actually live in the Home of American Golf.
Harvie smiled and winked. “Who knows? You may get a little sand in your shoes and wind up living here, too. That’s the local legend.”
Unfortunately, Mr. Hogan required a year longer and during that time Harvie’s liver cancer came back with a vengeance. He passed on in September of 2004.
So it was with a heavy heart and a powerful sense of a lost opportunity that I showed up on something of a lark to help cover the 2005 U.S. Open for the local newspaper, the Pilot. I planned to stay only a week or two before returning to my home in Maine.
But something funny happened on my way out of town. I must have somehow gotten sand in my shoes.
Now here it is almost a decade later, the U.S. Opens have doubled in size, I’m still here in Pinehurst, and you, golf-loving reader, may be soon venturing to The Pines with 300,000 others to witness the next chapter in local history.
Ol’ Harv would be mighty disappointed if I didn’t let you in on the local view of life under these ancient longleaf pines and mention a few places, people, and things we locals fancy.
The first thing you should know is that Pinehurst is a historic village and Southern Pines an actual town with streets named for Northern and Midwestern states. They’re linked by beautiful and historic Midland Road, North Carolina’s first paved dual-carriage road. And though it’s only five miles long, the distinction between the two burgs isn’t small.
Pinehurst is a living, breathing shrine to golf, its only reason for being, the place that pretty much birthed the concept of resort golf after Tufts’s dream of a health resort nearly collapsed only to be reborn as a golf capital under the guidance of Donald Ross.
The village’s beautiful curvilinear streets—laid out by the firm of Frederick Law Olmsted and named for local flora—are still home to handsome and quaintly named turn-of-the-century cottages generally owned by folk who only show up for U.S. Opens and in cool-weather months. Every few years, though, a battle erupts between those who believe the village center should be more commercial (like Southern Pines) and those who believe it would be a sacrilege to tart up its bucolic lanes with Banana Republic and Panera Bread. For the moment the sacrilege crowd is winning, though better parking and a real village green are new this year.
The timeless village begs for exploration on foot. The Village Chapel and the Donald Ross collections at the Tufts Archives (housed in the Village Library), both located on the green, are a must and free of cost. The main clubhouse of the resort, if you can gain access during the Open, holds a trove of great memorabilia including tributes to Payne Stewart’s Open and Harvie’s glory days. The newly installed putting green (just beyond the resort’s practice area, Maniac Hill) is a grand way to spend an hour with putter in hand. And the statue of Payne—fist raised in triumph—that stands behind the 18th green of No. 2 is the busiest photo-spot for miles.
Tom Stewart’s Old Sport & Gallery is a popular crossroads where you’re likely to find anyone from a serious golf art collector to a literate Tour player browsing shelves for rare titles. I think of this place as the Old Curiosity Shop of Golf and Tom as the gregarious unofficial
Lord Mayor of Pinehurst (see page 20).
For lunch, elbow your way into the Villager Deli on the main square, always crowded and noisy with a blend of locals and tourists, with equally popular Dugan’s Pub around the corner an excellent second choice and a place that always has a rowdy happy hour crowd including Sergio Garcia when he’s in town. In this same vein, Maxie’s Grill and Tap Room on McIntyre (behind Clark Cadillac) is where locals go for good grub at a nice price.
The two must-visit watering holes in the village, of course, are the Pine Crest Inn and the Ryder Cup Lounge at the Carolina Hotel. The indigenous Pine Crest is probably the most beloved golf hotel in America and certainly the funkiest, with its simple clean rooms, fine old-fashioned dining room, and a bar where every golf scribe stretching back to Bobby Jones planted an elbow. Once owned by teetotaler Donald Ross and home to the most popular après-golf porch on the planet, the Pine Crest is always busy in season and the best spot for celebrity watching. During Open weeks, proprietor Peter Barrett puts up a small circus tent on the adjacent parking lot to accommodate the massive overflow crowds. If you can get in, try your luck at chipping balls into the foyer fireplace: Ben Crenshaw reportedly holds the record for the most consecutive shots—10 in a row.
The Ryder Cup Lounge is its elegant younger cousin, with cozy leather couches and a superb bar and friendly servers armed with a terrific bar menu—all mere steps from the main hallway of the hotel.
Mornings, if the formal breakfast buffet at the Carolina isn’t in your budget, best to find your way over to the horse barns just off Highway 5, where the harness racers train every winter, and grab a stack of the famous blueberry pancakes at the Track Restaurant.
At the eastern end of Midland Road, Southern Pines is really a charming commuter town and equestrian capital set down in The Pines with a cute train station and several blocks of upscale shops and outstanding restaurants highlighted by long-time favorites Ashten’s and Chef Warren’s. The high-end golf crowd tends to gravitate toward Southern Prime steakhouse on West Broad; two blocks south are Beefeater’s and newcomer Sly Fox Pub, an authentic British pub run by a talented English chef. Vito’s on SE Broad is a Friday night staple for local families.
At the edges of a typical Sandhills day, those same locals congregate for coffee at Java Plantation on West Broad and pack The Wine Cellar across the tracks at dusk. The two best alfresco eating experiences may be found at 195 American Fusion in town and Ironwood Café on Midland Road. Best bets for true local breakfast and lunch flavor: Betsy’s Crepes and Sweet Basil’s, both in the center of town. While walking off your meal, don’t miss the much-loved Country Book Shop, one of the South’s finest independent bookshops, with a large collection of current and classic golf titles. The restored Sunrise Theater shows art films on weekends and the town green hosts a superb farmer’s market on summer Saturday mornings.
While you’re cruising Midland Road, drop in on the sister resorts Mid Pines and Pine
Needles, owned and operated by the family of Dame Peggy Kirk Bell, a legend of the game who at 92 is still greeting guests and giving swing tips. Pine Needles and Ma Bell played host to three U.S. Women’s Opens; Mid Pines is a timepiece from the Golden Age of Golf, built by the Tufts and Ross to be an escape from the madding crowds at Pinehurst. It’s a wondrous little gem of a course that was recently designated as the top restoration of 2013.
Finally, and worth remembering, it was only a few decades ago that magical Pinehurst slowed to a snail’s pace come summer, when locals vanished to the mountains and the coast and many local golf courses—including No. 2—were allowed to grow shaggy in the blanketing heat. Air conditioning and good highways transformed The Pines into a year-round destination, but the ebb and flow of life here remains splendidly away from the daily grind. In the end, the Pinehurst Cure is a real and palpable thing.
James Dodson is the author of American Triumvirate and Final Rounds and editor of Pine Straw Magazine, based in Southern Pines.