Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Pinehurst Pilgrimage

Bill's Story

It's April, and for Lisa and me that marks the true start of our golf season. Expect a number of posts involving our favorite game in the coming months.

Feeling the need for a spring tune-up for our rusty swings, we settled on a road trip to America's home of golf- Pinehurst, North Carolina. I won't say that the extra bag charge that the airlines now impose for hauling golf clubs was the determining factor, but it was on our minds when we elected to make the nine hour drive from Columbus rather than fly to Raleigh.

Pinehurst really was the first golf community before anyone realized that such a thing existed. It all began in 1895 when James Tufts of Boston, fresh from having sold his interest in the American Soda Fountain Company, conceived the idea of building a health resort in the sand hills of south-central North Carolina. Tufts' vision promptly resulted in the construction of a quaint picture postcard village along with two hotels, the grandest of which was The Carolina, where Lisa and I happily holed up during our visit.

The usual array of sporting activities were present from the inception of the resort, but golf immediately rose to dominance due to (1) the sandy soil - perfect for golf because it drains so quickly and (2) Tufts' recruitment of Donald Ross to serve as the resort's golf professional. Ross, a young Scot expatriate, already had a strong understanding of golf course design having worked as assistant greens keeper for Old Tom Morris - really the father of modern golf - at St. Andrews. Accordingly, Tufts entrusted Ross with the task of redesigning the resort's only course, "Pinehurst Number 1" and designing several new ones. Ultimately four more courses were built (numbers 2 through 5), with Pinehurst Number 2 achieving renown as Ross's masterpiece.

Buoyed by his successes at Pinehurst, Ross became recognized as America's greatest golf course architect. Oakland Hills, Scioto, and Inverness are among his triumphs. But Pinehurst Number 2 was always Ross's favorite, and from the vantage point of his home adjacent to the course's third fairway, he constantly tinkered with its design until his death in 1948. The course has hosted scores of important championships, most recently the 1999 U.S. Open won by Payne Stewart shortly before his untimely death, and the 2005 Open won by New Zealander Michael Campbell.

The impressive entrance to The Carolina

Ross's reputation helped immeasurably in enhancing Pinehurst's fame as a golf mecca. The resort has built three more courses in the last thirty years. We decided to play course numbers 4, 2, 8, 1, and 7 respectively. Our afternoon game Thursday on number 4 started under gray moisture laden skies and conditions gradually worsened as we made our way around. Rain suits were the order of the day. We played with two guys from Connecticut, Pierre and Scott. Scott was going to be leaving for Detroit that evening to see the UConn Huskies in the NCAA semifinals. A unique aspect of golf is that players are often forced into spending the better part of their day with complete strangers. Yet what seems tailor-made to be an awkward experience almost unfailingly winds up being a good one. Our game with Scott and Pierre was pleasant enough but I had an incident with Scott which I let put me in melt-down mode. Scott hit a good shot pin-high on a hard-to-gauge downhill par three over water and casually mentioned that he had "hit his 160 yard club." I should have paid no attention to that aside, but I did and accordingly hit my 160 yard club- a 6 iron. I nailed it flush only to watch the ball descend into the pond several yards short of the opposite bank. I turned to Scott and not so kiddingly spat out , "You deked [decoyed] me!" I doubt he purposely misled me, but I let the misclub get to me and blamed Scott for my troubles. I triple-bogied that hole and doubled the next. I suppose I was pouting rather childishly. When I continued to fume in the cart, Lisa "took me to the woodshed," and told me to "get over it," and that it was entirely my fault for paying the slightest attention to what Scott had to say about club selection. I eventually shook off my displeasure, but my card had long since been ruined. Maybe that is part of golf spring training- increase your mental toughness. I confess I was not exhibiting the required toughness this particular day.

Lisa, a 29 handicapper, kept a sunny disposition as the downpour increased in volume over the closing holes and shot 109- a respectable score on a tough course on a brutal day. I am currently an 8 handicap. I was as low as 4 last year. Suffice it to say my 92 blows was my worst score in quite some time. Strangely, I managed to score that high despite good driving. I fanned all my irons out to the right and could not buy a putt. Only the flask of scotch which we kept handy in the bag provided liquid solace. Later, a sumptuous feast at the Holly Inn helped soothe our aching bodies and restore my flagging spirit.

