Pinehurst No. 2 doesn't warrant the hype
PINEHURST, N.C. -- The best of the best.
Those five words are how the Pinehurst Resort and Country Club in North Carolina introduces its famous No. 2 golf course.
But don't believe all the hype.
The only way that "best" should collide with Pinehurst No. 2 in any sentence is if the topic is marketing or history.
Make no mistake, the resort is as good as it gets, and I've enjoyed every trip I've ever been fortunate enough to make to those hallowed grounds. And as you drive into the parking lot at the club, and stroll through the clubhouse and pro shop and finally arrive on the tee at the par-4 first at No. 2, you know that you're somewhere special.
Additionally, the course conditions are always immaculate and the journey around the historic layout is undeniably enchanting. But, do those factors alone warrant a greens fee well in excess of $200 or a ranking among the 10 best golf courses in the United States?
The answer should be a resounding no.
In reality, in terms of its 18 holes this is a very average golf course, which happens to make its home in a special place and was the creation of a special man, famed architect Donald Ross. But the course has very little character from tee to green and basically lacks any truly memorable golf holes, with the exception of No. 5, which is memorable only from a standpoint of difficulty.
No. 2 is nothing more than a collection of decent golf holes accompanied by a diabolical set of greens.
Were these same 18 holes set quietly in the pine trees of Northwest Georgia, the course would command a greens fee in the neighborhood of $40 and the majority of its players would rant about the unfairness of the putting surfaces.
After all, these are greens that prior to the 1999 U.S. Open the United States Golf Association openly acknowledged would provide for a very limited number of pin placements. A figure provided to those of us in attendance for the U.S. Open media day that year was 35 percent, as in only slightly more than one-third of the putting surfaces on the golf course could be used safely for hole locations.
The USGA's decision to return to Pinehurst next year actually had very little to do with the golf course and more to do with the overall success of the 1999 event, won by the late Payne Stewart dramatically on the final hole, and the nation's love affair with the setting.
As USGA executive director David Fay told the Charlotte Observer, "Pinehurst No. 2 is at the top rung of U.S. Open courses. It's the specialness of the place. It's the specialness of the course. You build on great historic moments and that first chapter was a helluva chapter."
It was hardly a mystery to golf's governing body in our nation back in 1999 that many viewers had gotten tired of watching the world's best players resigned to thrashing the ball out of six inches of a rough all day. Pinehurst No. 2 provided a different type of U.S. Open that was popular with the audience, and the positive feedback has changed course set-ups at more traditional venues ever since.
The public loves No. 2, but ask any golf fan you know to tell you what their favorite hole on the course is and see if you can even get an answer. Then ask the same person what their favorite hole at Augusta National or Pebble Beach is, and I'll guarantee that you get an answer whether they've played there or not.
Not surprisingly, building on the legend and the hype that has been created over the years, the people at Pinehurst are marketing No. 2 as "Golf the way it was meant to be played."
However, were a modern architect to construct a set of greens similar to those on No. 2, he would be publicly vilified. Personally, I'd give up the game before subjecting myself to greens like those for the rest of my golfing days.
But this is No. 2, America's sweetheart, and to criticize is blasphemy.
The truth, however, is that the staggering number of accolades that Pinehurst No. 2 receives every year has more to do with the golf experience, including the memorabilia and photos that line the halls of the clubhouse and the statues that adorn the grounds, than the actual golf course.
Pinehurst officials haven't even tried to hide their successful marketing strategy. Former Pinehurst Resort and Country Club president Pat Corso once proclaimed, "We had one overriding goal and that was to separate Pinehurst from our competitors by virtue of the fact that we were selling an experience, not a round of golf."
A great experience should not merit a ranking among the 10 best golf courses in our nation.
In fact, Pinehurst No. 2 isn't one of the 10 best golf courses in North Carolina, and it may only be the fourth-most attractive member of its own family, falling shy of Nos. 4, 7 and 8 from a playability and design standpoint.
But the legend now is too grand, too overblown for the venerable Sandhills classic to be viewed for what it truly is. And as the USGA and the world's best players arrive at Pinehurst No. 2 for the 2005 U.S. Open just more than a year from now, the rhetoric will center on Donald Ross' masterpiece, and I will sit and watch in a state of confusion.
I like to think of myself as a purist and I'm a big fan of the classical design, as well as Ross. But this golf course, albeit special, is hardly a masterpiece. It's a great golf experience for sure, but that's where the adoration should end.
May 12, 2004