PINEHURST NO. 2 is not just a golf course, it's a taunt. The name is a constant reminder that the Pinehurst Resort boasts seven other courses, each identified by its own number. With the U.S. Open returning to No. 2, I decided it was time to do the full Pinehurst. I would travel to North Carolina to play all eight courses in the span of four days. And I would bring along three friends for this immersive experience, allowing me to explore the larger meaning of the golf road trip. At least that's how I tried to sell the thing to my wife, who knew better. "It sounds like a boondoggle to me," she said.
The sumptuous breakfast buffet in the main dining room of The Carolina is the first clue that we have fallen into a parallel universe. The Carolina, a registered national historic landmark, is the hub of a resort that includes four other properties and a total of 480 rooms. The dining room is old and glamorous, with crystal chandeliers and formally attired waiters, but slouched at every table are middle-aged white guys in logoed polos and dusty saddle shoes. Yes, Pinehurst is so golf-centric that Softspikes are allowed in every inch of the resort.
Pinehurst is the preferred destination for purists who want golf with no chaser. With greens fees as much as $375 during the high season, the crowd skews toward cigar-smoking masters of the universe. My foursome is probably the youngest at the resort.
I've been best friends with Kevin Price, 32, since our days at Bo Peep Preschool in Salinas, Calif. Kevin is now a financial adviser at Merrill Lynch in Seattle, a corporate gig that has done nothing to alter his personal politics, which are to the left of Noam Chomsky. Matt Ginella, 33, is a former SI staffer who is now the photo editor for Golf Digest and Golf World. Because he now plays for the other team, Matt would spend most of the trip pleading, "Don't put that in the story or you'll get me fired." Rounding out the crew is Jim Pape, 44, from my adopted home town of Long Beach, Calif. We met through our wives, who are part of an informal group of neighborhood women who get together every Friday afternoon. This gathering is ostensibly a toddler playgroup, but Jim and I know it's really a forum for the women to drink wine and bitch about how much golf their husbands play.
We kick off our adventure with an early morning tee time on No. 3, lured by its Donald Ross pedigree. Ross is, of course, Pinehurst's patron saint. He lived off the 3rd fairway of his beloved No. 2 and spent half his life tweaking the course to perfection while also designing No. 1 and No. 4 and serving as proprietor of a local B and B, the Holly Inn. No. 3 is also attractive because it sounds user-friendly at 5,682 yards (par-70). With indexes ranging from seven to 12, we figure No. 3 will be a nice way to build some confidence. Instead, the course kicks us in the teeth.
The holes are tight and twisting and often framed by out-of-bounds, and the turtleback greens are as extreme as the vaunted putting surfaces on No. 2 but a little smaller. After only a few holes we've seen enough of our approach shots land on the putting surfaces and then roll off the edges to invent a new stat, the GIRBC--green in regulation but chipping. Jim finishes off the first round with flair when he birdies the 18th by burying a downhill 35-footer to steal a halve in a match that pitts him and Matt against Kevin and me.
No sooner have we putted out on No. 3 than we hop aboard a shuttle for the seven-minute drive to No. 7, where we dine on white linen in the clubhouse. After No. 3, which only has one set of tees, we decide we'll play the blue tees on the rest of the courses, which are one level short of the championship set up. On Rees Jones's No. 7 that measures out to a brutish 6,819-yards. No. 7 has a lot of great holes. Unfortunately, they're so redundant and so hard--its rating of 144 from the tips is by far the highest of any track at Pinehurst--that by the end of the trip it would be a unanimous pick for our least favorite of the eight. Kevin, the best ball-striker among us, makes eight pars and a birdie to scratch out an 84, but no one else breaks 90. The round is almost immediately forgettable except for an exchange between Matt and our forecaddie, Dave Wilson.
Matt: "How fast is this putt?"
Dave: "Like pizza through a dog."
Every road trip needs a mantra, and this will become ours.
