On the morning the mowers made their first pass over the young greens, the “unofficial golf course inspector” of Pinehurst, North Carolina, rolled up in a cart to check on progress. Don Padgett II served as president of Pinehurst Resort from 2004 to 2014, during which time he oversaw a complete overhaul of the historic No. 2 course.
No more would green be the only color on the prized land, the resort declared during its renovation. It was time to get back to the basics, back to the way Donald Ross intended when he built No. 2 in 1907: one irrigation line down the middle of each fairway and brown around the fairway edges, forcing even slightly errant shots to slip into the bright, sandy waste areas that decorate every hole.
Padgett watched the transition happen over the course of five years, then retired three months after the men’s and women’s U.S. Opens were played here in back-to-back weeks in June 2014.
Today, Padgett is observing the construction from the comfortable position of a retiree, but at every step, this project forces him to think about the game in ways he didn’t before.
Down the hill from where his cart sits on this unseasonably cool, late-July morning are the makings of a new nine-hole short course in which no hole will be longer than 120 yards. When it opens in late September or early October, the short course will be called The Cradle, a nod to the Pinehurst slogan that this community is “The Cradle of American Golf.”
A great course for all players
On this exclusive piece of property, The Cradle will serve hardcore golfers and everymen alike. It’ll be a course you could almost play with your putter – but it was designed by renowned architect Gil Hanse, and as such it will meet all the standards of excellence you’ve grown to expect from Pinehurst. It’s a fun course with a serious professional production.
Kevin Robinson, the superintendent who steered No. 2 into those 2014 U.S. Opens, has overseen the turf grow-in process – Champion Ultradwarf bermudagrass on the greens, TifTuf bermudagrass on the tees and approach areas.
In some ways, the short course will take players back to the lighter days of golf. In the earliest years of Pinehurst, Ross and his buddies played matches in front of small crowds of vacationers who’d traveled from Northern cities to watch not just golf, but also farm spectacles such as chickens hatching and baby pigs taking their first steps.
Somewhere between then and now, the game became a show that ran off people who didn’t fit an exact, tucked-in stereotype. But now, at a time when the game is contracting a bit, settings like The Cradle are here to welcome people back.
“If you’re in the golf business, you’d better be changing or you’re going to be left on the doorstep,” says the 68-year-old Padgett, who was general manager at Firestone Country Club for a quarter-century before coming to Pinehurst. “My grandkids look at this course and they can’t wait. They’re 8, 9, and 11 – not old enough to play the other courses – but this is not as intimidating. It looks like fun to them.”
Walking The Cradle
Bob Farren reaches down and picks up a small rock on what used to be the first tee for the Pinehurst No. 5 course. “Well, that’s not good for a mower,” he laughs. The director of golf course maintenance and grounds for the resort is about to lead me around The Cradle on foot. “It’ll take us less than 20 minutes,” he says.
Pinehurst Resort now claims nine full-length courses after the 2014 purchase of nearby National Golf Club. Courses 1 through 5 share the main clubhouse, while the other four are set apart from the main property, a short shuttle ride away. Until this past spring, the No. 3 course and No. 5 course each started with opening holes that ran parallel to each other and then to a heavily traveled two-lane road, N.C. Highway 5. After putting out on either of those first greens, golfers had to cross the highway, then play the remaining 17 holes on the western side of the road.
To make room for The Cradle, designers created plans to move the opening holes for those two courses across Highway 5. This required reconfiguring those courses a bit – shortening a long par 4 here, creating a new par 3 there – and now all 18 holes of No. 3 and all 18 of No. 5 are on the western side of the road.
That left Hanse and his team with about 16 acres to play with on the eastern side of the road. They wanted the new short course to feel like No. 2, with all the fixins, so they scattered waste areas and wiregrass all around. The rest is a rollicking track with hills of varying heights and greens of all sizes and shapes.
During my late-July visit, crews were still debating which one will eventually become the first hole. But Farren starts our walking tour on that original first tee for No. 5 and looks out at the course. It would be possible to stand in this spot with a set of irons and reach four or five of the course’s greens.
Don’t think that hasn’t already occurred to Farren and his team.
“I’m not promoting this as an idea, but it will happen on days when it’s not crowded, I’m guessing,” he says. “Guys will come out here and say, ‘OK, what hole do you want to play?’ It’s kind of like a H-O-R-S-E course in basketball. Again, that’s not what we’re promoting. But I can see people thinking about that. It’s like a big playground.”
The short course is making a comeback
Par-3 courses are hardly new. Augusta National has had one since 1958, and public varieties popped up everywhere in the late twentieth century. But at some point during the construction boom, they lost their appeal. “It got to where you wouldn’t want to be associated with a par-3 course,” Farren says.
But today they’re making a slight comeback. Bandon Dunes Golf Resort in Oregon opened a 13-hole par-3 course in 2012 that was designed by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, who coincidentally designed the renovated No. 2 here.
Still, that’s big news in Pinehurst, a resort that for decades has prided itself on being a place for serious golfers, where the game is revered as much as it is played.
