Originally created 06/14/05

Pinehurst No. 2's charm lies around its greens



Some golfers don't get it. Too bad for them.

Some golfers walk off the 18th green of Pinehurst No. 2 and stare perplexed at their grisly scorecard.

"What's the big deal?" they might ask themselves of the course that this week will host the U.S. Open for the second time in six years. "I paid nearly $300 for this?"

Some poor unimaginative souls even feel so disillusioned that they are compelled to lash back at the undemonstrative Donald Ross course that just chewed them up, green by frustrating crowned green.

"The course has very little character from tee to green and basically lacks any truly memorable golf holes," one golf reviewer recently blogged, adding that "No. 2 is nothing more than a collection of decent golf holes accompanied by a diabolical set of greens."

Pity the simple mind that walks away from Pinehurst No. 2 so grossly underwhelmed and with so many unanswered questions.

Where are the signature holes? Where are the heroic carries over hazards? Where are the railroad ties? Where are the island greens? The ocean view?

You won't find any of those bells and whistles at Pinehurst No. 2 - which is precisely why it is one of the greatest courses in the world. All No. 2 presents is one of the finest, unadulterated tests of golf you're ever likely to fail. It is a course of few words that draws plenty of raves - good and bad.

Fortunately, most golfers get it and the ones that don't won't clutter up the tee times.

Renowned golf scribe Herbert Warren Wind once called No. 2's greens "the sternest examination of chipping and putting in America."

Architect Tom Fazio, the man entrusted with handling another precious set of greens, at Augusta National, was moved to label Pinehurst No. 2 "the best second-shot golf course in the world."

Rees Jones, No. 2's latest renovator, described it as "the greatest recovery course in golf."

Ross himself once proclaimed of No. 2: "This is the closest to perfect that I've ever done."

If you're one of those imaginatively challenged individuals who can't comprehend courses that require more than a high, long drive and a lobbed wedge at the pins, you wouldn't get the countless testimonials to Pinehurst's understated charms.

Short-game guru Dave Pelz: "The challenge around the green is as much as you're going to find anywhere in the country, and that's the way golf should be played."

Noted amateur turned designer Vinny Giles: "It gives you so many options around the greens."

As Golf Digest's Ron Whitten once put it, an errant ball at No. 2 rolls off, "casually exploring nooks and crannies until settling upon a spot where gravity can influence it no more."

It is from these nooks and crannies that the real genius of Pinehurst No. 2 is exposed. Recovering from the greenside swales and chipping areas requires an imagination that is only limited by the 14 clubs in the golf bag.

Those without that imagination are left scratching their heads and mumbling profanities. Too many golfers today - including some tour professionals - are so ingrained in playing the game a certain way that Pinehurst's test of their limited imaginations blows their minds.

Ross - who lived adjacent to the course's most beguiling greens at holes 3 and 5 - wouldn't mind the criticism. He'd probably be amused by it.

His intent was to create an "infinite variety" of short-game options, and he did so with Pinehurst's crowned jewels.

In his book Golf Has Never Failed Me, Ross wrote: "I am sure if you watch tournament play on Number Two, you will be interested to see how many times competitors whose second shots have wandered a bit will be disturbed by these innocent looking slopes."

Those disturbed hacks don't fully appreciate Ross or the subtle excellence of his Pinehurst masterpiece. PGA Tour curmudgeon Scott Hoch once called it "goofy golf." Then again, Hoch thinks St. Andrews is a dog track.

Golf course architect Brian Silva - who makes a substantial part of his living "restoring" Ross courses, including Augusta Country Club - once ridiculed Ross' work in a 1989 Golf Digest article.

"If Donald Ross were designing courses today, his work would be panned," Silva said. "It's just not spectacular enough. You wouldn't read or see much about it, because it's all too subtle. Nobody would even know the guy."

It wasn't Silva's words, but his work on Ross' Wampanoag Country Club in West Hartford, Conn., that prompted the formation of the Donald Ross Society in 1989. Ross purists considered Silva's restoration a "hack job," and they vowed to prevent it from happening again.

The Donald Ross Society and its 1,400 members are vigilantly committed to protecting and preserving the integrity of remaining Ross courses throughout the continent.

Ross Society founder and executive director Michael Fay has played nearly 200 Ross courses and says he's "never seen one signature hole." That some people might consider that a negative is their loss.

One of the great fascinations with Pinehurst is that to the naked eye it doesn't look so hard. The trees define the route of the holes without encroaching, never coming into play except for the most poorly played shots. There are no real water hazards. Fairways are fairly level and receptive. The greens appear large, and in terms of square footage they are. Nothing is hidden from view.

Looks, however, are deceiving.

"It's not that it's so difficult," said Pelz, "it's that it is so much more difficult than it looks like it's going to be. People shoot much higher numbers there than they expect to shoot, and they don't quite know how it happened to them."

Getting an approach shot to stay on the green is as mighty a challenge as you'll ever find.

"Donald Ross was an incredibly masterful designer because you hit a shot that you think is good and it turns out not so good," Pelz said. "You hit a shot a little better and it turns out great. The course rewards wonderful shots, penalizes not-so-wonderful shots more than people realize and makes the relatively poor shot that everybody hopes to get away with terrible."

There is plenty of contemporary architectural respect for Ross' classical work. Modern design heavyweights such as Pete Dye, Rees Jones and Fazio hold his work in such high regard that they frequently take long walks on Pinehurst No. 2 and other Ross courses just to get inspiration.

"This is sacred ground in golf," said Rees Jones, who engineered the latest restoration of No. 2 to prepare it for the 1999 U.S. Open. "This is one of the most important golf courses in the world. These are learning grounds for golf course architects. Every time you play a course like this, you learn something."

Even some of the most outrageously contemporary architects appreciate Ross' subtle genius. Before he was stricken with throat cancer, Mike Strantz lauded the virtues of a designer who seemed to be a polar opposite of himself.

"I don't think I would ever call any of Donald Ross' stuff boring," said Strantz, a former Fazio intern who has designed such non-traditional courses such as True Blue and Caledonia in Pawley's Island, S.C., and Tobacco Road in Sanford, N.C., that has been described as "Pine Valley on steroids."

"The neat thing about Donald Ross courses are the subtleties," said Strantz. "If you can't get to the pin this way, there's another way for you to try it. I think they're very interesting in that regard."

Some people prefer to be beaten in the face with gimmicks instead of beaten on the scorecard with genius.

Fortunately for most golf fans, the U.S. Open ignores their ignorance.

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com.