That night we make the short walk from The Carolina to the impossibly quaint Village of Pinehurst, where we eat at Theo's, a Greek restaurant with excellent food, a cozy atmosphere and Julianna, a waitress whose beauty has made her something of a local legend. For a nightcap we adjourn to the lighted putting green next to The Carolina, which is the scene of nightly boozy putting contests among resort guests. Later Matt and I continue our showdown through the halls of The Carolina. It ends abruptly when we are run off by a grumpy guest who emerges from his room wearing nothing but boxers and the telltale golfer's tan.
After the death march on No. 7 we are thrilled to tee it up on No. 6, an imaginative Tom Fazio track with beautiful waste bunkering and water on seven holes. Prior to the trip I called Fazio to ask him how difficult it is to build a course in an area so identified with Ross. "You can't filter out the legend; you have to embrace it," he said. "You have to hold to the great principles of the 'Pinehurst look': frame the hole with tall pines, leave the needles on the ground just off secondary rough, and lift the greens so the ball will roll off. I mean, that style of green is almost mandatory."
I love the way all the courses at Pinehurst challenge my short game, and by Day 2 I have become so adept at getting up and down with my 64-degree wedge that the boys begin calling me Chipnuck. This confidence filters into other parts of my game, and on the 17th hole I hit one of the two or three greatest shots of my life, a six-iron out of a fairway bunker through a cross-breeze up a vertiginous hill to a back pin tucked behind a gaping bunker. The shot is so majestic that my playing partners are hooting and hollering before the ball even lands, and when it spins to a stop 12 feet from the hole, a handful of hard-hatted roofers working on a nearby house give me an ovation. In a bit of an upset I even make the birdie putt to close out Kevin and Jim.
Another quick shuttle ride takes us to No. 4. This piece of earth has a remarkable history. Ross built the original No. 4 in 1919, and after tweaks by both Robert Trent Jones and Rees Jones, Fazio was brought in to start over from scratch. No. 4 was reborn in 2000, and it flows beautifully across dramatic terrain, providing sweeping vistas and some of the prettiest holes at Pinehurst.
We all rise to the level of our surroundings, leading to the most intense match of the trip. Taking in the dour grinding going on in my group, I can't help but think how hard our better halves would laugh if they could see the utter seriousness with which we are competing.
Kevin and I are one down at the par-5 17th. That's when Matt interjects himself into the action. The guy clearly needs to spend more time reading the endless instructional elements in his employer's publications, because his feast-or-famine game produces a few of the best shots on the trip but the majority of the ugliest as well. On the 17th hole he escapes from deep within a pine forest to steal a crucial halve. Then on 18 Jim gets up and down from behind a brutal green by rattling in a six-foot putt to secure the one-up victory. In the afterglow Jim is, I think, the happiest I've ever seen him.
For dinner that night we repair to the atmospheric Tavern within the Holly Inn. The bang-bang finish on No. 4 has had a galvanizing effect on us all, and we breathlessly replay almost every shot while doing the math on the dizzying number of cumulative bets. One of the pleasures of a golf trip with friends is that you get to talk about golf--and your own struggles and triumphs--with people who actually care. That's in stark contrast to my calls home to check in with my bride; her "How are you playing?" is strictly rhetorical.
I am relieved to see the boys yukking it up at the Tavern, because I'm the connector for the group and thus feel a responsibility to ensure that all the personalities mesh. I had gotten a little bummed out on Day 1 when Kevin and Jim became embroiled in a minor rules beef, which seemed to magnify their manifold differences. Living among the tree huggers in Seattle, Kevin has sworn off red meat because, he says, he doesn't support the "ecological, economic or humanitarian underpinnings of Big Meat." Jim is a native Texan who likes his steaks thick and bloody, and he is actually rooting for global warming, because it will help the air-conditioning sales at Trane, where he is vice president of the western region. But all these differences are washed away at the Tavern with the help of many Grey Goose martinis, the unofficial drink of our road trip.
This is our third straight morning with a tee time of 7:30 or earlier, and as we shuffle to the first tee of No. 5, fatigue is setting in. (The daily intake of cheese grits, biscuits and gravy, and other such fare at the breakfast buffet can't be helping.) No. 5 does little to awaken us from our slumber. The 1961 Ellis Maples design is a nice little course but not particularly distinctive. Jim and I show little fight while getting dusted 3 and 2.
