When Pinehurst was home

Memories: For the next four days, the famed resort will be the center of the golf world, but it has always been a special place for a hometown boy

U.S. Open

June 16, 1999|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,SUN STAFF

When they tee it up at Pinehurst No. 2 tomorrow, they'll be playing from what we used to call "one foot in the woods" -- as far back as you can get on this punishing layout.

Growing up in Pinehurst in a decade too distant to mention, I saw some of the world's best players -- Ben Hogan and Sam Snead, Terrible Tommy Bolt, Mike Souchak and Jimmy Demaret (who had my father's red hair and the same-shaped face). The best of the British players were there for the Ryder Cup in the 1950s.

Jack Nicklaus came to town occasionally and hit balls past the trees at the far end of the driving range, a place of torment for many aptly named Maniac Hill. I met Deke Palmer one day at the Manor Hotel. If his son, Arnold, was ever in town, I never saw him.

The amateurs were big in local lore, as well, particularly Frank Stranahan, Harvey Ward, Dick Chapman and Billy Joe Patton.

Chapman was a Pinehurst boy, sort of, a winter resident of what we called Millionaire Hill, the understated mansion district of a then-tiny winter resort.

The village had a genteel air in those days. People came for the air of the Carolina Piedmont, which was said to be good for those with respiratory problems. Many of these sojourners owned houses in the Chapmans' neighborhood.

The year-round townspeople were tradesmen or salesmen, like my father, or worked for Pinehurst Inc., a family-owned business that maintained the courses, the streets and the Carolina Inn, a lovely old hotel, slightly down at heel, where Lester Lanin-type bands played.

The village had a high-class women's clothing store called Razook's, and there was a movie house across from the post office, the most social of gathering spots outside the Community Church.

A large, circular park between the village and the country club was named for Gen. George C. Marshall, the former secretary of state and author of the Marshall Plan, who lived in the village after he left Washington. He seemed a bit mysterious to me, remote -- grateful, perhaps, for a bit of anonymity.

What I cared about most as a kid was getting on the courses -- any of the three then in the Pinehurst system. My father could belong to the Pinehurst Country Club in those years for about $35 in the off-season -- from May to September.

You could play through the winter -- it seldom snowed -- and we usually headed for No. 1 with its raised, tabletop greens because Mr. Curry, the starter, would smile, puff on his pipe, chat with us a bit and never ask if we'd paid our greens fee.

That course took us down past the track where trotters trained. You'd hear the sulky drivers singing to their horses on the frigid mornings.

At the 10th, we'd stop at the Old Spider and Fly Inn. Then we'd try to clear the inky black water of the pond in front of the tee, home of the spiders and flies.

We carried our own bags, but we listened when the caddies, all black, advised our parents or their friends on club selection. These men are represented in memory by a man called "Hard Rock," who wore a sharp hat and always had a new ball or two to sell for below-pro-shop prices. He walked with a rolling swagger in spite of or because one leg was much shorter than the other.

We played No. 2 whenever we could, though infrequently from the back tees.

I can see the first fairway sloping gradually down and slightly left, a moderately long par-4. Players will have even more motivation to keep it in the fairway: The errant shot can come to rest in the center of cup-like mounds surrounded by wiry and long grass.

More of the same awaits the world's best at the second hole, slightly longer and bending right to a green hidden by more of the treacherous rough, deep swales and traps.

The third would be drivable for Tiger Woods. Better to lay up, Tiger will conclude, no doubt. The percentages will be with the wedge and the putter.

Hole No. 4, a par-5, requires a long carry to the fairway. I remember watching with wonder as the pros hit their tee shots long and low into positions that allowed a second shot to the green -- an inviting and worthwhile gamble.

The tournament will be won, perhaps, on the 16th, a long par-5; the exacting par-3 17th; and the uphill 18th, which plays directly into a setting sun that can obscure the green, requiring players to hit from memory.

I remember seeing the amateur Patton "dead" behind the trees to the left on the 18th one year in the North-South Amateur.

"I wonder if I can hook the ball," he said to appreciative onlookers. "Should be able to. I've hooked everything else today."

A little humor helps when you're playing with both feet in the woods. He hit a low screamer that came around nicely, ending on the green. I can't remember if he won, but what a shot he hit.

99th U.S. Open

When: Tomorrow-Sunday

Where: Pinehurst (N.C.) Resort and Country Club, No. 2

Purse: $3 million (winner receives $535,000)

Defending champion: Lee Janzen

TV: ESPN/Ch. 11 Pub Date: 6/16/99

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