With its rugged and indigenous look, Course No. 2 steals the show at the men’s and women’s U.S. Opens
By Lawrence Aylward

No offense to Martin Kaymer and Michelle Wie, the respective winners of the men’s and women’s U.S. Opens on the No. 2 Course at Pinehurst Resort last month, but they didn’t dominate the talk of the golf galaxy after their victories.

Perhaps the biggest story coming out of the searing-hot sand hills of North Carolina was the No. 2 Course itself, the legendary Donald Ross design that had almost everyone talking about its back-in-time appearance.

The anticipation for this U.S. Open had been building like an orchestral crescendo ever since the United States Golf Association (USGA) announced in 2009 that the men’s and women’s U.S. Opens would be held back-to-back at Pinehurst, a historic occasion. Some of the players went on to create their own history within that history. Kaymer dominated the men’s tournament by shooting a lights out 10-under par on the first two days en route to the second lowest four-day score in U.S. Open history. Wie won the women’s tournament, marking her first major title. And 11-year-old Lucy Li left her mark as the youngest player ever to compete in women’s U.S. Open history.

But the golf course garnered the most attention during the two-week event, whether it was being ballyhooed or scrutinized. What people saw at Pinehurst No. 2, from the players to the galleries to the TV viewers, is a type of golf course they’re not accustomed to seeing on the PGA and LPGA tours.

Unless they had their heads in bunker sand, most golf fans had heard about Pinehurst No. 2’s restoration to return it to the course Ross envisioned more than 100 years ago. Even though architects Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore completed the project three years ago, many golf fans were seeing Pinehurst No. 2 for the first time, thanks to the tournaments being broadcast around the world.

Much of the talk had to do with No. 2 ditching its rough for a more native look – 40 acres of bermudagrass rough replaced with sand, wiregrass and scores of native plants – like it had in the 1920s. Pinehurst, with its rugged but handsome look (think George Clooney with a three-day beard), is being hailed as a model course for the future of golf. Anybody up for another “Back to the Future” sequel?

Bob Farren, director of golf course maintenance and grounds at Pinehurst Resort, cited an old Scottish axiom to explain the No. 2 Course’s return to its roots: “The best golf course is the golf course that best fits the land that you have.”

“What Ross had to work with here was certainly one of the most naturally endowed golfing landscapes in America,” Farren stressed.

The consensus from U.S. Open players was that the course played as tough as U.S. Open courses usually do, but the native areas were kinder to hit out of than the deep, thick rough for which U.S. Opens are typically known. The players also liked the look of Course No. 2.

Kaymer said he enjoyed the aesthetics of the course, which reminded him of playing in a British Open but with great weather.

after shooting six-over par for two days. After his second round, I asked him if he had warmed up to the native areas. Watson stuck to his guns. “I don’t like the look of it,” he said of the course.

Watson also questioned whether the native areas were really native areas, noting with a smile that they were “handmade stuff.”

Huh?

For the record, Bob Farren, Pinehurst’s director of golf course maintenance and grounds management, said most players embraced Pinehurst and its native areas. But Farren was aware of Watson’s remarks.

“If you hear players criticizing or complaining about it, chances are they aren’t going to have much success with it,” Farren said, not addressing Watson in particular. (He also said this well before Bubba was bounced from the tournament.)

Watson was one of the few golfers to dis Pinehurst’s conditions. He clearly prefers courses like Augusta National Golf Club, where he has won two green jackets. He calls Augusta a course “that’s always in perfect shape – and you know what you’re getting.” Watson said his game just didn’t seem cut out for Pinehurst.

Credit Watson for admitting that, but he’s mistaken about Pinehurst having “not very good conditions.” Watson may know how to drive a ball 300 yards, but was clueless about the intent behind Pinehurst No. 2’s renovation by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw to return the course to its original look.

Hopefully, Watson stopped in the Pinehurst gift shop on his way out and bought a book about the history of the place.

“I enjoyed the way the course played,” Kaymer noted. “It’s the way a course should play.”

Kaymer wasn’t alone in his affinity for the native areas. No. 1-ranked Adam Scott said he liked hitting out of the native areas compared to the nasty rough, and would like to see more U.S. Open setups like Pinehurst No. 2.

