Geography, one of the last Caesars of Rome observed, is destiny.
In championship golf, as in ancient warfare, the outcome is often determined as much by one’s mastery of the ground underfoot as it is an opponent’s skill at arms.
No place in modern golf better embodies this timeless principle more comprehensively than the reworked battlefield of Pinehurst No. 2, the golf course Donald Ross spent most of his working life tweaking to perfection. Over the next fortnight the finest male and female players in the game will take up arms and do battle against both the geography of the Sandhills and their own demons of self-doubt.
By carefully peeling back Ross’ masterpiece layer by layer to its minimalist origins and most original intent – revealing a layout that is firm as an over-baked country ham, fast as the hood of a Buick and wildly unforgiving at its edges – the design team of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw have not only brilliantly prepared a golf course capable of standing up to unprecedented assault by a pair of historic back-to-back U.S. Opens and hundreds of the world’s finest players, but more importantly laid down a glorious working blueprint for the very future of the game – one that is far more natural than the overwatered and manicured model of country club golf it replaces.
This glorious back-to-the-future transformation couldn’t come at a more propitious moment. As the world of golf begins to shake off the debilitating effects of the Great Recession and the biggest slump in the game’s growth in more than half a century, what more fitting place is there to refresh the grassroots of the game and perhaps even stimulate a new day in the popularity of recreational golf in America than the place that more or less birthed the concept of resort golf in America?
Restoration of mind and body, after all, were central to higher aims of this place in the mystical longleaf pines of Carolina from the very earliest days of its existence.
Like a million things in this country, golf at Pinehurst was almost an after-thought, a providential accident that saved founder and Boston do-gooder James Walker Tuft’s skin after his holy vision of a utopian New England village promoting healthy pursuits for all classes was nearly put asunder by the contagion of tuberculosis. Indeed, Pinehurst was only spared an early demise by a handful of guests spotted playing a newfangled game in a nearby dairy meadow involving peculiar clubs and balls. Not long before this unlikely turning point, a pleasant, quiet-spoken Scotsman named Ross got off the boat in Boston from his native homeland seeking a new start in America, a chance to use the yeoman skills of clubmaking and golf course tending acquired as an apprentice in his native village of Dornoch and later under the watchful eyes of a true master called Old Tom Morris.
Could there have been a more fortunate conjunction of events? Stop and think about what the simple eponymous name “Pinehurst” means today – just 120 years since its founding, give or take. Across the world of golf and even broader society, more legends of the game and countless generations of golf-addicted lesser mortals have made pilgrimage to a place perhaps more than any other this side of St Andrews. Here in this tranquil village set off from the daily grind of life, there is but one solitary purpose in mind – to tee up and chase the game, to rebirth the spirit of competitive play born into each of us. Is it any wonder this place is now called the “Home of American Golf”? Like the Auld Gray Toun it resembles in so many obvious and subtle ways, Pinehurst resonates with the authenticity and history of a true holy place – a living shrine, if you will, to the majesty of an ancient game.
“Everyone who goes to Pinehurst,” Arnold Palmer once remarked in a conversation about his earliest visits here with his late father, Deacon, “is an honorary son or daughter of the place. Once its magic is in you, you are never quite the same. You’ll always yearn to go back.”
As it happens, almost from the beginning of its life, residents of Pinehurst and the surrounding Sandhills – where more than 45 golf courses skirl through the pines of rural Moore County – had a popular saying that once you get the sand here in your shoes, you’re always destined to return.
That folksy chestnut proved just as true to the early stars of the American game as it did those who followed in their footprints. Bobby Jones visited early and frequently in his amateur days and described Pinehurst as a place with no peer. Ditto the great Glenna Collet Vare, who captured six women’s National Amateur titles and an equal portion of the prestigious North and South Amateur Championship. She later moved here to sell real estate in Knollwood and keep her game sharp in winter.