Richard Tufts, grandson of Pinehurst founder James Walker Tufts, ran the resort from 1930 through the 1960s. According to stories preserved in local archives, Richard – a die-hard believer in amateurism – allowed a group of local boys play for free during the 1950s. But one day he caught the boys kicking up sand, hitting out of turn, and scratching up the greens. In other words, he caught them goofing off. So Richard had a few words for them: “You’re going to play like gentlemen.”
The Tufts family sold the course in 1970 to the Diamondhead Corporation, which tossed up eyesore buildings and nearly ran the resort to financial ruin by the early 1980s.
Farren joined the Pinehurst staff as an assistant superintendent working on two courses in 1982, toward the end of Diamondhead’s time as ownership.
“In ’82, there wasn’t any guarantee your check would clear,” he says, talking to Padgett, the retired president. “We’d get a load of sod and we’d fight over it, the superintendents would.”
The two men laugh, before Padgett takes over the story.
In 1984, Padgett says, Robert Dedman and his ClubCorp swooped in and bought Pinehurst for $33 million. They immediately turned it around, so much so that about five years later, a group of Japanese investors offered Dedman $100 million for the resort.
“He said, ‘It’s not for sale.’ There’s not too many people who would turn down a $67 million profit,” Padgett recalls, sounding more like a historian than a former president or current “unofficial golf course inspector.”
It’s good to know that background when considering just how profound the past decade of change has been. After a 2005 U.S. Open in which players complained about No. 2 – the rough was too tall and unplayable, and its fairways were too narrow – the leaders of the resort, Padgett and Farren included, looked backward to see the way forward.
The No. 2 that filled blimp shots during the 2014 U.S. Open events couldn’t have been more visually different than the No. 2 from 2005. Brown was the new beautiful.
That’s as it should be for this region. The Sandhills of North Carolina, after all, are nothing but ancient, underground sand dunes that used to be oceanfront property millions of years ago.
The first of many changes
The success of the No. 2 redesign started a wave of redesigns around the resort. Once The Cradle is complete, Hanse and his crews will restore the No. 4 course with the same look. And the No. 3 course, which gained four new holes during the renovation to make room for the short course, is being converted back to that look, too.
“It’s like dominos,” Farren says. “Once No. 2 happened, it led to everything else.”
Padgett takes it a step further.
“The biggest thing was No. 2,” he says. “If something goes wrong with No. 2, the whole place is in trouble – this whole area is in trouble. That was the mother lode in terms of starting to change and evolve the property.”
That leads us back to the fun new short course, which captures all of that Pinehurst history and spirit in nine holes squeezed into 16 acres.
On the third hole of Farren’s tour, the green is shaped almost like a punch bowl, with a backdrop that slopes toward the middle of the green – a green that covers 5,500 square feet. Two holes later, design and construction teams managed to preserve a live oak. Just behind that is what used to be the green for the first hole of the No. 5 course, kept essentially the same. Just beyond it, construction teams built dirt mounds with foliage to block noise from the traffic on Highway 5.
Then the course turns back toward the clubhouse.
Next to the final hole of The Cradle is the new version of Thistle Dhu, an 18-hole putting course with ridiculous slopes that inspire lots of misses and laughs. Pinehurst built the original version during the renovation of No. 2 just for fun, but Thistle Dhu became a place where you could study the social makeup of modern golfers. During the day, you can spot three and sometimes four generations of people putting for enjoyment – grandmothers and great-grandfathers playing alongside grandsons and great-granddaughters.
Later, in the evenings, you might catch the more serious golfers who sometimes come here to mess around after they’ve played 18 holes on one of the main courses.
There was a time when a mostly male crowd at Pinehurst would play 36 holes in a day, but this is a new era. There’s more to do here than golf. A world-class spa opened 15 years ago and immediately attracted more couples; the restaurants on the resort and throughout the area have improved; and a new brewery opened in Southern Pines, just a few miles east.
Diversions like Thistle Dhu give people a chance to walk on the grass a little longer. In the evenings, you might find grown men on Thistle Dhu, barefoot and with a beer in hand, playing for skins.
Farren says he can envision similar scenes taking place one day on The Cradle. “You’re breaking down the walls,” he says. “You can come out here and not be as obsessed with the rules of golf, or you can come out here and be as serious as you want to be.”
It’s hard not to wonder what Richard Tufts, who once sternly told that group of boys to play like gentlemen, would think of it all. But Don Padgett provides a glimpse into how a purist’s thinking can evolve.
“When I first came here, you had to have a coat and tie in the dining room, and now you don’t even have to have a coat,” Padgett says, looking out at The Cradle from his cart on that cool July day. “I’m 68 years old, and the other day there was this guy driving up to the range. He had a big stogie, a baseball cap on, a Polo-type shirt not tucked in, cargo shorts, no golf shoes on. His clothes were of the gathered variety, I guess you’d say. Certainly, the cell phone was prominent. But he didn’t have a bad swing.
“Fifteen years ago or 20 years ago, you might’ve tried to run that guy out of the game. But now you’re glad he’s here.”