PINEHURST, NORTH CAROLINA l Messing with a masterpiece takes a healthy measure of the courage of your convictions. Not only are reputations on the line, but the alteration of history is threatened in the bargain.
And with the case of the restoration of Pinehurst No. 2, the answers to all the questions won’t be entirely evident until 2014 when the U.S. Open and the U.S. Women’s Open are played in historic back-to-back weeks.
The architecture team of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw – known far and wide as the kindest, gentlest, most caring team in the business when it comes to protecting history and tradition – has been handed the task of returning No. 2 to the condition that the great master himself, Donald Ross, intended when he carved the place out of the North Carolina Sandhills.
Until just a few months ago, the areas off the fairways at No. 2 have been treeline-to-treeline Bermudagrass, just as we saw in the two previous U.S. Opens held there. Coore and Crenshaw are removing the Bermuda roughs and returning the areas to sandy waste, replanted in wiregrass clumps, which will, in time, be covered largely in pine needles. The course will close Nov. 16 and reopen March 3, 2011.
Coore and Crenshaw pored over old photographs – aerial and ground level – of Pinehurst No. 2 that have been cared for lovingly over the years at the Tufts Archives in Pinehurst. Both say that the extensive riches of history at the Archives enabled them to do exactly the right thing.
“We imagine that Mr. Ross looked at this land and thought this was pretty good for golf,” Coore said. “He thought if he could establish some turf from which to play, this would make the perfect rough. It’s not so penal but it affords variety and opportunity for recovery.
“It’s our belief that perhaps it was a bit better, a bit more interesting in its original form.”
This idea didn’t germinate from Coore and Crenshaw. It came from Pinehurst officials. “Over a period of time the course had gotten away from its character, from its heart and soul that Ross intended it to be,” said Don Padgett II, president of Pinehurst Resort.
“The heavy Bermuda rough is not something I think he envisioned. We’re trying to bring that back to its original design that is in keeping with the history and tradition of the property.”
Therein lies the debate: Will the playing integrity for elite players be maintained as the result of this restoration? Will U.S. Open players find it easier to play from the sandy areas than they would from four-inch Bermuda rough?
“That’s an excellent question,” Crenshaw said. “This is going to be a different set of hazards that a U.S. Open player will have to deal with. Obviously, the pro format in the Open involves heavy rough, an immediate penalizer from where you cannot or should not recover.
“In this situation, when the ball hits it will continue to run and you will have to plan a golf shot to recover. There’s no question that if a player hits into the sandy area, he might have a shot to recover. But the ball might also rest on pine needles or next to a clump of wiregrass and a totally different shot will be needed. The key to great play at Pinehurst is in the approach shot to the green.”
Coore calls it “the great mystery area.”
So there will be two mowing heights at No. 2 – one for the greens and one for every other blade of grass on the course. For the first time that anyone can remember, the U.S. Open will be played without traditional rough. The fairway corridors at No. 2 are fairly wide and it remains to be seen whether the course can play firm and fast enough for tee shots to run through fairways into the native areas.
In case you’re wondering, like many people, whether this work was undertaken strictly for the Open, Pinehurst officials insist it was not. But now that you mention it, the USGA is completely on board with the changes.
“Mike Davis (who sets up courses for USGA championships), has been down here several times and he has never told us what we should do,” Coore said. “He has been completely supportive of what we are doing.”
There had been some speculation in the blogosphere that the green contours at No. 2 would be tinkered with. Officials insist they will not be touched. “The greens are No. 2’s greatest defense,” Crenshaw said.
The only alteration, Coore said, will be that the par-3 15th green will be expanded by about three feet to be closer to the right greenside bunker. And the grass on the greens will be changed this winter from Penn G2 bentgrass to a bentgrass blend of A1 and A4.
But that’s it. The greens at No. 2 will be just as treacherous and mindbending as any set of putting surfaces on the planet. No amount of restoration on the rest of the property will ever change that, which is eternally as it should be.