“When the [rough] is halfway up your leg, and most of us have to chip it out sideways … I don’t think that’s a great test of skill,” Scott added.

Phil Mickelson called the “new” Pinehurst “awesome.”

“The No. 2 Course will test a player’s entire game,” he said. “It’s the best test I’ve seen to identify the best player.”

Wie, one of the most popular LPGA players, also liked what she saw.

“It looks very cool,” she said after a practice round. “The golf course looks awesome.”

Wild and weedy

About those natural areas that replaced the course’s rough – they were originally just supposed to be sand, mounds and wiregrass. But something wild and weedy happened on the course’s path toward becoming a model for golf and sustainability.

Shortly after the 20,000 wiregrass plants, which are native to the area, were hand-planted in the sandy waste areas, other plant life began to emerge.

That’s when Farren called Dr. Tom Rufty, the distinguished professor of environmental plant biology at North Carolina State University (NCSU), to speak to him about the new plant life he was seeing on the course where the bermudagrass rough formerly resided.

“We don’t know what it is,” Farren told Rufty. “We’ve never seen it before. Can you come down and help us?”

Rufty is as passionate as plant biologists come and was intrigued by the offer, but he knew it was a project that would take time, not to mention financial resources. Rufty contacted Richard Rees, the senior principal scientist for Environmental Science, a division of Bayer CropScience LP, about funding the project. Rees was happy to help.

“In Bayer’s philosophy, it’s clear that we fund things that benefit education,” Rees stated. “And we have a very strong role with NCSU in providing funding where it’s needed.”

With Bayer on board, Rufty contacted Danesha Seth-Carley, an ecologist and research assistant professor who teaches classes on sustainability at NCSU, to lead the project. Seth-Carley embraced the two-year study as if it were her own.

NCSU and Bayer helped Pinehurst develop a seasonal plan that included recommended agronomic practices and products to ensure the appropriate management of native plant species while maintaining the degree of difficulty in play desired.

“They told me they knew how to manage bermudagrass and bentgrass, but they didn’t really know how to manage the vegetation coming in,” Seth-Carley noted. “It was all new to them.”

The vegetation coming in could’ve been considered weeds … or beautiful wildflowers.

Seth-Carley and graduate assistant Kevin Stallings visited the course often to study and identify the perennial and annual native plants. It was up to the Pinehurst staff to decide which native plants would stay and which would go.

“Bob Farren and Kevin Robinson [golf course superintendent of Pinehurst] would take me around the course and point to a plant and say, ‘We love this. How do we keep it, and how can we spread it from this area to another area?’ ” Seth-Carley recalled.

One of those plants was pineweed, an annual semiwoody stem that blooms from July through August.

Goodbye Bent, Hello Bermuda

The temperature hovered around 90 degrees Fahrenheit throughout the men’s and women’s U.S. Opens on Pinehurst No. 2 last month. The tournaments and the hot weather posed the last major test for Pinehurst’s bentgrass greens.

But by the time you read this the bentgrass will be gone. The course closed on July 7 for three months, and the bentgrass greens are being replaced with Champion ultradwarf bermudagrass.

Pinehurst No. 2 is the most well-known golf course to convert to ultradwarf bermudagrass since the Atlanta Athletic Club did in 2009. Many golf courses with bentgrass greens in the transition zone have and continue to convert to Champion, which is bred by Bay City, Texas-based Champion Turf Farms.

Ultradwarf bermudagrass greens cost less to maintain because they don’t require the upkeep that bentgrass greens require in the heat, i.e., members of the crew watching for wilt and ready to syringe them on a moment’s notice. They also require less fungicide and are more vigorous because they thrive in the heat.

Pinehurst’s famous turtle-backed greens won’t be affected by the change because they’ll be renovated using Champion Farm’s trademarked No-Till Renovation. Because the turf will be planted using the no-till process, it won’t require excavation, which means no changes in the contours.

It’s not surprising that Pinehurst is changing the playing surface, considering the course’s massive renovation a few years ago to make the course more sustainable. This is the last piece of the puzzle.

