"Pinehurst absolutely was the pioneer in American golf. While golf had been played in a few places before Pinehurst was established, it was right here in these sandhills that the first great national movement in golf was started. Men came here, took a few golf lessons, bought a few clubs and went away determined to organize clubs." — Donald Ross
Not long ago, I was reminded that the pioneering at Pinehurst is rolling right along.
On April 11, Morning Drive was on site to showcase of The Cradle, the 789-yard par-3 course designed by Gil Hanse, which opened last October to groups of all ages, sizes, sexes and skill levels. The one common denominator: smiles.
The long and short of The Cradle: There’s variety, strategy, adventure, humps, bumps and a beverage cart they call "The Pine Cone." There’s music in the rocks - a concert of sorts on every green - no carts, and a lot of cool little carry bags, which they loan you from the starter shed behind the first tee. The Cradle is a memory machine churning out high-fives and hugs on a conveyor belt of happiness.
So congrats to everyone involved for what has quickly become one of my favorite courses in the Sandhills of North Carolina.
Hanse came in, worked with 10 acres of prime Pinehurst real estate, rocked the assignment that became The Cradle, and has now moved on to a complete renovation of No. 4, a Donald Ross-turned-Tom Fazio design that was actually quite popular amongst avid amateurs, buddies-trippers and more importantly, Pinehurst members. Where Pinehurst No. 2 typically averages 35,000 rounds per year, No. 4 was doing somewhere around 32,000.
So why restore No. 4?
"When Bill (Coore) and Ben (Crenshaw) did what they did to No. 2, and those two courses sat there side-by-side, No. 4 stood out as over-manicured," said Tom Pashley, President of Pinehurst since a few months after the Men’s and Women’s U.S. Opens in 2014.
After my round on the Cradle, in which my colleague Alexandra O’Laughlin and I took down Hanse and John Cook in a putt-off on the ninth green (thank you, Alexandra), I toured the new No. 4 with Hanse and Pashley. By cart and on feet, it’s always a treat to get the architect’s perspective on an unfinished project.
Having referred to some of the plans and pictures of the original No. 4, Hanse pointed out a few “winks and nods” to Ross that he has sprinkled throughout the routing, which includes imposing bunkers in front of certain greens if you happen to be attacking the fairly benign putting surfaces from an unintended angle.
A new cross bunker on the 8th hole of Pinehurst No. 4
As of mid-April, Hanse’s new No. 4 is three-quarters of the way to completion and is scheduled to reopen September 20. In order to speed up the process, they’re using some of the sod from what was on the old fairways, and repurposing it on the new ones.
In Pashley’s review of what he saw that day, he used words like "big," "bold," and "stunning." No one could or would disagree, but what was surprising is that I got the sense Pashley and Pinehurst owner, Bob Dedman, have had a hands-off approach to Hanse’s plan and execution of a new No. 4.
Surprising, because no one is as passionate about the Pinehurst product than Pashley, who plays off a handicap a shot or two above scratch. And then there’s Dedman, who has a keen eye for design and I’ve learned over the last few years that this resort means so much to him and his family’s legacy of success.
"I’ll never forget being in a room with Bill (Coore), Don Padgett, who was president at the time, and a few other assembled members of our management team," said Pashley, as he looked back to 2009 and the decision to restore No. 2. "The question to Padge was, 'What direction should we give Bill and Ben before they embark on such an important project?' Padge simply said, 'There’s only one architect in this room. And he has a partner. We will leave that up to them.'"
Pashley, who was Padgett’s vice president at the time, says he learned from that meeting and that level of leadership.
"It’s not a hobby," Pashley likes to say. "And when it comes to architecture, creativity and the kind of vision it takes to see something like what Gil is doing out there, I’m definitely just a hobbyist. In my wildest dreams, I could have never imagined what is being done on the piece of land he was given to work with."
Hanse has not only brought back certain bunkers, he has also brought back a lot of sand, slopes and rolls to the topography. He moved the fourth green off the water, and the 13th green on the water. And with work to do on holes 1, 2, 16 thru 18, there are still some key chapters to this narrative that need to be written, but I left Pinehurst feeling like Hanse and his assembled team of artists and experts are about to prove, once again, why Pinehurst is pioneering, and why Hanse keeps getting so many calls and opportunities.
