The iconic photographs of golf in Pinehurst in the early 1900s are captivating. The large pines and sandy soil have made the area famous.
It is difficult for today’s golfer to imagine putting on sand greens, yet that was part of the golfing experience here for more than 30 years. Sand greens were part of the aura and charm of Pinehurst. They were also necessary.
Frank Maples, the grounds superintendent who worked with Donald Ross, stated in an early article, “Practically all of our play is in the winter when there is very little growth of grass. As the play is heavy, we have so far found it impossible to produce grass greens with a satisfactory putting surface. We have however wonderful sand greens.”
Leonard Tufts explained in a 1927 article in Golfdom Magazine, the success of the sand greens was due to the native material in the Sandhills that produced just the right mixture of sand, clay and gravel and opined, “I have never seen its equal anywhere and I doubt it could be duplicated by any artificial method.”
Although Ross was hired as a club professional, by necessity, he took a keen interest in course management. Early in his tenure he addressed the maintenance of the sand greens.
An article in the Jan. 11, 1901, Outlook announced that “A new steam roller has been purchased for the course and expected to be here in a week or so. The impression of the roller will make it (sand greens) as smooth as a billiard table.”
Sand greens were flat because of concerns of erosion and washouts. According to Maples, five inches of a 75 percent mixture of 1/16-inch grain sand and 25 percent clay were applied to cover the green.
The green was then finished or “dressed” with the 1/16-inch grain sand to permit the ball to run true. In maintaining the greens for play, a circular space around the green was sprinkled with water and brushed with a carpet 5 or 6 feet wide.
A different type of game was played when on a course with sand greens versus grass greens. An article in the Washington Evening Star highlighted the distinction in discussing Pinehurst’s change to grass greens in 1935: “Pitching clubs again will be in evidence, and long irons may be hit to the Pinehurst greens to stick. The fellow who hit one of those sanded surfaces a year or so back with a long iron shot would be away off in the scrub pine.”
Approach shots had to be run along the ground on Pinehurst sand greens. The article noted, once on the green, putting was less difficult with some gents needing only 22 putts. A couple of missed 8-footers would lead a golfer to change putters.
As noted in Richard Mandell’s book, “The Legendary Evolution of Pinehurst,” the transition from sand to grass greens was years in the making, as Ross and Maples struggled to find the right mixture of soil, fertilizer (cow manure) and seed.
They finally achieved success in the early 1930s with a type of Bermuda grass that could handle the winters and heavy foot traffic. Gradually, irrigation was improved, and Ross was now able to sculpt the greens with contours and undulations without concern for erosion or wash outs.
Pinehurst, with new grass greens, was selected as the site for the 1936 PGA Championship and Ross never looked back, achieving legendary status with his design of course No. 2.
Mark Edwards is a retired attorney who lives in Pinehurst.