Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Priced Out of Pinehurst

James Tufts decided to build a resort in the scruffy Carolina pine barrens back in 1895.

The soda fountain magnate envisioned Pinehurst as a vacation mecca for the common man. The golf courses and other attractions would serve those “who require the beneficial effect of a winter in the South, but cannot afford the usual high price for accommodations.” Tufts hired the great golf architect Donald Ross for the courses and the even more famous landscape designer Frederick Law Olmstead to lay out Pinehurst village.

But the resort is anything but a bargain now a century later.

You’ll need to break open your piggy bank and raid your retirement fund if you want to take a shot at Pinehurst today. I was amazed to learn just how much it costs to play the fabled No. 2 course on a trip last week. The green fee – and this in the cold gray winter low season – is a whopping $375. A caddy costs another $45 – and a $40 or so tip for your man. That’ll be a grand total of $455 for the privilege of teeing off on No. 2, the Chateau Mouton-Rothschild of golf courses at least by price.

The funny little secret is that the course itself is not that good. It just made the Golf.com top ten list of overrated coures in America, and deservedly so. Although I always admire the 1920s Arts and Crafts-era grace to every Donald Ross design, there’s nothing extraordinary about Pinehurst No. 2. The layout is ungainly, curling as it does around the driving range on the back nine with several holes strangely disjointed in their isolation from one another. At Pebble Beach, you get the divine ocean holes for your $400. Here there’s just the loblolly pines and the pale blue Carolina sky. “The trouble with Pinehurst,” as Ben Hogan said, “is that when you try to think of one great hole, you can’t.Nothing jumps to mind.”

It’s the green complexes that the pundits cite as the greatness of Pinehurst No. 2, and the genius of Ross. Yet as golf architecture critic Ron Whitten notes in a fine article, these trademark turtleback surfaces were never part of Ross’s design. It was only decades of accumulated top-dressing – and the bulldozing and sculpting of subsequent redesigns – that elevated the putting surfaces to their present exaggerated contours.

Nor do the green complexes make for especially interesting golf. When I splurged to play No. 2 eight years ago (it cost an already exorbitant $225 back then), it was clear enough that precision with your irons was required. A miss on almost any hole leads the ball to roll straight down off into the collection area that surrounds each green. But all the endless hyperbole about how the course “tests all aspects of your short game” is just that. The shots that one is left with are quite similar and monotonous. Typically, you have to get the ball up from the closely mown collection area back onto the green, whether flipping it up with wedge or, as the less steady among us are advised, running it up with a putter. It's the same shot over and over again -- the tight lie, the 100 foot or so distance. They’re not easy, but they don’t demand any great variety of short game virtuosity.

Precisely, one suspects, because the course itself is not so special, the Pinehurst resort owners play up its history at every opportunity. The clubhouse is stuffed with old photographs of former champions; and the bronze statues of Ross, Tufts, and the more recent legend Payne Stewart also pluck at the mystic chords of heritage and nostalgia. And consider Pinehurst President Donald Padgett II's greeting to visiting golfers printed in the No.2 yardage book: “Shots by Ouimet, Hogan, Nicklaus, Palmer and Stewart still echo down the fairways. Pinehurst has welcomed some of the greatest names in golf.Now, yours is one of them. Thank you for celebrating with us.” Celebrate away, that is, once you’ve plunked down the $375 green fee and, Padgett also hopes, dropped hundreds more spending a night or two at the resort’s also dreadfully overpriced Carolina Hotel. Got heritage? Yup, but don't forget to bring that credit card along. Platinum only, please.

And that heritage is itself predictably selective. You’d never know that a Pinehurst statute once barred from owning property “any person of Jewish or Negro descent and lineage.” Or that black maids were not even allowed to clean the hotel rooms of white guests until 1960.Donald Ross himself kept black caddies in line. When one suggested forming a union, as Bradley Klein recounts in his Discovering Donald Ross, the old Scotsmen whacked him with a five iron. The ugly side of Jim Crow Pinehurst vanishes altogether in all the sepia celebration of resort traditions.

Even today, most African Americans at Pinehurst are maids, waiters, doormen, or caddies, a racial time warp. Jamaican workers do the course maintenance.“It’s the Confederate South,” said one younger black caddie I met this time around. He said he’d only caddied for three blacks in the last year, one a well-known basketball coach.

If you want the flavor of Carolina Sand Hills golf, go stay at the homey Pine Crest Inn. Play Mike Strantz’s stunning Tobacco Road. And if you want to sample Donald Ross, then pick Pine Needles, the classic old track that hosted last year’s U.S Women’s Open, or, a discounted Ross off the beaten track, the Southern Pines Golf Club. It’s really only the wealthy corporate set who can afford the Pinehurst Resort itself any longer.

I don't think James Tufts would be pleased.