PINEHURST, N.C. – July in North Carolina is just about as far as you can get from Christmas.
Until you open the box of bath soap marked “Pine Blend” that awaits every sweaty golfer in the shower in a Pinehurst Resort room, and the aromas of pine and cinnamon put you straight into the holiday spirit. Even when both the scenery (lush, green) and the weather (hot, humid) are in peak summer form.
It’s an appropriate feeling to invoke, because few places in golf conjure the giddy excitement of the holiday season, its focus on family togetherness and the general sense that any visit at any time of year is a special and timeless occasion like Pinehurst Resort.
Sure, Pinehurst is one of America’s foremost destinations for buddy trips and golf-focused business getaways. But in many cases, buddies span generations. The resort’s commitment to kid-friendliness is serious: junior golfers under 17 play for free with Mom and Dad. More than at nearly any other big-time golf resort, visitors to Pinehurst notice kids enjoying the courses and practice facilities alongside adults at all times. That sight is enough to make any golfer nostalgic and grateful for the game’s lifelong companionship.
The last time I played golf at Pinehurst was when I was 16 years old, in 2006. My reason for being there way-back-when was another key part of the resort’s excellence: its status as a hub for competitive golf at all levels. The resort’s famed North & South Amateur Championship dates back to 1901. In the century since, it has added prestigious events for ladies, juniors and seniors. That heritage will only grow in 2024, when the USGA opens its new Golf House on property, formalizing a legacy of major-championship golf that dates back decades.
I returned to Pinehurst this past July, which one might think would be a slow time of year. But there is no real slow time at a property that encompasses 11 golf experiences: nine “big” courses plus the 9-hole Cradle par-3 course and the Thistle Dhu putting course. The day before I arrived, Emilia Migliaccio won the North & South Women’s Amateur, defeating Megan Schofil in the final match. And during my trip, the No. 6 course played host to the USGA’s inaugural U.S. Adaptive Open, a groundbreaking competitive event that shows how inclusive the game can be. The constant thrum of activity around the resort and the Village of Pinehurst is an ongoing reminder of the sky-high golf quotient of the place.
While standing proudly on the past, Pinehurst is also pursuing a foothold on the future. The resort is seemingly constantly working on some project, eager to keep up with the times and compete with its peer group of resorts for heads in beds and feet on fairways.
The biggest current initiative is a piecemeal renovation of its centerpiece lodgings, The Carolina Hotel. A grande dame golf hotel if ever there was one, The Carolina dates to 1901, with a stately white facade and striking copper cupola and roof. Half of its 230 rooms have been updated in the last year, with new fixtures and improved infrastructure that positions them well for the next 120. The lobby and common areas are getting similar treatment now, and then the other half of the rooms will get their facelift before the 2024 U.S. Open and U.S. Women’s Open come to town. Respect for history being part of the Pinehurst ethos, you can be sure that the “new” Carolina will still feel like a place people have enjoyed for more than a century.
As iconic as The Carolina is, it’s still a hotel. People flock to Pinehurst for the golf, which is the best expression of the resort’s fusion of the classic and the modern.
Forever at the top of the Pinehurst pyramid is No. 2, Donald Ross’ masterpiece, which he refined throughout the latter half of his life. Its iconic raised greens and perpetually slightly off-kilter playing angles help cement its status as one of the country’s greatest tests of golf. With minimal elevation change and little in the way of dramatic scenery, it extracts every available ounce of intrigue out of its acreage. Bill Coore & Ben Crenshaw’s 2010 restoration efforts brought back the sandy, scrubby rough that the course originally possessed, which in the last decade-plus has inspired similar turf reduction efforts at countless other courses. The fairways bounce, run and crackle around their minimally irrigated edges, bringing the principles of the game Ross learned in Dornoch, Scotland into the new world. Now more than ever, it is a bucket-list experience for any student of the game.
I knew I was going to love my return to No. 2, but I did not expect how much I would enjoy the No. 4 course, especially in comparison. Overhauled by Gil Hanse in 2019, No. 4 is essentially a new course built over the general routing of a Ross course that was modernized by Robert Trent Jones, Sr. in 1973 and later by Tom Fazio in 1999. Sitting on more dramatic land than No. 2, it has the distinct feel of great British heathland courses like Sunningdale and St. George’s Hill while integrating the Southern sandhills scenery and textures. Big fairways and diverse, rollicking greens amp up the potential for both glory and disaster.
Once golfers head out from the clubhouse area and crest a hill in the second fairway, the majority of the course unfolds before them, giving a glimpse of the total journey they’ll be making. This sort of preview only adds to the sense of accomplishment golfers feel when tackling such a course, especially on foot. No. 4 is only a few years old at this point, but it revives long-dormant golfing pleasures in a way that will engage the newer generations of golfers going forward.
More than the resurrection of No. 2 and the re-envisioning of No. 4, though, Pinehurst’s crowning future-facing achievement of the current century is arguably The Cradle, its nine-hole par-3 layout on what amounts to the main golf facility’s front yard. It is the first thing every visitor sees upon walking by the bag drop. Whereas No. 2 is a serious examination, The Cradle is a slap on the back, where Hanse’s team routed holes in an out-and-back zigzag where the first hole of the No. 5 course used to sit. In the middle of The Cradle is the Cradle Crossing, a busy hilltop bar slinging cocktails and even course-specific merchandise (Pinehurst is unparalleled in this regard) to giddy golfers. The amount of good cheer it packs into its relatively tiny footprint is astounding.
Pinehurst Resort: notes and tips for visitors
- Pinehurst’s growing popularity has prompted some restriction to how golfers may access its top courses. No. 2 and No. 4 are only bookable by overnight resort guests nowadays.
- Often overlooked, Pinehurst No. 1 is a delightful companion to the heavyweight tests the resort offers up. Originally built pre-1900 and tipping out at 6,000 yards, it gives some glimpses into the Victorian era of golf, with odd tilts, mounds and small greens that look simple but are challenging in their own way.
- In similar fashion, No. 5 is a fun counterpoint to the even-numbered brutes. Architect Ellis Maples, was a protégé of Donald Ross’, and routed the course nicely to take advantage of some attractively precarious greensites.
- I didn’t get a chance to play No. 3, but I am very excited to remedy that on a future trip.
- More modern courses off the main campus provide a bit of a counterpoint to the classic-styled golf for those who desire. No. 7 is a challenging, hilly Rees Jones course, while the somewhat gentler, Tom Fazio-designed No. 8 is fresh off a summer-long project that included the installation of new grass on the greens and rebuilds to each of its bunkers.
- Despite its sprawling, multi-site nature, Pinehurst Resort is easy to get around. There’s a constant flow of shuttle buses to take you where you need to go, and they run until 1 a.m. each night.
- The Pinehurst Brewing Company, added to the resort’s portfolio in 2018, is a go-to evening hang. Good beer, excellent barbecue and a strong sense of camaraderie come together in a space that used to be the village power plant.
- I never knew how good brussels sprouts could be until I tried them as an appetizer, and then as a side item, at lunch at The Deuce, the pub restaurant on-site at Pinehurst’s main golf complex.
- As mentioned earlier, no facility or resort gives golfers more potential physical reminders of their time than Pinehurst. Courses No. 2, No. 3, No. 4 and The Cradle have their own branded merchandise that can be bought in the vast pro shop, as well as free tees with the courses’ logos. The Cradle Crossing must be the only short course bar in the world that also supplies its own branded pitch mark tools and ball markers.