Adam Lawrence was impressed by John Fought's restoration of this Donald Ross classic.
Don't be fooled into thinking that Donald Ross's legacy to the North Carolina Sandhills region lies just at the Pinehurst resort itself. Ross lived in the area for much of his last 40 years, and as well as continually tweaking Pinehurst #2, he built several other golf courses, each with their own virtues.
Many view Pine Needles, five miles down the road from Pinehurs #2, as the next best course in the area. Ross built it for the Tufts family, the owners of the main resort, in 1928. Acquired by the Bell family in 1953, the course remains in the same hands today. It has hosted many tournaments, including successful US Women's Opens in 1996 and 2001. Over the years, however, the course had been allowed to slip away from Ross's original design, and with the Women's Open scheduled to return in 2007, some work was needed. So the owners hired architect John Fought to restore the golf course to its former glory.
Fought's work – which GCA saw at first hand on a tour of the course with the architect – has produced a course which is highly respectful of the original work of Donald Ross, but which, with significant added length, makes the golf course a real challenge for modern golfers of all standards.Massive tree removal has created an open, spacious feel – lost balls are a rarity round Pine Needles – and has enabled the golfer to experience the huge property on which the golf course sits to better effect.
The course's greens – which Fought describes as being like slightly less dramatic versions of Pinehurst #2, as many are crowned and have significant fallaways – have been recontoured to match Ross's original plans. Excavations revealed the original green profiles, and Fought says these have largely been restored. "Most of the greens had shrunk over the years, so we expanded them back to their original sizes. That restored many fantastic pin positions, and made putting much more challenging," he explains.
Perhaps the most dramatic work took place at the tenth hole, among the course's most famous. A well-known photograph shows Donald Ross testing his work on this par five hole, driving over the lake from the elevated tee with a challenging bunker at the corner of the dog-leg. But, at only 465 yards, this hole had become too short for a modern par five, and the lack of room behind the tee made adding length to the drive problematic.
Fought's solution was to make a new green around 65 yards further back. He believes this was very much in the spirit of Ross's work, as a perfect green site was sitting in the trees behind the existing green. "I can't believe Ross would not have put the green there if he was around today," he says. Uphill, the 529 yard hole plays as originally intended – the golfer who managed to fly the corner bunker with his tee shot, or play a running draw around it, will have a good chance to get home in two, but the generous restored fairway to the right allows for a more cautious approach.
Extra length at many other holes has been achieved through new back tees, although the forward tees remain in position, allowing the golfer to play off Ross's markers if he so desires. Fought says that tee positioning was crucial, as Ross's routing on the rolling property made extensive use of ridges and crests within the fairways. "On lots of the holes, you get a huge benefit by driving to the top of a ridge," he says. "Extra length was needed so it remained challenging to do that." On the sixth hole, for example, a new back tee stretches the hole to 473 yards, and makes the top of the hill a very elusive target. As the architect demonstrated, though, a strong drive that reaches the crest will open up the difficult green.
More work was carried out to the 14th and 15th holes. Hole 14, originally a long par four, had been altered to become a par five, because hole 15, a par five on Ross's course, had been chopped down into an unsatisfactory par four when land sales caused by the Depression allowed a house to be built close to the back tee. That house is now gone, and the fifteenth has been restored to par five status. It is, says Fought, a far better hole that way. "The bunkering made no sense as a par four," he explains. "But once we identified a new tee, the location of the bunkers all fell into place." The fourteenth, a sharp dogleg to the right, requires a precise drive to open up the green. To the right of the fairway, as this writer discovered, leaves no shot.
The sharply downhill finishing hole is one that Fought would love to be able to restore more fully. Originally the first (the course routing was changed when the large hotel was sold), a ruined cabin, presumably the first clubhouse, lies in the trees behind the existing tee. Fought says the hole would play better if the tee could be returned to this position, but unfortunately the ownership of the property precludes this at the moment.
Nevertheless, launching a drive down the hill on this 438 yard hole is a highly satisfying feeling, but even with a wedge in hand, hitting the green is no pushover.
With the flag back left, a wicked slope will catch an approach that shoots for the pin but doesn't quite hit the spot, and the pitch from the hollow below is extremely difficult.
Playing firm and very fast, Pine Needles doesn't feel like an unreasonably long golf course. Most greens are open in front, and the firm conditions make the run-up shot often a very sensible choice. The recontoured greens offer all the challenge the golfer might wish. This is a splendid piece of work: John Fought should be congratulated. But, as he says, the real credit goes to Donald Ross.
This article first appeared in issue 5 of Golf Course Architecture, published July 2006.