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Yes, Pinehurst No. 2 is worth the money

While covering the 2005 U.S. Open for Travel Golf Magazine, I kept an open mind all week as the world debate raged on whether $375 is too much for a round of golf at Pinehurst No. 2, or whether $240 is too much for Nos. 4, 7, and 8. I listened to the good points raised on either side – and there are plenty to go around. Even I struggled with the analysis. It’s a tough and close debate.

The natural setting is not Pebble. Or Bandon Dunes. Or Whistling Straits. Or even Kiawah Island. But that’s OK. Look at Sawgrass or Bethpage. They don’t tip the scales for natural setting, but are two of the most quintessential tracks in the nation.

It’s not the course design either. The design is so subtle that the nuances escape most golfers. A.W. Tillinghast wrote of his classic Winged Foot, “The holes are like men, all rather similar from foot to neck, but with the greens showing the same varying characters as human faces.” The same is true of Pinehurst. Pinehurst’s greatest weapon is its benign nature tee to green as well as its intricate green complexes. The wide fairways, devoid of stunning vistas lull the player to sleep when he should be on high alert. One mistake approaching the devilish greens and the ball is in a place where the player cannot get close to the hole to save par. No less a personage than preeminent architect Tom Doak called No. 2’s green complexes “the best in America.” But over time, the greens morphed into something different from what Ross intended. Ron Whitten wrote an insightful piece, “Donald Ross wouldn’t recognize these greens,” in the June 2005 issue of Golf Digest. His undressing the myth of the greens’ severe contours as a mountain of topdressing over decades, not Ross’ design fills in a vital piece of history. Moreover, the USGA took advantage of the increased height of the greens by cutting off sharp slopes so as to create false fronts and sheer side drop-offs to make for crazy bounces at unpredictable angles.

With two such analytic geniuses jousting, the debate is surely valid on both sides. Either way, Pinehurst is a tricky pickpocket, an Artful Dodger which steals strokes right from under your nose…except when the USGA comes to town for the Open – then it becomes an axe murderer and a serial one at that. Still, there are seven other courses as of this writing.

It’s not the price either. $375 is half a month’s rent, a luxury car payment, two dinners for two at the glitziest NYC restaurant, tickets for four to a Broadway show, or tickets for a family of six to a major league baseball game (or tix form two to a three game series). Only Pebble Beach, Cascata and Shadow Creek are more expensive in the U.S. Sawgrass is half the price and Bethpage is 1/4 or less.

It’s not Donald Ross either. Ross is a seminal designer. But I don’t drink the Donald Ross Kool-aid and genuflect on command. I study golf course architecture as a science not a religion. Pinehurst No. 2 may not even be Ross’ best work – Oakland Hills is a much more interesting track tee to green for its more varied design features and for the more sane and reasonable green complexes. (I know the Donald Ross Society will want to grill me alive for saying that. I’ll take a medallion of my loin medium rare, please.)

But there is a reason why Pinehurst is the St. Andrew’s of America – and I am not handing out that mantle lightly and it’s not just because of the unique and wonderful golf course. It’s the people. It’s the Pinehurst locals and the North Carolinians. Pinehurst is EXACTLY like Ireland or St. Andrew’s in one critical way. The magic of Pinehurst is in meeting the locals. The apres golf is unparalleled. Maybe only Oregonians can match North Carolinians for warmth and hospitality. It even tops Pebble Beach – where you stay at the resort, but don’t interact with the natives. Instead, here even your waitress or counter clerk will discuss golf history or swing mechanics or travel with you. Golf is embedded in every level of the local’s lives. In Pinehurst, the locals have golf in their DNA. They truly live and breathe golf. You lose out on so much if you just play golf and leave – or play golf and go crash in your resort suite. Instead, if you delve deeply into Pinehurst’s greatest treasures, its people, you will be rewarded in return tenfold. Come to play golf, but leave with ten friends.

If you love Pinehurst, Pinehurst will love you back. Many who do this, soon have a bumper sticker on their car that reads “PINEHURST – I wasn’t born here, but I moved here as fast as I could.”

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