By Lee Pace
A U.S. Open at Pinehurst seems old hat now. In about a year, the esteemed No. 2 course will be the venue for its fourth rendition of America’s national championship, following 1999 (won by Payne Stewart), 2005 (Michael Campbell) and 2014 (Martin Kaymer). And after the 2024 competition, there are four more on the docket through 2047 as the USGA has tabbed Pinehurst No. 2 as an “anchor site” for the Open.
But it wasn’t always this way. Far from it, in fact.
The doubts were many through the 1970s through June of 1993, when Pinehurst was finally awarded a date for the Open six years down the road. It was a quarter of a century of brainstorming, upfitting, salesmanship and tweaking the golf course, the resort operation and the community resources as a whole to make it happen. Was No. 2 still viable to the best players in the game? Could a small village like Pinehurst and the Sandhills community provide the infrastructure, hotel rooms and restaurants to handle the crowds? Would North Carolina support the event with ticket sales and corporate entertainment packages?
Over the third week in June 1999, Pinehurst and its grand old dame of a golf course, Donald Ross’ No. 2, stood up to each question of the last century, held their stead and never blinked. And when Payne Stewart rolled in a dramatic 15-footer to save par on the 18th hole Sunday and stave off the challenge of Phil Mickelson, to the roar of thousands of fans ringing the green, Pinehurst had its consummate exclamation point.
“Perfect — a perfect way to win,” Stewart said. “I think everyone in the field will attest to how great No. 2 is, to what a special place Pinehurst is. To win here means a lot to me.”
Some 40,000 contestants, spectators, sponsors, USGA officials, media representatives, volunteers, merchandisers and Pinehurst Country Club members descended on the Village of Pinehurst and the No. 2 course daily the week of June 14-20, 1999. They found a golf course with a 3-year-old set of greens covered with Penn G-2 bent grass that provided the stiff and swift putting surfaces mandated by the USGA for all of its championships, this more than a decade before the new hybrid Bermuda greens were introduced in the Mid-Atlantic.
They found a shuttle bus transportation system that efficiently funneled spectators in and out of town from two remote parking lots. And there were lots and lots of people — there are seven million living within 100 miles of Pinehurst, a fact that championship staff noted with regularity in fending off the charge that Pinehurst was in the sticks. Golf fans from near and far scarfed up the available badges within 24 hours of their going on sale the previous summer. Corporate types shucked out big dollars during the height of late-1990s economic heyday and filled every clubhouse table and tent available.
And they found an atmosphere unique to Open venues — no big-city traffic and a small-town charm that certainly was what James Tufts and landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted had in mind more than a century ago, when they created a replica New England village from the sandy wastelands of south-central North Carolina. By day, the townsfolk and visitors enjoyed the golf; by night, they congregated around the bars at the Pine Crest and Holly Inns or enjoyed lawn parties throughout the village.
“What’s struck me is how this community has absorbed the event, yet remained the same,” Pinehurst Inc. President Pat Corso said on the final day of the competition. “Anybody coming here I think gets the full impact and charm of the community. At many places that host major events, you don’t get the sense of the community at all. You’re tucked in some suburb or you’re in a neighborhood and it’s compacted and you don’t get a sense of, ‘Where are you?’ People didn’t just come to Pinehurst to a golf course for an event. They came here actually to share in the Pinehurst experience. I think that is pretty neat.”
The village and club offer a blend of history and aesthetics and devotion to the game of golf that set a perfect table for such a competitive feast. “What Madison Square Garden has been to boxing, what Harvard Stadium has been to football and track athletics, what Belmont, Saratoga and Churchill Downs mean to racing, Pinehurst means to golf,” Golf World magazine founder Bob Harlow said in 1938.
“The Open at Pinehurst could be Tracy and Hepburn-esque — a match made in heaven, the first of many,” said David Fay, executive director of the United States Golf Association.
No one could look ahead to 2047 at that moment in the 1990s, but Fay was certainly dead to rights.
Chapel Hill-based writer Lee Pace has written about golf in the Sandhills since the late 1980s and has authored a dozen books about the clubs, courses and people who have made it special over more than a century.