Pinehurst Lookback: The Pros Swing Through
By Lee Pace
VILLAGE OF PINEHURST, N.C. – The cornerstone was laid in March 1900, when renowned English golf professional Harry Vardon visited Pinehurst as part of a tour that would culminate with his victory in the sixth U.S. Open at Chicago Golf Club in the fall.
Vardon played four rounds over the original Pinehurst golf course that measured 5,203 yards and featured putting surfaces made of clay and sand. His best score was a 71 and The Pinehurst Outlook account of the visit credited him with drives of up to 240 yards.
“His visit was Pinehurst’s first taste of big-time golf, the flavor was good and the resort wanted more,” noted Richard Tufts, the grandson of resort founder James Walker Tufts, years later.
From that moment on, competitions featuring the finest golfers from America and abroad have been a bedrock of the Pinehurst experience. Walter Hagen and Tommy Armour won the North & South Open in the first half of the 1900s. Ben Hogan collected his first professional win at Pinehurst in 1940. The PGA Championship and Ryder Cup Matches have been contested on No. 2. And U.S. Open champions Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Hale Irwin, Johnny Miller and Raymond Floyd were winners of a PGA Tour event at Pinehurst in the 1970s.
“I have talked to every player, and there is nobody disappointed in having Pinehurst No. 2 back in the world of golf in the way it has been through its history,” PGA Tour Commissioner Deane Beman said upon pro golf’s return to the village in the North Carolina Sandhills for the 1991 and ’92 Tour Championships. “This is a very special place. It is not going to disappoint anyone. It is an absolute delight to be here.”
After Pinehurst built its first 18-hole course in 1898, Tufts, with the help of a savvy advertising agent, created North & South competitions in Open and amateur classifications and for men and women as a means to attract guests and garner publicity. The North & South Open ran from 1902 until 1951, and was loosely considered a major at the time, along with the U.S. and British Opens and Amateurs, the Western Open and the PGA Championship. It was won by noted players such as Hagen, Horton Smith, Paul Runyan, Henry Picard, Byron Nelson and Sam Snead.
Hogan was eight years on the pro tour without a victory as an individual and on the brink of chucking it all when he broke through with a wire-to-wire win at Pinehurst in 1940. The next week he won at Greensboro and followed that with a victory in Asheville. His Hall of Fame career had been ignited into high gear.
“The North & South had an immediate atmosphere of class and elegance,” historian and journalist Dan Jenkins wrote in Golf Digest in 1990. “Dress for dinner, veranda stuff. In fact, the North & South was the Masters before there was a Masters (1934) and for many years before the Masters finally out-Southerned the North & South.”
Scottish architect Donald Ross arrived at his final configuration for No. 2 in a 1935-36 overhaul and converted the greens from sand to bermudagrass, in time for the playing of the 1936 PGA Championship, which Denny Shute captured with a 3-and-2 win over Jimmy Thomson. Fifteen years later, The PGA of America returned to conduct its biennial Ryder Cup Matches, with the United States team led by Hogan, Snead and Jimmy Demaret winning easily over Great Britain and Ireland, 9.5 to 2.5.
Richard Tufts disbanded the North and South Open after the 1951 event in a pique over the professionals’ demands for more purse money, and not coincidentally, to devote more time and resources to Pinehurst’s position as a bastion for amateur golf. The North & South Amateur for men and women continues today, as do the North and South Senior Amateur and Women’s Senior Amateur, which were launched in 1952 and 1958, respectively.
The Diamondhead Corp., which purchased Pinehurst Resort & Country Club on Dec. 31, 1970, moved quickly to rectify its absence from the pro golf schedule by creating a novel event in 1973 – the 144-hole World Open, played on courses No. 2 and 4 for an unprecedented purse of $500,000, with $100,000 to the winner. Miller Barber won by three shots over a Tour rookie named Ben Crenshaw, who would return as a golf architect nearly four decades later to team with partner Bill Coore in restoring Course No. 2 course to its 1930s “golden era.”
The World Open was shortened to the standard 72 holes in 1974 and that tournament was used as the anchor for the week-long grand opening celebration of the World Golf Hall of Fame, a $2.5 million edifice of expansive exhibit halls surrounded by water fountains, all nestled in the pines behind the fourth green and fifth tee of Course No. 2. President Gerald Ford presided over the induction of the 13 charter members of the Hall of Fame. All eight living inductees showed up: Hogan, Snead, Nelson, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Gene Sarazen, Patty Berg and Nicklaus. Honored posthumously were Bob Jones, Walter Hagen, Francis Ouimet, Harry Vardon and Babe Zaharias. Johnny Miller edged Nicklaus, Bob Murphy and Frank Beard in a playoff for the tournament win.
The subsequent Colgate Hall of Fame Classic, later known as the Hall of Fame Classic, ran for eight years and was held in either August or September – the worst time for competitive golf on No. 2. The newly converted bentgrass greens were soft due to the water required by the hot summers, which allowed Irwin to shoot a 62 in 1977 and Miller a 63 in 1974 in their tournament victories. The event died a slow death in the early 1980s due to bad dates, no television and lack of corporate sponsorship.
The era of ClubCorp ownership under Robert Dedman began in 1984 after half a decade of financial stress on Diamondhead and the banks that later controlled the resort, and Dedman and his team worked hard and invested considerable sums to return the golf courses and resort infrastructure to prime condition. The PGA Tour’s return for the 1991-92 Tour Championships was an audition in the eyes of USGA officials, who had been invited by that time to consider No. 2 as a U.S. Open site.
“I knew that first Tour Championship would be an important test for No. 2’s mettle as an Open venue,” said David Fay, the USGA executive director at the time. “I knew after watching golf for two days that week that it would hold up fine.”
Craig Stadler won the ’91 event and Paul Azinger followed the next year, and it was an appropriate reintroduction of Pinehurst No. 2 to a new generation of pro golfer.
“I’ve never played Pine Valley, but this is as tough as I’ve seen,” Azinger said. “It’s a great course. Take the ball down low, take it up high. Chip the ball with your sand wedge, with your 7-iron. Pitch off a tight lie. Putt from off the green. It’s just really hard. This is the way golf was meant to be played.”
The USGA agreed, awarding Pinehurst No. 2 the 1999 Open in 1993. Now the stage is set for its third U.S. Open in 15 years.
“You can call Pinehurst a home of golf in the United States,” said USGA Executive Director Mike Davis. “It’s really a national treasure.”
Part of the reason it is viewed that way are the dozens of professional events held at Pinehurst over the course of its 116-year history, which helped to spread the word about this special place in the Sandhills.
Chapel Hill, N.C., writer Lee Pace has written three books on the history of Pinehurst and its golf courses, most recently “The Golden Age of Pinehurst—The Story of the Rebirth of No. 2.”