"It’s a nice run we’re on," said Hanse, with a humble chuckle.
In the last 15 years, Hanse, his partner Jim Wagner, and their crew of what they affectionately call "Cave Men," have renovated, restored or built Boston Golf Club, TPC Boston, Castle Stuart (Scotland), Doral (Miami), the Rio Olympic Course, Mossy Oak (Mississippi), Streamsong Black (Florida), Los Angeles Country Club, Winged Foot (New York), Merion (Philadelphia), and now they’ve landed the job to work on both at Baltustrol courses in New Jersey. And as soon as membership and leadership sort out some politics and a realistic budget, Oakland Hills in Detroit will undoubtedly move on with another Hanse restoration of an iconic Ross original.
Which brings us back to No. 4, which Ross finished in 1919. It was, in fact, the fourth Ross course at Pinehurst. Changes were made by Robert Trent Jones Sr., in the late 1950s, and again by Rees Jones in the early 1980s. Fazio made his significant changes in 1999.
Drawings by Gil Hanse sit atop an old desk in the office of Donald Ross.
"If you want to know a man, take him out on the golf course." — Donald Ross
But if you want to learn a little more about Ross, go back to his house.
In one of the coolest sidebars to any story about modern architecture’s bridge between the Golden and Modern eras, I got the chance to do exactly that. With Hanse, who’s living there.
Dedman recently purchased the house Ross called home from 1925 until he died in 1948. After a month of minor upgrades, Dedman and Pashley offered the storied living quarters to Hanse and his wife, Tracey, throughout construction on No. 4.
"Although I’m not working from what was his desk, just being in that house and office is beyond cool," said Hanse. "Of all the great things that have happened to us on this run, to live and work from that house and office is right at the top."
Jokingly considering filing for squatter’s rights, Hanse is actually scheduled to move on soon. And when he does, Dedman and Pashley have plans to further restore the old Ross house and potentially use it for select events and corporate outings.
Thus, Pinehurst has added yet another gem to their portfolio of off-course amenities, which includes: The Deuce, the bar behind the 18th green of No. 2. A new location for Thistle Dhu, the putting course that now neighbors The Cradle, and a reimagined practice range. They’re going to re-do the famous and historic walkway that leads golfers from the front door of the clubhouse to the pro shop in the back. And in what was a bedraggled building around the corner from the Holly Inn, they’re in the process of building a brewery scheduled to open Labor Day weekend.
Until then, if he’s not on the road or out shaping No. 4, there sits Hanse, working on drawings and fielding phone calls in the small little office where Ross once churned out so many popular designs that are still scattered throughout the fabric of golf in America.
The house itself is set back to the left of the third green of No. 2. And if you ever get a chance to see the inside for yourself, besides marveling at what feels like a museum, you might wonder why Ross' old office window doesn’t look out over what was his prized professional possession.
"What I was told,” said Hanse, "is that Ross was not just a great architect, he was a master marketer. As people drove by at night, he wanted them to see the light was on and that he was hard at work on his next set of plans. He wanted to make sure people knew he was busy."
That, and apparently he liked to see who might be approaching the front door.
Memorabilia on display in the Ross house in Pinehurst.
“My friends laughed at me. They said it was folly to try to make a winter golf colony down in the jack pines and sand of Carolina.”—Donald Ross
With the completion of No. 4, what’s going to surround the front porch of Pinehurst proper is going to be quite the itinerary in itself. Courses Nos. 1, 3 and 5 have also undergone some rerouting and restoration, mostly done by Kyle Franz, Kye Goalby and Blake Conant. Which means Pinehurst, in the last 10 years, will have literally updated and enhanced everything on their main piece of property.
“People come from all over the world to play at Pinehurst,” said Pashley. “Now they’ll only need to take their car or a shuttle from the Carolina Hotel to the clubhouse and back, and they could experience one heck of an itinerary.”
Dedman’s vision, going back to 2016: "A golfer walking off the main steps of this historic clubhouse, we want them to see heaven on earth."
In light of the most recent wave of Pinehurst pioneering, some might take one step further and simply refer to it as, Heaven.