Walter Hagen counted his three North and South Open victories so special and on par with his British Open wins he returned faithfully for almost two decades. Ditto Gene Sarazen, Bobby Cruickshank, Big Jim Barnes, Cyril Walker, Francis Ouimet, Henry Picard, Billy Burke, Paul Runyan, Byron Nelson and a somber workaholic named Ben Hogan, who after years of struggle and repeated failure finally put it all together and pulled off the breakthrough victory that saved his career at the North and South Open in 1940. Some newspaper editors misreported the winner’s name as “Hagen” but not for long. The win at Pinehurst gave Hogan such a boost in confidence he went on to win two more professional golf events in less than 20 days, the quickest rise to stardom in the game’s history. Nobody ever mistook his name again.
Hogan’s greatest rival, Slammin’ Sammy Snead, also powerfully oriented to the grandeur of Pinehurst, using it as his own springboard to fame by capturing his own prestigious North and South hardware the year after Hogan – then taking two more for good measure within ten years.
As young men, a couple of fellows named Palmer and Nicklaus were brought here to appreciate the purity of the game by their fathers, one a former greenskeeper and the other a city pharmacist. Both men understood there was something almost magical about Pinehurst’s powerful influence on a young man’s respect for himself and the game itself.
Not surprisingly, no place in America has held more significant national championships than Pinehurst. But it was the U.S. Open of 1999 that seems to illustrate best the magical transformative effect of this place.
When Payne Stewart came to Pinehurst that summer week, he was a man who’d been to the summit by winning one U.S. Open but was perhaps best known by multitudes as the fellow who’d made himself best known by draping himself in the team colors – a human billboard, if you will -- of the National Football League. His career and personal life had been through major ups and downs, yet he came here in the throes of a profound spiritual rebirth and new commitment to his role as father and husband.
One hundred years from now, fans of the game will still be recounting how Father’s Day 1999 stunningly ended in the chilly overcast – with Stewart somehow coaxing a 20-footer into the cup on the 72nd hole to beat Phil Mickelson of the prize he covets most and claim his second U.S. Open title, rising onto the point of his toes and lofting a victorious fist into the air as his putt dropped in the cup and the gallery released a roar that still reverberates in these champion-haunted pines.
In more ways than could be counted, Stewart’s triumph marked the dawn of his spiritual rebirth, an even higher summit achieved in his long journey back to life and the game he’d loved as a boy. His untimely death just a few months later simply commended him – and Pinehurst -- to the ages.
Not surprising, the larger-than life bronze statue of Stewart at the moment of his triumph – the extraordinary sculpture by Pennsylvania artist Zenos Fundakis – will be a natural draw and orienting point for the hundreds of thousands of patrons at this year’s unique back-to-back U.S. Opens.
The early stories will note that popular Phil Mickelson has unfinished business here – a U.S. Open title to finally claim that eluded him a second time in The Pines in 2005.
On the women’s side of the ledger, the enticing unknown awaits – how they will fare playing exactly the same golf course as their male counterparts only hours apart.
By virtue of the fact that nothing like this has ever been attempted in championship golf anywhere, these “dueling Opens” will instantly make important history of some sort, probably on several measurable levels.
Over this unique and probably never-to-be-repeated fortnight of championship doings, everything will be oversized with meaning and purpose: the galleries will be larger than ever, the international media crush positively Bromdinnagian, the TV coverage nearly dawn-till-dawn, not to mention the premium price of an official souvenir U.S. Open-logo shirt from the Ali Baba-like Merchandise tent -- all will be bigger than ever, bigger than life, bigger than many of us who live here rather quietly 365 days of the year can possibly even comprehend.
But if Pinehurst’s unmatched past is any indicator of what may transpire in this blissfully isolated place where geography is destiny and a little sand in your shoes will guarantee you’ll always yearn to come back, it’s simply that the best kind of history is about to be made again as yet another new dawn unfolds.