In the first in a series about the attributes that are central to the design, challenge, and joy of the game’s most cherished courses, we identify the “Ultimate Test of Patience”: Pinehurst No. 2
Anyone who warms to the mention of golf’s greatest courses cannot help but engage in the time-honored grill room discourse on just what makes those layouts so lauded. “Toughest bunkers.” “Best set of par threes.” “Most spectacular ocean views.” However, it’s sometimes the less obvious platitudes that help distinguish these elite destinations. One such is the course’s capacity to test our mental mettle, more specifically our patience.
At first glance, No. 2 looks so innocuous, so completely gettable, that it baffles the first-timer. The topography is tame. The fairways are wide. There are no soaring peaks or plunging valleys or forced carries, save for one insignificant pond near the 16th tee. How can this possibly be an anchor U.S. Open course? Gotcha!
Nowhere does the design genius of Donald Ross burn more brightly than here, deep in the Sandhills of North Carolina. Ross used the property’s modest contours brilliantly. A 2011 restoration by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw restored the driving challenge by reinstating the sandy scrub and wiregrass that once bracketed the fairways and by firming up the fairway edges. Just as Ross intended, driving the ball at No. 2 once again demands control, joined by a heightened appreciation for the appropriate risks and rewards.
Find the wrong portion of the fairway and it will be nearly impossible to hold the firm, fast, turtleback greens that are shaped and sloped to accept and hold only a properly flighted approach from the correct angle. After a U.S. Open round in 1999, Tiger Woods observed, “I hit a lot of greens today. The ball didn’t stay on them, but I hit them.” Unique among the game’s premier championship tests, the closer you get to the hole on No. 2, the harder the assignment becomes.
It is these ingeniously—some would say fiendishly—crafted greens that elevate No. 2. Imperfectly struck approaches finish on swales of tightly mown grass that force the golfer to make a decision: lob a difficult wedge shot onto the green, putt up the slope, or chip into the slope and hope the momentum slows the ball to allow it to stop on the green before it slips away down the other side of the crest. Ahead of the 1999 U.S. Open that he won, Payne Stewart practiced chipping with nine different clubs, from 3-iron to lob wedge. “This golf course takes a lot of patience,” said Stewart after his victory. “You have to really think about where you want your ball to finish.”
Pinehurst No. 2 is a layout where a 15-handicapper can scrape it around with the same ball from start to finish and still have trouble breaking 100. You will miss greens at No. 2. Some of your recovery attempts will make you look foolish. Payne Stewart was right. Stay patient. At times, the challenge to hole out is relentless, but there’s no denying it’s relentlessly interesting.
A Bonus Trio of Composure-Crushing Championship Courses
Northern Ireland’s Royal County Down serves up a steady diet of wind-whipped narrow fairways, many with blind landing areas, peppered with bewhiskered bunkers and prickly gorse bushes. Each hole intimidates golfers into tentative swings and inevitable double-bogeys. Collectively, the round is an exercise in supreme self-control.
TPC Sawgrass vexes with sharp-edged lakes, small targets, nasty bunkers, and awkward angles. You can play well and be out of position all day. Toss in shots that can’t be practiced—the wrist-fracturing baseball swing from a grass-covered mound, followed by the dignity-shattering encounter with the island green 17th—and restraint is fleeting.
Venerable muni Memorial Park re-emerged as a formidable PGA Tour test for the 2020 Houston Open, following a massive makeover from Tom Doak and Brooks Koepka. Three-over-par made the cut and only 10 players finished better than six-under-par for the duration. “It’s one of those courses where you can walk off shaking your head even though you played some good golf,” says Jason Day. “You’ve just got to be patient.”