It didn’t take long to witness a seismic shift in what will be the future of Pinehurst. Which is to say, the future of golf in America.
From the road approaching one of the most storied resorts in the U.S., a place often referred to as the "Cradle of American Golf," I looked out the window of my rental car and saw all that I needed to see to know The Cradle rocks on so many levels and for so many reasons.
Roaming the 10 acres of land that was used for the first few holes ever built at Pinehurst in 1898, and more recently, the opening holes of courses No. 3 and No. 5, there was an eightsome of buddies gathered around a green, frozen in anticipation of a made or missed putt. On a hole or two over, what looked to be a father and a daughter were sharing time together in a bunker, void of smart phones and video games. And almost skipping off the first tee, a man and a woman looked to be embarking on a play date.
Buddies. Families. Couples. That checks the boxes of three prominent buckets in which the game is consumed. And thus, a short course is not a shocking concept for a destination that markets and serves all of the above. And yet, there is a certain amount of shock that Pinehurst was willing to disrupt an extensive portfolio of proven success — and their front porch — to make room for a short course. Not to mention a relocated and reimagined 75,000 square-foot putting course, which they still call Thistle Dhu.
For now, Thistle Dhu is free. The Cradle is a $50 green fee, but that’s a one-time fee per day and you can play as many times as you want. Kids, 17 and under, play for free.
"This is Pinehurst’s grow the game initiative," says Tom Pashley, president of Pinehurst, whose son Max, 11, has resisted golf up until now. But during halftime of a recent college football game, Max asked his dad if they could go play The Cradle. "I almost fell off the sofa," says Pashley. "We went out and played in less than an hour and then watched the fourth quarter over a drink at The Deuce, the fairly new pub and porch overlooking the 18th green of the No. 2 course. "I can promise you, that won’t be the last time we do that," says Pashley.
Video: Ginella on the big and short-course phenomenon
Just to recap, Pinehurst offers nine 18-hole courses and over 60,000 yards of golf. Courses not designed by the great Donald Ross or restored by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw were designed by Tom and George Fazio, Rees Jones or Ellis Maples. And yet, on Oct. 4, Pinehurst pulled back the curtain on a 789-yard nine-hole par-3 course that serves their entire clientele.
The Cradle, a Gil Hanse design, is ten of the most efficient and fun acres in all of golf. ‘Efficient’ and ‘fun’ being words that, as it relates to the game for the better part of the 21st century, have been overshadowed by the doom and gloom phrases such as: it’s too hard, takes too long, and it’s too expensive.
After playing The Cradle twice, and wishing I could play it all day, every day, I tried to congratulate everyone involved. Not on behalf of myself, but on behalf of golf in general. I congratulated Hanse, who immediately deflected credit to his partner, Jim Wagner, and the team of young architects who work with them and who share their passion for creating something fun. Hanse was also quick to use words like “humbled” and “honored” to have been given the opportunity to work on such hallowed ground.
I congratulated Bob Dedman, who owns Pinehurst, and he immediately deflected credit to Hanse and Pashley. When I congratulated Pashley, he deflected credit to Bob Farren, who oversees all agronomics at Pinehurst and who helped unlock the puzzle in trying to figure out where something like The Cradle could and would eventually be built. And when I congratulated Farren, he deflected credit to Curtis Proctor and John Jefferies, two members of his staff responsible for maintenance of The Cradle and Thistle Dhu.
The fun and efficiency of a course in which the longest hole is 127 yards and the shortest hole is 56 yards, combined with the deflection and passing of credit amongst all of those responsible for such a project, was only some of what was so refreshing and inspiring about the opening of a short course and a putting course at a place as prominent as Pinehurst.
There has been at least one ace for every day The Cradle has been open (eight days and counting), with two of the first three having an age gap of 70 years. One was by Ev Merritt, 84, the other by Jackson Van Paris, who’s 14. On opening day for the media, in which the course was filled with seven teams of four golfers, there were two aces within two minutes of each other. Having observed several groups of locals getting their crack at The Cradle, one golfer said, "If they would’ve had this course here five years ago, I would bet my son would be playing golf right now and not baseball."
A domino effect for more resort short courses?
As I wrote in March, I consider The Cradle a tipping point of where the game is going in America. This little course will have a massive impact on the industry. Not unlike what Bandon Dunes has done before it (not to mention an out-of-box concept such as TopGolf), for Pinehurst to put such a premium on efficiency, fun, and more importantly their customer, it will force the hands, land and imaginations of their competition.
The American Club in Kohler has a similar clientele to Pinehurst. They have four championship courses, all designed and built by Pete Dye. They have plenty of quality, challenging, championship golf, but they don’t have a short course. Same could be said about Kiawah Island. Multiple big courses, no short course. Then there’s Sea Island, Sea Pines, Sawgrass, Reynolds Lake Oconee, The Broadmoor and The Greenbrier. The list goes on and on.
But it won’t go on for long. Not after The Cradle becomes the most popular way to spend an hour at Pinehurst.
"Golf should be a pleasure, not a penance," said Donald Ross. Pinehurst uses that quote on the sign next to The Cradle’s first tee. It was my pleasure to play The Cradle with Dedman, Pashley and Don Padgett, the past president of Pinehurst and the man who gets most of the credit for the decision to restore the No. 2 course before the 2014 U.S. Open. Padgett’s father was a former director of golf at Pinehurst who died in 2003. Dedman’s father bought Pinehurst in 1984 and died in 2002.
"This course exceeds my expectations," said Padgett. "This is part of being current, creating more history, memories and staying true to what Pinehurst represents. Gil and his team embraced that and made it fit."
Dedman recalled walking with Padgett inside the ropes on the final day and with the final pairing of the 2014 U.S. Open. "We were with Rickie Fowler and Martin Kaymer," said Dedman. "And we couldn’t help but think our fathers were looking down on us and that they were proud of what we had done. Looking around, watching and listening to what’s taking place, I feel the same way about today."
As he should.