Friday was slated to be the highlight of our trip - Pinehurst Number 2. But when it rained all night and into the dawn, Lisa was leaning toward scrubbing the round and hitting the spa. But at 8 AM, the storm blew out and the sun made a belated appearance and then stayed for the rest of our trip. So after The Carolina's tasty buffet breakfast, we shuttled over to the quick-drying course for our 9 AM tee time and met our caddy, Dave Blair, as well as our playing partners for the day- Sue and Ed from Cleveland. If you ever play Number 2, please take a caddy! It is the only way to really experience the full ambience of the place, and it is a great walking course. And you will need help reading the treacherous greens which fall off on all sides much like an inverted saucer. Blair, a Virginia native, had that slow Virginia- gentleman way of talking and it seemed to relax me and my swing. I carded 38 on the front nine with three birdies. My irons finally were right on target though my putting continued to spoil things as two three putts kept me from shooting an even better front.

Lisa clocked right along hitting consistent shots until she was hailing the green from 80 yards or so away, but her short irons let her down. I continued to play well on the back nine until a chunked 7 iron shot on hole 14 cost me a double-bogey, More three putts followed as I was unable to roll the putts on the lines that Dave patiently and correctly gave me. A solid par on the difficult 18th salved my feelings a little, but the final tally was 81- obviously two shots above what I was looking for. Lisa had a chance to break 50 on the back nine but mistakes on the final hole did her in. Still, a great experience at Number 2!

After the round, Lisa told me that she was fully aware she was playing a great course, and that it was a memorable experience - more so than playing Number 4. But, she wondered what exactly makes Number 2 a more notable course than Number 4 which is also beautiful and difficult? Are we overly influenced by Number 2's storied history and major championship pedigree? That's obviously a big part of the course's allure, but there is more. It is just such fun to play and all shots are visually interesting and challenging even though there is virtually no water and little chance of hitting the ball entirely out of play. (In fact, caddy Dave guaranteed that no ball would be lost under his watch!) In that sense, Number 2 is a classic course in the vein of St. Andrews where Ross apprenticed.

Thereafter, Lisa visited the spa for a deep tissue massage to ease her aching back while I chilled out with a scotch in our very comfortable room.

The "Putter Boy" symbol of Pinehurst

We played Number 8 designed by Tom Fazio on Saturday morning. The two fellows, Pete & Pat, we were playing with wanted to play the blue tees. Selection of tee markers tends to bring ego into play. I succumbed to their wishes and I probably should not have. I actually kept the ball in play all day, but pars were hard to come by what with the length of the layout coupled with my ever-poor putting. One of the fellows had no business playing the tips.

Several of the resort's employees who play golf (why else would they relocate to Pinehurst?) told us that Number 8 is their favorite. It was definitely a good test, but after the round I could only recall a couple of the holes. I have been told that the best test of a course's greatness is whether you can remember all the holes after the first time you play it. We toughed out a second Saturday round on Number 1 which is comparatively shorter and easier. I blew a 6 footer on the last hole which I needed to break 80. Lisa for the first time on the trip complained about being overgolfed. We ate dinner The Carolina's bar where we were able to watch the NCAA semifinal games. I had difficulty suppressing a smirk after Scott's Huskies went down to Michigan State. Was it God's payback for decoying me?

The bronze likeness of Payne Stewart celebrating his winning putt at the '99 U.S. Open inspires golfers playing the 18th hole at Number 2.

Sunday we took the first tee time at 8 AM on Number 7 so that we could get on the road back to Columbus in a timely manner. We played with Roger and Pat, a nice couple from Connecticut. My ball striking was good enough to shoot 77 but I turned it into 84 with more wretched putting including four consecutive three putts. My handicap is going to go further north. Lisa scored a rare birdie on a par three with a screaming five wood followed by a six foot putt which was center-cut all the way. Both of us preferred Number 7 to Number 8. It was a fitting end to a great golf trip.

A highlight of our trip back home was our stop at Ben's Ice Cream
Our big golf trip of the season will be coming up when we leave for Scotland on April 30. Lisa and I will both be playing in the Ayrshire Golf Classic. Much more later on that.

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