In the afternoon we get a much-needed jolt in the form of No. 8. With its lakes, wetlands, dizzying elevation changes and waste bunkers the course is so visually spectacular that Matt dubs it "golf porn." Gusts of up to 30 mph help get the blood pumping, too, and we are further energized by the presence of forecaddie Charlie McRae, a Pinehurst legend who began looping here in 1963, at the age of 13. Charlie is as cool as Miles Davis and possesses a contagious good humor, and he has an almost mystical ability to read the greens. It's no accident he was put on the bag when President Bush (41) visited Pinehurst. So what did the Prez think of Charlie's caddying prowess?
"He wanted me to move to Texas," Charlie said.
With Charlie nurturing me like a wet nurse, I produce the best golf of my life, playing the first 12 holes in only two over par. (It helps that No. 8's greens are larger and flatter in the middle than most at Pinehurst.) Of course, a good caddie can only carry you so far, and with a chance to break 80 for the second time in my life, I choke like a dog, finishing bogey, double bogey to shoot 80 on the button. My partner, Matt, further steals my thunder by holing a gorgeous bump-and-run for an eagle on the par-5 17th.
With the sun setting, we limp to the swank Spa at Pinehurst, which opened in 2002. We exchange our sweaty golf togs for fluffy robes and those annoying wristbands that hold your locker keys. My masseuse, Jolene Walley, finds every knot in my overtaxed back, and without my saying a word, she can tell my left hamstring is tight. In fact, midway through the treatment Jolene announces that my glutes are "uneven." We have to get the left one to "release," she advises. In a flash she springs onto the table and plants a knee deep into my cheek. I don't know whether to laugh or cry, but after 30 seconds of intense pain I feel the tension drain out of the muscle. With a newfound spring in my step I rejoin the rest of my foursome in the lobby, each of whom is wearing a perma-grin.
We glide to the Pinecrest Inn for dinner. With its expansive porch and cozy bar tucked into the lobby, the Pinecrest was the social hub of the '99 Open, frequented by writers, caddies and a few players. We dine at the bar, three of us enjoying 22-ounce double-cut pork chops while poor Kevin chokes down some colorless, tasteless vegetable goo.
Though it is late and we are wiped out, we adjourn to the intimate lounge in The Carolina's lobby for peach cobbler and an extra serving of nostalgia. An enduring joke at the beginning of the trip was that whenever one of us hit a bad shot, we would shrug and say, "Hey, no problem, there's still 132 holes to go," or 123, or whatever it was at that moment. Now we can feel the trip winding down, and we're desperate to make it last as long as possible. So we stay up arguing about the various courses and replaying, yet again, our favorite shots.
With all the caddies and assorted Pinehurst personnel crowding the tee box of No. 2, I have opening-hole jitters for the first time on the trip, and I can tell by their labored breathing that my playing partners have butterflies too. But we all smash drives down the middle, which is a pretty cool way to start.
No. 2 is an undeniably great test of golf that will once again be a fabulous Open venue, but I must admit I'm a little underwhelmed. It is a wide-open layout with flattish terrain and little drama; there is no water on the course, and it's practically impossible to hit the ball O.B. (though Matt, as usual, finds a way, blowing his drive off the planet on the fifth hole). To be sure, these are great strategic holes, but the primary defense of the course is the fiendish greens, and after 108 holes at Pinehurst we are all pretty desensitized to the cruelty of Ross's putting surfaces.
The sense of letdown probably contributes to my slow start. My glute may have released, but I can't get the club to, which leaves me battling a demoralizing push-slice. We had kicked in $20 a man to go to the player with the lowest score on No. 2. Matt, Kevin and I each shoot 44 on the front nine, but Kev scoops up the pot on the back side when he birdies the long par-3 15th and par-5 16th with an awesome display of smashmouth golf.
Matt and I enjoy a little thrill by hitting perfect drives on the final hole. Walking up the fairway I say, "I'll be Payne if you'll be Phil." He declines. One of the neatest things about No. 2 is that the clubhouse's vast porch overlooks the 18th green, and a couple dozen onlookers in rocking chairs watch as Matt and I clean up our two-putt pars.
