by: Ian Cruickshank
Heading south on North Carolina’s US1, ever deeper into the heart of Dixie, a car flashed past me in the left lane. Plastered on his back bumper is a sticker that asks: Where the hell is Easy Street? Twenty minutes later, as I pulled into the quiet lane that feeds into the village of Pinehurst, I think I’ve found it. As soon as I open the car door, I catch the sweet scent of azalea bushes and magnolia and pine trees and a shopkeeper gives me a welcoming wave. As I look out to the village green, where all of the game’s great players from Harry Vardon to Tiger Woods have walked, I realize that this is hallowed golfing ground.
Pinehurst is arguably the best and certainly the most famous golf resort in the United States, featuring eight golf courses, historic hotels and a world class spa. The resort first opened its doors on New Year’s Eve, 1895 and was brainchild of Richard Tufts, a New Englander who made his fortune selling soda fountains. Tufts purchased more than 495 acres of scrubby pineland for just a dollar an acre with the intent of creating a small village and resort, dedicated to healthy living.
The place was an instant success with the blue blood crowd and the DuPonts, Morgans and Rockefellers were frequent guests. Wild West legend Annie Oakley gave shooting lessons and exhibitions at the resort’s gun club. Flying pioneers, Orville Wright and Amelia Earhart zipped in and out of the local airstrip. Human rights activists Helen Keller and band leader John Philip Sousa soaked up the sun in Pinehurst. Bing Crosby fell head over heels in love with the place and actually tried to buy the resort when the Tufts family sold up in 1970.
The heart of the resort though has always been the golf which really took off when the Tufts’ imported Donald Ross from the Highland village of Dornoch. Ross, who had trained under Old Tom Morris, the patron saint of golf, arrived in Pinehurst in 1900 and over the next half century designed four courses at the resort and an estimated 400 more layouts across North America. The no-nonsense architect is famous for his inverted, tea cup shaped greens, where you need an anchor to get the ball to stick anywhere near the flag. His No. 2 course is considered one of the very best layouts in all of golf and has hosted US Opens, both men and women, a Ryder Cup and a PGA Championship. (It can be so frustrating that some pros nearly curled up in the fetal position and cried for their mommies, when their balls continued to roll off the greens.)
The most famous US Open held at Pinehurst took place in 1999 and was won by Payne Stewart – he was as handsome as a movie star with a swing as sweet as maple syrup. In his early years, Stewart was known both for his good golf and big league ego but by the time he reached Pinehurst, he had found an inner peace and was considered one of the good guys on tour. He dropped a curling 15-foot putt on the final hole for a birdie to beat Phil Mickelson and win the championship. As the putt toppled into the cup, Stewart exploded with joy – it looked like he’d swallowed a crate of fireworks – his arm pumped and his right leg kicked back high. Unfortunately, the celebrations didn’t last long. Six months later, at the age of 42, Payne Stewart was dead, killed in a plane crash.
Pinehurst memorialized Payne Stewart with a life-size statue in his jubilant pose. It stands right behind the 18th green and is the most popular spot in the entire resort for photographs.
With eight courses at Pinehurst, including designs by architects Tom Fazio and Rees Jones, you never really have to leave the resort for golf but there are some really strong tracks nearby that are worth investigating. Pine Needles features a Donald Ross designed layout that made its debut in 1927 and which has hosted a number of US Women Opens. Located directly across the road is Mid Pines, another highly touted Donald Ross course.
Another favourite is Tobacco Road Golf Club which was designed by Mike Strantz, who passed away in 2005 at the age of just 50. Strantz started out shaping fairways and greens for Tom Fazio before going out on his own. Strantz had an imaginative flair for design and Tobacco Road is Strantz at his best. It’s a real hybrid – part NASCAR, part leprechaun. Built on a former sand and gravel pit, Strantz stepped on the accelerator from the opening tee, threading the course through Irish-sized dunes. There isn’t a pit stop on the whole place.
Pinehurst Favourites – Here is a bucket list for your pilgrimage to Pinehurst:
Eat the buffet breakfast at the Carolina Hotel, then waddle off to the neighbouring spa for a steam and massage.
Take a stroll through Pinehurst Village and pop into the local library for a look at its terrific collection of golf books and photos.
Hit balls at Maniac Hill, North America’s very first driving range.
Have a chat with one of the starters. Besides giving you insider tips on the golf courses, they know the scoop on everything from local real estate prices to where to find the best restaurant.
Have a drink at the Pine Crest Inn and head into the lobby and try to chip golf balls into the foot long hole cut into the board that covers the fireplace. The unofficial record is held by Ben Crenshaw who went 10 for 10.