National Golf Club: Eager to Step Out of the Shadows
PINEHURST, N.C. - It's not easy living in the shadow of Pinehurst Resort. But that is exactly what National Golf Club and almost 40 other golf courses around the Sandhills region have to do if they want to play ball with the big boys.
The folks at National will tell you that they never had any intentions of becoming a Pinehurst No. 2, No. 4, or No. 8 - three of the resort's, and the world's, best golf courses. But their goals weren't far behind. Otherwise they wouldn't have hired the Nicklaus Design Group, one of the game's most expensive architectural firms, to design the golf course.
Nor would they have employed a stonemason to hand build a series of stone walls on holes No. 5, 9, 10, and 18, or built a clubhouse that may be one of the most lavish in the Tar Heel state, or sought out one of the most visually stunning pieces of property in the Sandhills.
There's all of that good stuff, and the greens. Greens can make or break a golf course, but at National Golf Club, they can make or break the player. As if to set itself apart from every other course in Pinehurst, and maybe the entire state, National's owners had Nicklaus and his staff craft putting surfaces that look more like a series of Salvador Dali paintings than they do part of a golf course.
"There are not many courses like that around here," says Director of Golf Tom Parsons. "This course is about the approach shot, because you have to get it close to the pin to have a shot at par on these greens."
The truth of the matter is, most of National's greens have two or three area codes, and if you miss the one with the cup, you better do your best Brad Faxon impersonation, or walk off with a double bogey. Talk about empowering your grounds crew - each morning when superintendent Tim Ritter's crew cuts the holes and picks the pin placement, they are altering the outcomes of hundreds of golf scores.
"You always here about how good course management dictates that you don't always go at the pin," says one outside services employee. "But that doesn't work here. You have to go at the pin, or else you'll be out here all day shooting bogeys and worse unless you are God's gift to putting."
Case in point: The 378-yard par 4 3rd hole is the first severely undulating green on the course, following a couple of mild two-tier jobs on the first two holes. On this day, the hole is cut in the back of the green on a tier that is a good five feet above the bottom of the green, and only 26 feet deep.
If you are playing from the blue tees, you'll probably be left with six or seven iron into the green, and you'll have to stop your ball on that narrow upper tier to have any shot at birdie. Hit the lower tier and misjudge the speed on your uphill put and your ball will come rolling back past you and off the green.
"Another characteristic that makes this course unique is that there are not many holes you can bump and run it up to the green," Parsons says. "You have to fly the ball into the green via aerial assault. Most amateurs don't practice their short game, and you have to have a good short game, too."
But before the cries of "no fair" come streaming out from behind National's wonderful collection of Long Leaf Pines, it is important to point out one thing - the fairways.
If you want generous landing areas, you got them. The Golden Bear has never had a single reservation about letting players pull driver off the tee, and at National, Nicklaus will even allow you to be a wee bit errant if need be.
"This course is very fair off the tee," Parsons says. "Your approach shots you are hitting into protected greens, and they are critical. You have to hit the green, or you'll hit a bunker or collection area. And you can't just hit the green, you have to knock it close."
Too much to think about? Shame on you if the answer is "yes."
Granted, 20 to 30 handicappers are going to have a tough time posting their personal bests at National. But sub 15 handicap players will find that they have to use both their brains and their skills to post their usual score.
The only aspect of the course that might be deemed a little cruel, even by better players, is the way it begins. If you are looking for a mindless, skill depravation zone over the first few holes, you better change your tee time to one of the Sandhills more benign settings.
The opening hole looks just peachy off the tee, with its slight dogleg left and wide-open fairway. But once you begin to size up your approach shot, you can almost hear your heart sinking down all the way to your soft spikes.
The green complex built up on a grassy knoll that could very well be confused for a hill in these parts. And no less than six Mensa deep bunkers surround the putting surface, allowing no room for error on that sculled approach shot.
"You have to fly the ball into the greens here," Parsons says. "You have to attack by air, and that is a theme throughout the course."
The second hole is a par 3, and one that plays just 167-yards from the white member tees. Unfortunately for the golfer that hasn't quite gotten it together yet, 160 of those yards are carry over water. The aforementioned 3rd hole supplies a bit of a reprieve if the hole is cut on the bottom tier of the green, but it's still no push over with its No. 7 handicap rating.
So over the first three holes, you get uppercut, jab, and body blow. But on the fourth hole, Nicklaus gives you the haymaker. The par 5 4th, National's No. 1 handicap hole, plays 570-yard from the back of the bus, 547-yards from the blues and 526 from the whites.
The hole sweeps right, setting up perfectly for one of Nicklaus' long, high fading drives. A large pond sits to the right, bringing water into play off the tee and on the second shot. The green looks like something that Bob Cupp designed on the computer, as it falls off on the front, right and left sides.
"I think the first five holes are a tough test," Parsons says with a slight smirk. "And then I would say another stretch where you need to make your pars is holes seven through 12. After that, its back to back tough par 4's, a 15th hole you can birdie, a 16th hole that is the shortest par 4 on the course but is the most difficult because the green is protected."
National Golf Club was built in the late 1980's, when Nicklaus was famous for designing golf courses that unabashedly favored players who could work the ball from left to right. But, unlike many of his other designs the course doesn't pelt you with dogleg rights or greens tucked into the right side of routings.
Instead, Nicklaus uses a subtle reminder that the draw is an evil shot shape - pine trees.
On a number of holes, the Golden Bear has left a singular pine tree between 50 and 150 yards out along the right side of the fairway to keep player's with left to right shot shapes from starting their tee shots in the ideal location.
"It is totally Nicklaus off the tee, it favors the left to right ball shape," Parsons says. "In terms of the layout, it is aesthetically very pleasing. The characteristics of each hole are different, which is different from a lot of the courses I have played."
No two ways about it, National Golf Club will be different from a lot of the courses you play, too.
National Golf Club Course Capsule
Designer: Jack Nicklaus
Year Opened: 1988 Turf: Greens - bentgrass, Fairways - Bermuda with rye overseed. Slope/Ratings: Gold 75.3/137, Blue 71.9/132, White 69.8/124, Red 72.1/125
Yardage:Gold 7122, Blue 6596, White 6128, Red 5378
Address:One Royal Troon Drive, Village of Pinehurst, NC 28374
Tee Times 1.910.295.5340
Head Professional: Dave Hall
Sharp Says: National Golf Club presents a theme, sticks to it, and you have to respect that. Nicklaus says right from the get go that he will give you all the room you want off the tee, but you had better be accurate with your irons, or be one sick-good putter. Some of the undulations in the greens get a bit ridiculous, and could easily be perceived as over the top. But remember, competition for the golfing dollar in a major golf destination can lead to courses wanting to separate themselves with signature elements. Rumor has it that none of the Tour players or aspiring Tour players complained about the putting surfaces. Most of the grievances will be logged by high handicappers. If you play over a 25, I would honestly recommend looking elsewhere, unless you just want to see a three tiered green with four zips codes just once in your life.
National Golf Club is located in the Pinehurst area on Midland Road (NC 2). The main entrance is about one half a mile east of the Traffic Circle. National is only .8 miles from First Health Moore Regional Hospital and the service entrance is located on U.S. 15-501.
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Practice Facilities: B+
Club House/Pro Shop: A+
Pace of Play: A
Overall Rating: A-
December 18, 2001