After lunch we get a special escort to the 3rd tee of No. 1, a Ross design that dates to 1898. No. 1 was closed to the public on April 23, as four holes are being used as staging areas for the Open. We are allowed to play the other 14 holes. They have been mown recently, but there are no pins, and the cups are filled with sand. We take turns driving up to the green to plant a wooden stick in the hole, and upon reaching the green we scoop out the sand. It's a blast.
For our final round we've decided to play a two-man scramble. It starts out as giggle golf but, inevitably, gets heated coming down the stretch. Jim and I are one down playing the final hole, a long uphill par-4. He hits a perfect drive, and then I flush a five-iron to 10 feet, rattling Kevin and Matt, who miss the green with their approaches and are doomed to make pars. After I whiff my birdie try, Jim is left with one of his own. He's a mediocre putter who only a few months ago gave up his crutch, a belly blade, but for the third time on the trip he buries a putt to decide a match.
No sooner has Jim's putt dropped than we all get a little misty. After 140 holes in four days we have finally reached The End. Exhausted but exhilarated, we linger on the final green exchanging heartfelt handshakes and sloppy hugs. It had been more than a year since I'd last seen Kevin. No doubt a golf course will be involved the next time we get together. Matt and I hang out exactly four times a year, at the major championships. We will reunite at Pinehurst for the Open, during which we will surely sneak in a round or two. Jim and I will go back to our semiregular game on Friday afternoons around Long Beach. Golf is the constant in all of these relationships, and on the forlorn drive back to the clubhouse I can't help but think of that line from Golf in the Kingdom, which goes a long way toward explaining the enduring appeal of the road trip: "Men lovin' men, that's what golf is."
A couple of minutes into the ride Kevin and Matt stop and wave us over, smiling maniacally. There is still an hour of daylight left, they point out. Don't we owe it to ourselves to squeeze in a little more golf? We race over to No. 3 and, moving faster than pizza through a dog, sneak in eight more holes. It is pitch-black when we finally call it quits. ‚ñ†
Half of the layouts at Pinehurst have reputations as big-ticket, players' courses. Here's a quick overview of what the quartet has to offer
DESIGNER: Donald Ross
SKINNY: The essence of Pinehurst and Ross. After nearly 100 years it still stands as a great test for the world's best golfers.
These are great strategic holes, but the course's primary defense is the greens.
Tom Fazio (redesign)
SKINNY: The original Ross was remade by Fazio into a scenic, flowing beauty that's fun to play.
DESIGNER: Rees Jones
SKINNY: Golf's version of visiting the dentist, it has a redundancy of long approaches to elevated greens.
DESIGNER: Tom Fazio
SKINNY: My favorite. It's a neoclassic layout with greens that are flat for Pinehurst but still have false fronts and hidden swales.
The resort's other layouts offer more idiosyncratic challenges, but their variety makes them a blast to play
SKINNY: Short and very fun, with a pastoral vibe. A nice break from the brutes.
DESIGNER: Donald Ross
SKINNY: Short but hard. It's a perfect introduction to Pinehurst golf.
DESIGNER: Ellis Maples
SKINNY: The least memorable of the older courses but still a highly enjoyable track.
DESIGNER: Tom Fazio (redesign)
SKINNY: Lots of great holes, and the conditioning is superb. Bonus points for a terrific range.
MATT: How fast is this putt?
DAVE: Like pizza through a dog.
Every road trip needs a mantra. This will be ours.
One of the pleasures of a golf trip with friends is that you get to talk about golf with people who care.
Photographs by AL TIELEMANS
Shipnuck (left) and friends reconnected on the fairways of Pinehurst.
Photographs by AL TIELEMANS
EIGHT COLOR PHOTOS
Photographs by AL TIELEMANS
The challenge on the 12th hole at No. 8 was escaping a huge waste area.
Photographs by AL TIELEMANS
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At No. 2 amateurs can get the full Tour pro treatment from caddies.