The National at Pinehurst basks in its difficult reputation

By Tim McDonald, Contributor

PINEHURST, N.C. - Sometimes, when you and your friends learn the golf course you are to play that day is an early Jack Nicklaus design, you hear a collective moan.

Before Nicklaus learned to lighten up, he was criticized as an architect for designing courses that were molded to suit his game and, of course, there aren't many hackers with Nicklaus' game. Willie Huggins, playing the National Golf Club at Pinehurst one crisp, early spring day, summed it up rather succinctly.

"He made them too hard for the average friggin' golfer," Huggins said philosophically.

Some of the courses that Nicklaus designed in the 1980s, when he still had serious game, have made changes in efforts to tone them down and keep Joe Duffer from demanding his money back. Not the National. It enjoys its tough reputation. In an area that includes the fabled Pinehurst resort's venerable No. 2, being difficult can be considered a positive attribute.

They did clear some perimeter areas and cut down some trees, making the fairways faster and firmer, but that's about it.

"I would say this course is probably number three in difficulty, behind No. 2 and No. 7 at Pinehurst," Huggins said. "If I play from the back tees here, I'm hitting 3-, 4- and 5-irons."

That's a recipe for a mangled scorecard here, where the approach shot is all-important. Nicklaus has always designed wide, generous landing areas and the National is no different. You can smile and drool and pull out your driver, not feeling as though you're on a fool's errand.

But, it's the green complexes that whack your backside. The greens are big and undulate like a belly dancer. They are segmented so that the course can seem radically different from the day before, depending on pin placement.

You have to hit to the right spot on the green to have a chance at birdie or par; otherwise you'll be hitting from a different county. Don't even think about running it up to the green. This is a course built for high, lofted shots close to the hole.

Nor does Nicklaus give you a chance to warm to the course - the first five holes are a tough stretch and, if you can make it past those, you might end up with a scorecard you won't try to hide afterward.

No. 1's fairway drops off left to a collection area. It's a dogleg left with the green high up on a knoll protected by a series of deep, nasty bunkers. No. 2 is a par-3 over Doon Pond - 191 yards from the back tees, 160 of which are over water.

No. 3 is a dogleg right with a huge pine in the fairway, with a long, two-tiered green waiting for you. No. 4 is the toughest hole on the course, a 570-yard par-5 with water to the right. It comes into play on your second shot as well and the green drops off on three sides. No. 5 is a tough, 439-yard par-4.

The Verdict

At 7,122 yards from the tips, this is a pretty difficult course - with a slope rating of 137 - but easier if you can work the ball left to right off the tee and if you can hit high, accurate approach shots. And, of course, if you can make a few long putts.

It's a semi-private course in a gated community - sold to a local developer by a Japanese businessman - but it's also fairly scenic, with stone bridges winding through rolling terrain and the usual Carolina pines. It has bent grass greens and bluegrass fairways.

The National has hosted U.S. Open qualifying and the PGA Tour Q-school. Golf Digest ranked it 17th-best in state for 1995-96 and 15th-best for 1997-98.

Places to Stay

The Pinehurst Resort and its statue of Payne Stewart are like a living museum. There are other lodging options as well, if the Pinehurst Resort and its eight courses are a little too pricey for you.

Aside from the usual chain motels, there is the Magnolia Inn, an 1896 Victorian bed and breakfast where $290 gets you two nights, breakfast, dinner and two rounds of golf, picking from 25 courses.

There are also condos, villa and private homes. Most of the golf courses are within short driving range, unlike Myrtle Beach where you can drive up to 45 minutes or more to reach your course.

As far as nightlife, the Sandhills doesn't really compare to Myrtle Beach and its gentlemen's clubs, but it does have the Broad Street Bar (a sports bar with 30 televisions), the Red Room night club and Brooks on Main Street. Also, there are a few gentlemen's clubs and honky-tonks in Aberdeen and Southern Pines.

Fast Fact

Nicklaus won the Masters between his designs of Elk River at Banner Elk in N.C. and the National.

Tim McDonaldTim McDonald, Contributor

Veteran golf writer Tim McDonald keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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