Much has been said and written about the fabled Donald Ross plateau greens of Pinehurst No. 2. And yet, the greens of Pinehurst No. 2 are not truly Ross greens.
Technology and a bulldozer gone awry in the seventies changed the course of architectural history. Although Ross incorporated some very aggressive contours into the putting surfaces, those rolls were balanced by large enough putting surfaces to accommodate the heady slopes. The greens were never intended to be as slick and small as they have become.
Most young golfers today are accustomed to letting the club do the work, relying less on feel than players of the past. The US Amateur Championship, played this summer on Ross' course was a great study in contrast between the machine-like precision of the modern golfer and the unpredictability of No. 2's plateau greens. Another interesting contrast is between how the Amateur contestant and the regular golfer approach such greens once a missed approach settles in an inevitable low.
Participants in the US Amateur are certainly more talented than most guests who tread the 'Home of American Golf.' They eat, sleep, and dream golf like us, but have one major advantage we lack: time to practice. And when it comes to the short game, practice makes all the difference. It allows the talented golfer to perfect a specific type of shot he can rely on repeatedly. While effective for the golfer, this can potentially inhibit the creativity needed to adapt to a variety of design challenges. The golf course architect's job is to create such variety and the challenge that comes with it.
There are basically two schools of thought regarding the short game – keep the ball as close to the ground as possible, or pitch it high and spin it close. A key issue is how tight a lie the golfer has – a ball sitting on cushiony grass will allow the average player to spin a shot with a wedge more so than a ball laying on top. of a billiard table. In the latter case, most golfers will putt the ball or use a bump and run. The more talented the player, the more likely he is to be able to spin a wedge off a tight lie. This is typical of the US Amateur contestant, each of whom is plenty capable of pulling off a complicated spinning pitch.
From the start of strokeplay on Monday at the Amateur, the more aggressive spinning pitch was pervasive among the majority of the 312 qualifiers, because rains had left Pinehurst wet and soft. But as matchplay began and the grounds dried out, it became more difficult to control spin. As the greens got drier, chips into those greens got lower and lower. By the end of the week, the putter was the overwhelming choice for those golfers still in the running for the Havemeyer Trophy. "When I got here the greens were a little softer, so I was throwing it up top and trying to spin it a bit, but as soon as it started drying up I went with putting a bit more," finalist Drew Kittleson told me.
The two losing semi-finalists had similar game plans as Amateur week progressed. Both members of the University of Georgia golf team, Adam Mitchell and Patrick Reed arrived in Pinehurst with the intention of 'dancing with the one that brought them' – the same high degree wedge they use everywhere else. They soon realised what Pinehurst No. 2 was all about. "My strategy changed over the week. I started out just with my lob wedge. Now I'm going with my putter," admitted Mitchell.
Why the lob wedge to putter transition? "Just getting it rolling to minimise my mistakes," he said. "The putter has been good in matchplay by keeping it low to the ground." It's obvious that elevated putting surfaces rolling into low surrounds will result in a tough up and down. Why was the spinning pitch not very effective on the 'turtleback' greens of Pinehurst No. 2? Certainly, it is a riskier shot. A more conservative low-to-the-ground shot has more room for error than a spinning pitch: typically, one's worst putt is usually better than one's best pitch. With a spinning pitch, the golfer has to rely on hitting the pitch far enough, make sure the slope is approached correctly, and hope the ball spins as planned. A low bump just has distance and direction as requisites.
Rolling contours have an enormous effect on the golf shot. If a shot is flat from start to finish, there is nothing to go over. But if there is a four foot swale, one is faced with both downhill and uphill slopes. At that point the options become numerous: pitch over the swale; putt or chip through it; or chip to the downhill side, the swale bottom, or the uphill side.
With the challenge of highs versus lows between the golfer and ball, the golf architect can introduce a sense of urgency to the shot and demand more thought.
Elevation change allows for a variety of options that don't exist with a flat chip elsewhere. The infinite variety of elevation changes is the only tool the golf architect needs to create short game challenge. The vast choice of landforms to achieve elevation change makes said tool very diverse.
For the most part, Drew Kittleson kept his short game choices to putter and sixty degree wedge. As medal led into matchplay, his choices were less about the ground and more about the circumstances. He lost the final match despite chipping in for eagle on the seventh hole. By then, Kittleson's opponent had forced him to abandon his low to the ground strategy for any hope of victory. He chose his wedge for a relatively straightforward ten yard uphill chip, landing the ball three feet on the green and spinning it into the cup.
In earlier rounds, he would have been more conservative with his putter, but there he needed more than a simple up and down.
At the end of the day, no matter what the talent level is, one still needs to make putts. The one golfer who defied the trends to keep the ball low to the ground throughout the week just happened to win. New Zealander Danny Lee blew away the field riding a hot putter all the way. Because of his putting and superior ball striking, he successfully used his wedge to get up and down all week long.
"I don't use my putter around the green. I use my 58 degree wedge and try to stop the ball as quickly as possible," the eighteen year-old Kiwi told me. Of course, repeatedly draining twenty footers makes a tough pitch less risky! One of the hallmarks of a great golf course is that all talent levels can find success within their own comfort zones.
On Pinehurst No. 2, there is a place for the risky spin shot for those looking to score. But for pure enjoyment and consistency the putter is the wise choice for the average golfer. The course's greens accommodate both strategies better than most venues because of the infinite variety of options the highs and lows afford.
Richard Mandell is a golf course architect based in Pinehurst. He is the author of Pinehurst: Home of American Golf. To learn more about the book, click here.
This article first appeared in issue 15 of Golf Course Architecture, published in January 2009.