Swinging Through PINEHURST Par excellence: The No. 2 course at the North Carolina resort is on almost every list of the nation's top 10 places to play.

February 11, 1996|By David R. Rosenthal | David R. Rosenthal,SUN STAFF

PINEHURST, N.C. -- I'm standing on the first hole of Donald Ross' masterpiece, the No. 2 course at Pinehurst, one of America's best and site of the 1999 U.S. Open. Judging by the bunker guarding the right side of the green, I can bring the shot home with a 4-iron, get down in two putts and walk away with a par.

The iron shot is up, on line -- and, I see when I reach the green's fringe -- about 10 yards short.

Touche, Mr. Ross.

The Scot, who designed No. 2 and tinkered with it over several decades, imparted a graceful challenge to the course. There are island greens, no double-doglegs, none of the other gimmicks used to hype modern courses.

Here, shot placement is crucial; no club is unimportant. And golfers must overcome Ross' subtle tricks -- for example, bunkers placed well in front of the greens pose a test of depth perception, and a wrong guess can kill a par.

Today, No. 2 is on almost every list of the nation's top 10 courses. Built near the beginning of the century, it has a natural grace, belonging to central North Carolina's sandy soil and its pines, which are pin-straight and thin.

The course also has a long list of heroes. Ben Hogan captured his first pro victory on No. 2, at the 1940 North and South Open. Francis Ouimet, Sam Snead, Babe Didrikson Zaharias, Jack Nicklaus, Curtis Strange and Davis Love III also have won here.

But, unlike most of the nation's top courses, No. 2 is open to the public. And this spring offers a good time to play the course -- at midyear, it will be closed so the greens can be rebuilt, and it isn't scheduled to reopen until early 1997.

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North Carolina's Sandhills region is a golfer's paradise.

There are more than two dozen courses in the area, and several can lay claim to a Donald Ross design. In April, Pinewild Country Club will be host to the Pinewild Women's Championship, an LPGA event. And in May, the Pine Needles Resort will be the site of the U.S. Women's Open Championship, on its Ross-designed course.

Still, Pinehurst stands alone in the region. It boasts seven courses, with an eighth -- a Tom Fazio design billed as a modern-day No. 2 -- scheduled to open in mid-March.

The resort was begun just over a century ago, when Boston magnate James Walker Tufts bought 5,500 acres of timberland -- for about $1 an acre -- with plans for a winter resort. He sought referrals from doctors, but looked for those who wanted to relax, not recover; early advertisements noted that the resort would "receive no consumptives."

In 1896, the Holly Inn opened in the village, a quaint, walking-size area that still carries the look of times past. Guests could enjoy tennis, croquet and lawn bowling, but no golf. That came a year later, when a nine-hole course was laid out.

In the early years of the new century, Mr. Tufts made two moves that still define the resort.

He christened the Carolina Hotel, a white, wooden structure that boasted 250 rooms and 49 suites. The hotel, which today retains its graciousness and sports a bright copper roof, is the cornerstone of the resort, and the area.

And he lured Donald Ross to Pinehurst.

Ross, who grew up in Dornoch, Scotland, had studied the fundamentals of golf and course design at St. Andrews, under the legendary "Old" Tom Morris. Later, he worked at Royal Dornoch, whose features he would transport to Pinehurst.

He moved to the United States and was hired at a country club outside Boston, before making his way south.

No. 2 began in 1901 as a short, nine-hole layout -- just 1,275 yards. Ross lengthened those holes and added another nine, which opened in 1907.

But Ross -- not a bad golfer himself, having placed among the leaders at four U.S. Opens -- evidently was not satisfied with his design.

He tinkered with the course for years, discarding some holes and building new ones.

In 1935, he replaced the original putting surface, made of sand, with grass.

A challenge

Throughout the changes, some constants remained.

Although the No. 2 course has wide fairways, Ross kept a premium on placement. Greens usually have one clear lane of approach, and a drive that strays will force a tougher second or third shot.

Ross also created a test for long irons. Around the greens are gentle dips and swales that play havoc with the pitch-and-run shot. And he left the course with his signature crowned greens.

In "Following Through," a collection of essays about golf, Herbert Warren Wind writes, "When he revised the Pinehurst No. 2 course, he took special pains to create Dornoch-style mounds, slopes and runoffs around the greens, and that course is generally acknowledged to offer the most exacting examination of chipping in the country."

Hitting and holding the crowned greens is likely to get even tougher.

To relieve a nagging problem of blight -- one that forced club officials to close the course for periods in recent summers -- the greens on No. 2 will be rebuilt with a new strain of bent grass.

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