For the record, the A-1/A-4 bentgrass greens performed wonderfully during both U.S. Opens. Phil Mickelson was raving about the greens, specifically how smooth and consistent they rolled. He wasn’t the only one.

– Lawrence Aylward

“It’s a beautiful, delicate little flower [when it blooms],” Seth-Carley said.

She identified more than 75 native plants. Considering the native areas had been covered with sod for 20 years, Seth-Carley admits she was surprised to find so many noninvasive species.

“I had no idea we would find so many really beautiful wildflower and native herbaceous species that were desirable,” she added. “It was like discovering a pirate’s chest of gold.”

Debate reignited

In addition to its agrarian native areas, Course No. 2 also sported areas of tan, beige and brown turf. For instance, the edges of the course’s fairways were hues of brown, which they are supposed to be, even for resort golfers. The hues are also not defined by shape, meaning there’s no clean break from the irrigated green turf in the middle of the fairway.

“It’s intended to be very random,” Farren explained. “There’s no strategy involved where the water [from irrigation heads in the middle of the fairways] hits.”

Farren acknowledged the concept isn’t a familiar one to most professional golfers, who are used to “perfect conditions” from the center of the fairway to the tree lines.

Pinehurst’s look has renewed attention on the brown turf versus green turf debate. Many golf course superintendents vehemently oppose the word “brown” to describe turf, believing it means dead turf. Coore said he would understand why golf fans could’ve turned on the TV during the U.S. Opens and said to themselves, “What’s all this brown about?”

Mike Davis, USGA’s executive director, stressed that the brown turf seen at Pinehurst wasn’t dead – it was just “dormant, thirsty bermuda.” It also wasn’t on the bentgrass greens, which to most players rolled consistently well for both tournaments.

Davis believes that how people view the color of turf is in the eye of the beholder.

“It’s like looking at a piece of artwork,” he added. “There are a lot of people that love this look, and there are some people that don’t like the look.”

Count Bryan Hopkins, who attended the men’s U.S. Open, among those who like the look. He said Pinehurst No. 2’s look reminds him of the municipal and public golf courses he plays at his home in Patrick, S.C.

“It’s what I’m used to seeing,” he added.

Davis admits that golf industry people – from himself to players to superintendents – need to be careful when saying brown turf is good for the industry.

“What we’re really after is a couple of things. One is just less water used on golf courses for firmer conditions,” Davis explained. “But that doesn’t mean we’re looking for brown golf courses.

“The other thing is just trying for less-manicured golf courses when you get off the fairway – the concept of maintenance down the middle to literally reduce some of the costs and so on,” Davis added. “And I would contend, and many other people would contend, that it makes for more interesting golf when you do that.”

For the record, water use on Course No. 2 was reduced from about 55 million gallons a year to approximately 15 million gallons.

With fewer acres of maintained turf, a drastic reduction in water use and abundance of native plant life, Pinehurst No. 2 represents how other golf courses, from high-end to low-end, will have to operate in order to survive, Rufty said.

“The economy is dictating this,” he added.

But how do you get the people who favor wall-to-wall green golf courses to appreciate a course like Pinehurst?

“It’s about turning them on to nature,” Rufty said. “It’s about getting them tuned in to the complexity and beauty that can be brought into a managed landscape.”

Mason Jones, a golf fan from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, is tuned in to that thinking.

“It’s a more natural setting, and there’s less human involvement,” he said of Pinehurst No. 2. “It dates back to the roots of the game like.”

Davis, a proponent of sustainability and golf, would like to see more golf courses like Pinehurst No. 2 dot the golfing landscape, because they are simply more environmentally friendly.

“But it has to start with the golfer,” Davis said. “It can’t start with the superintendent, because the superintendent is going to do what the owner, the operator, the president, the green chairman or whoever is running [a course or club] ultimately wants.”

Firm and fast conditions, like the ones Pinehurst offered, equate to drier and less green conditions. Davis believes it will take time for many American golfers to embrace such conditions.

“It may take a generation or two, but we can start to slowly change mindsets,” Davis added. “This mindset of just perfect conditions … this has really only happened in the last generation or two. It wasn’t long ago that it wasn’t like that. It can change back.”

Pinehurst No. 2 may be in the midst of proving that.