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|The par-5 first hole at Pine Needles Lodge and Golf Club plays uphill and is 488 yards. (Brandon Tucker/WorldGolf.com)|
SOUTHERN PINES, N.C. - These are two cardinal rules of playing a Donald Ross golf course, whether back in 1928 when he unveiled his masterpiece at Pine Needles Lodge and Golf Club, or on a brisk mid-December 2008 day when I was allowed to tread these hallowed Pinehurst-area golf links:
1. Do not hit a short-iron approach to the back of the green when the hole is cut in the middle or front of said green.
2. Do not fire at a back pin placement and have your ball carry past said pin placement and over the green.
So guess what?
After a perfect layup at the par 5 first hole, a subtle dogleg right that quickly ascends as you near the green, I misjudged a down wind sand wedge and faced a 50-foot two-putt for par.
Trying to two-putt from that distance on a Ross green is like trying to land the space shuttle on Lombard Street in San Francisco. Let's just say I was happy with three whacks and a bogey.
At No. 2, a 430-yard downhill par 4, I ripped a career hybrid right at a flagstick stuck in the back-middle of a wide green. I was posing in the same fairway many of the LPGA legends have stood during the three U.S. Women's Opens and many other significant tournaments that have been hosted here ... the same fairway I later viewed as a blueprint at the Tufts Archives, which houses many of Ross' original field sketches.
I was still posing when I thought I saw the ball stop about six feet behind the hole. "Man, what a birdie this would be," I said to myself as I headed for the cart.
Instead, the ball had skipped to the back fringe and caught one of the infamous Ross slopes and trickled into a half-rough, half-shaved area where he expects you to use your imagination, skill, versatility and guile in creating and executing the proper shot.
In other words, put me down for a double-bogey.
It's called getting Ross-ed, and there's no shame in it. In fact, there's a joy and reverence involved with playing such pure courses as Pine Needles.
Everything revolves around Ross' famous crowned greens that fall off every which way. At the long par 4s and par 3s, the greens are larger and undulations aren't usually as severe. The shorter holes might give you a break of the tee, but the greens are typically smaller and more treacherous.
"Ross tries to trick you with his round greens," says Greg Austin, president of Pinehurst-based AME Golf and a PGA Professional who was my tour guide during the week. "It makes it harder to read, but you've really got to look off the green at the high and low points and really think about the lay of the land."
It's a defense system Ross pioneered, and arguably nobody has come close to mastering since. Indeed, it's impossible to pick a favorite hole at Pine Needles. All 18 fit the terrain as though it was only a matter of mowing the tee boxes, fairways and greens and teeing it up. That's the genius of Ross, a Scot, who likened the Sandhills area of North Carolina to his homeland, where he began his career as an apprentice to Old Tom Morris.
Maybe that's why Donald Ross golf courses bring out the best in champions. Pines Needles hosted the 1996, 2001 and 2007 U.S. Women's Open, and the winners reflect some of the game's greats at the height of their powers: Annika Sorenstam, Karrie Webb and Cristie Kerr.
Not a bad stretch to boost the profile of a club with an already stellar reputation. Kelly Miller, president of Pine Needles and affiliated Mid Pines Inn and Golf Club located across the street, told me he has already invited the USGA back for a fourth Women's Open in 2016 or 2017.
"What it's done, relatively speaking, is to allow us to stay busy all the time," Miller says. "When people make a decision where they want to play, they say, oh, I remember that course. The credibility that gives you from an event like a U.S. Open is priceless."
That pretty much also describes a package visit to Pine Needles, particularly if you book the Ross Cottage, a four-bedroom, fully-stocked hacienda with its own secluded practice range outside the back door. You can literally fall out of bed and hit balls while overlooking the property.
Such a prodigious golf course tends to intimidate, but everything has a comfortable feel at Pine Needles. From the roof that covers the tees at the driving range - shade from the sun and shelter from the rain - to the sunken bar area in one of the coziest clubhouses you'll ever see, there's nothing pretentious about the place. You might even meet Peggy Kirk Bell at some point, too. She's a legend in women's golf, a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame, her house overlooks the 18th green, and as owners, her family runs Pine Needles and Mid Pines.
You'll get great overall shot variety on every hole. There's always something to consider with a true Ross design. His doglegs feel different - perfectly angled, sharp and clean, his twists and turns reward precise shots with sweet looks at the greens. Small bunkers, large bunkers, huge waste bunkers with clumps of fescue - you'll get basically everything golf designers have used ever since Ross became the father of architecture more than a century ago.
Wait until you hit No. 3, a postcard par 3 over a tranquil pond to a green tilted back toward the water. Motorists often pull over on the adjacent road to take a picture of the hole.
Or No. 5, a long par 3 from a set of tiered tee boxes through a chute of pine trees to a green set at the top of a sandhill.
Or No. 10, a par 5 from another tiered tee box overlooking a lake. A sharp dogleg left takes you to a green set back in the sandhills.
Want classic Ross?
There's No. 13, a par 3 that requires a 180-yard shot to a green set deep in a hollow.
Or No. 14, a perfect dogleg right. Or No. 17, a 432-yard par 4, but a visually deceptive hole that you can shorten by playing to the left side of big fairway and challenging the huge bunker, where the dogleg turns left. It's intimidating, but it rewards good shots.
Or No. 18, a sweeping, downhill par 4, dogleg left, which takes you past Bell's house to a prototypical crowned Ross green.
Simply put, Pine Needles Lodge and Golf Club is an American classic.
For help in planning a golf vacation to Pinehurst, visit ResortsGolfAndSpas.com or call 800-767-3574.
December 16, 2008
Veteran golf writer Tom Spousta keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation. He has covered golf and other sports for USA Today and The New York Times. Tom lives on a Donald Ross-designed golf course in Sarasota, Fla.
Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.
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