Alums helped give Pinehurst a new old look for the U.S. Open

June 9, 2014
By Chris Saunders

NC State magazine originally ran this story in summer 2012. We thought it was worth revisiting as Pinehurst No. 2 hosts the 2014 U.S. Open this week and the U.S. Women’s Open Championships next week.

Photo by John Gessner.

Photo by John Gessner.

Around the famed No. 2 course at Pinehurst are features that contradict modern golf course design and maintenance: Rough-hewn bunker edges, hardpan sand littered with stray pine cones and needles, and odd strands of wire grass peeping through sandy bunkers. The course is in stark contrast to the one that [four] years ago was enveloped in a thick blanket of Bermuda grass and dotted with smooth, rounded bunkers.

“It’s a totally different mindset from what we learned in school, what we did on other courses,” says Kevin Robinson ’92, course superintendent of No. 2. “It’s a different look altogether. I can remember [in earlier jobs] sweating over every brown spot, trying to get it watered fast and get it green. Our goal now is to have a more natural-looking course.

Robinson, John Jeffreys ’00 and Tom Lineberger ’11, who focused their studies on turfgrass at NC State, are on the firing line in day-to-day maintenance of Pinehurst No. 2. The course has undergone a daring restoration project in 2010-11 to recapture the character and natural look of the original design as it prepares to host the men’s 2014 U.S. Open this week.  

Left to right: Kevin Robinson, John Jeffreys and Tom Lineberger. Photo by John Gessner.

Left to right: Kevin Robinson, John Jeffreys and Tom Lineberger. Photo by John Gessner.

Jeffreys, an assistant superintendent on No. 2, nods toward a smattering of pine cones and odd tidbits of organic matter strewn about the edges of the fairways. [Four] years earlier, the pine cones would have been picked up by maintenance staff and the clumps of decayed plant matter dispersed by a backpack blower. “Now we leave the debris that accumulates,” Jeffreys says. “Some guys at the beginning wanted to keep cleaning it out. You have to say, ‘Stop, don’t do that.’ We’ve grown accustomed to the change. It took a while. You’d turn around and see a guy blowing and raking because he thought that’s what looked good, looked clean. Without a doubt, it’s more interesting to play the golf course now, and it’s certainly more interesting to maintain it.”

No. 2 opened as 18 holes in 1907 and was designed by Donald Ross, the Scottish golf professional who immigrated to America in 1899. He found Pinehurst to his liking because of the similarity of the sandy, bumpy ground to that of Scotland. Ross expanded and tweaked the course often through the years, and No. 2 was ranked perennially among the nation’s top courses. It was known for its difficult greens, wide fairways and the peripheral areas of bunkers, wire grass, pine cones and pine needles.

As the use of water and chemicals in golf maintenance burgeoned and tastes for more lush, greener courses grew throughout the 20th century, the look of No. 2 evolved into one of a slicker, smoother sheen of emerald. Pinehurst officials were listening and watching in recent years as No. 2 fell to 32th in Golf Digest’s semi-annual ranking of America’s top courses from its perch at ninth best in 2001. And as players who knew No. 2 from its earlier glory criticized the burnished look. In early 2010, a firm was hired to supervise removal of nearly 40 football fields worth of Bermuda grass, cutting the number of sprinkler heads by more than half and planting of some 90,000 wire grass plants. With the new approach less dependent on water and chemicals, it’s environmentally friendly.

Many in the world of golf will offer an opinion [the next two weeks] when No. 2 is the venue on consecutive weeks in June 2014 for the U.S. Men’s and Women’s Opens. It will be a different look to players, spectators and TV viewers accustomed to the radiant green look promulgated by Augusta National Golf Club and its annual Masters Tournament. “People will think they’ve skipped a month and are actually watching the British Open,” Jeffreys adds, referring to the brownish tint shown on telecasts each July from British golf courses.

“You think of all the aerial shots of golf courses they show at the U.S. Open, the lush green look,” Robinson says. “We’ll be anything but that.”

–Lee Pace

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