Pinehurst No.2 lives up to the hype

By Shane Sharp, Contributor

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Golf course architect Tom Doak once mused that if Pinehurst No. 2 was built today, it wouldn't make anyone's top 100. Was Doak, the profession's purported "bad boy," ripping into a layout that took Donald Ross almost his entire adult life to create and perfect?

Not at all. The Michigan based designer and author of such inspiring layouts as Pacific Dunes and Cape Kidnappers considers No. 2 to be one of the world's great layouts. Doak was simply elucidating a shortcoming (read: tragedy) of today's golf course ratings and rankings systems. Raters like big, bold courses with tons of eye candy, Shivas Irons-like "ambiance," and settings that make for better postcards than they do rounds of golf.

Golf Digest, GolfWeek, Golf Magazine, Links Magazine and have all been guilty of blowing it when figuring out where a course fits in our country's cannon of architectural greatness. After all, evaluating course design is as subjective as critiquing art, movies or food.

One man's Shinnecock is another man's total crock.

But when it comes to the No. 2 Course at Pinehurst Resort and Country Club, this country's major golf publications have it right. The host course for the 2005 U.S. Open is rated as the 12th best course in America by Golf Digest, is ninth in Golf Magazine's Top 100 Courses in the World, and is the 10th best classic course in the U.S. according to GolfWeek. The cyber pages of this publication have heaped plenty of praise on the course, and rightfully so.

A recent column, however, bucked the trend. In the opinion of the author, No 2 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."

Average course? No truly memorable golf holes? Could the golf cognoscenti really have missed the mark this badly on No. 2? Not at all.

I've had the pleasure of playing No. 2 five times over the past three years. Each time, I discover something new about Ross's strategic intent. No course in America presents such wide open landing areas with such a heaping helping of fool's gold. Sure, there's plenty of room off the tee. But precision is a must if you're to have a reasonable approach shot to the hole cut of the day.

Miss a green and the entire realm of short game options opens up like the Carolina sky. Putting, chipping, and pitching are all viable alternatives for getting up and down on No. 2's geometry-defying green complexes. Even putting is an adventure, with speed always taking precedence over line for the average golfer.

Golf Digest architecture editor Ron Whitten once wrote that Pinehurst No. 2 was a left brained course. By that he meant it was sure to appeal to analytical sorts who held shot values and thinking their way around a golf course above photo ops and eye candy. It's no wonder that Jack Nicklaus, the most left brained golfer of all time and an established architect in his own right, believes No. 2 is the greatest golf course ever built.

"Pinehurst (No. 2) is my favorite golf course from a design standpoint," Nicklaus told ESPN prior to the 1999 U.S. Open, contested on No. 2. and immortalized by the late Payne Stewart. "It always has been. It's a totally tree-lined golf course, and there's not a tree in play strategically. No water. It's a wonderful golf course."

No. 2's strategic intricacies could explain a first timer's assertion that it houses no memorable holes. In reality, it is impossible to separate shots from holes. How one played the dastardly difficult 442-yard par-4 fifth or the devilish 194-yard par-3 sixth is inexorably tied to the memory of the hole itself. And if the par-4 18th, with its uphill tee shot and approach to a green guarded by a bunker in front and the famed alabaster Pinehurst Clubhouse in the background isn't memorable, it's pulse checking time.

The bottom line is this: the same person who raves about Matrix: Revolutions and dismisses 21 Grams as esoteric is the same person who might pass Pinehurst No. 2 off as overrated or average. Fans of big explosions and special effects will never truly "get" what it is about this Donald Ross masterpiece that enables to cling to its lofty national rankings. Those who admire plot, irony and character development understand almost instantly.

The same column goes on to state that No. 2's turtleback greens are "unfair" and that the $200 plus fee for greens and caddy (or cart) is exorbitant. Both of these claims have some merit. The greens one sees today at No. 2 and the greens Ross actually designed and built are dramatically different, according to GolfWeek architecture editor Bradley Klein. Klein explains in his book, Discovering Donald Ross: the Architect and his Golf Courses, that No. 2's putting surfaces have become more and more severe as years of top dressing and other soil augmentation have increased their overall height.

As for the fee, I've always felt that golf was overpriced, period. But if Pebble, Troon North, Harbour Town and the Ocean Course command upward of $200 to $300, why shouldn't one of the greatest layouts in the world?

Shane SharpShane Sharp, Contributor

Shane Sharp is vice president of Buffalo Communications, a golf and lifestyle media agency. He was a writer, senior writer and managing editor of from 1997 to 2003.

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