Lens of the Sandhills
By Lee Pace
In the mid-1900s, a photographer named John Hemmer roamed the Pinehurst Country Club grounds and took photos in rapid-fire fashion of the golf, racquet, shooting and equestrian pursuits and dispatched them to newspapers and wire services across the nation. He also made prints in his darkroom and mailed them to the hometown newspapers of resort guests.
Today the Sandhills and its golf courses are evolving more and more as an exquisite canvas for shutterbugs of all makes and models, and the ability to immediately display the visuals on social media and assorted blogs and digital venues multiplies their visibility a million-fold over the old days of weekly and monthly magazines.
“I’m drawn to the golf courses in Pinehurst and the Sandhills because one, the nostalgia, and two, the natural beauty,” says Chris Auman, one of the most prolific photographers in the Sandhills today. “Golf brings people together. Not everyone is into golf, but when I take a photograph of a golf course, people can appreciate the photograph. They can appreciate the beauty of the natural landscape. “
Auman has generated numerous images of the Village and the Pinehurst golf courses in recent years, finding particular fodder in the magical lights of early morning and late afternoon. Early one morning, he lined up six Adirondack chairs along The Cradle and captured their glow bathed in the orange of the eastern sky. Crisp fall mornings have provided the setup to capture the Village at daybreak and a golf setting with the same technique Hemmer used nearly a century ago — framing the hole with the trunk of a pine tree to one side and boughs of needles and cones hanging at the top. He’s snapped the 18th green of No. 2 from the veranda, dozens purple tulips and yellow flowers in the foreground. The passing locomotives and freight cars of the Aberdeen, Carolina & Western Railroad as it skirts the western edge of resort are a favorite prop.
Late one afternoon, Auman was walking with his camera up the sandy path between the 18th holes of course No. 1 on the left and No. 4 on the right. The light was perfect, just kissing the western edges of the tree trunks and the undersides of the pine needles hanging above. There is sand, wire grass, serrated bunkers and a soft sky.
“I looked up and I just thought, ‘Man, that’s the way this place used to look,’” he says. “That’s what James Tufts saw. That’s what Pinehurst is and that’s what I was trying to capture.”
John Gessner in 2012 won the naming contest for the elaborate putting course Pinehurst built on 2.5 acres outside its clubhouse, suggesting Thistle Dhu in a tip of the cap to the name of the pitch-and-putt venue that James Barber built on his Pinehurst property nearly a century earlier. Four years later, Gessner was the first photographer to capture the unique landscape of The Cradle, the resort’s nine-hole short course adjacent to the massive putting green. His early morning shot has appeared in Forbes, GOLF Magazine and other outlets and depicts the brownish wire grass in the foreground, green fairways and putting surfaces in the middle and blue sky above, the backdrop punctuated by the classic columns and red roof of the south side of the Pinehurst clubhouse.
Kaye Pierson began taking photos with her iPhone4 from her perch on a golf-course mower while on her shifts with the resort maintenance staff and in 2013 snapped what she pegged “First Light at Pinehurst.” The Putter Boy statuette looms at dawn from its location within Thistle Dhu, enveloped by a dew-laden grass, fog and glints of sunlight to the east. The image caught fire on social media and has been featured on prints in resort gift shops.
“My ‘artist eye’ has always been drawn to the unfolding scenes of sunrises and sunsets,” she says. “We tend to get our fair share of ‘sky shows’ on the golf course, whether it’s getting in an early round in or just having a ‘dream job’ of taking care of greens and fairways at the break of dawn.
“It’s just magical at that hour,” she says. “For anyone who works on a golf course early in the morning, that’s it. That’s why we’re out there. We are fortunate to be on the course that time of day to see the quiet and the mist and how it changes. Everything just kind of stops for a few seconds and you realize how lucky you are.”
John Patota has had careers as an engineer and a school system administrator and all along has enjoyed photography as a hobby and avocation and, he says, “a lifelong passion.” He bills himself on social media as “Pinehurst Photographer” and enjoys taking photos of “people doing the things they love.” He’s all over the North & South tournaments capturing competitors and staff and has a special niche taking shots of the golf course maintenance workers.
“Without these workers we couldn’t enjoy golf like we do,” Patota says. “They get up at the crack of dawn or even before, and no one knows what they do. I think how proud they are to see a photo of themselves mowing the grass on the 18th hole of Pinehurst No. 2. That is just a little niche that I didn’t quite see being filled, so I really enjoy that.”
Matt Gibson is a native of the United Kingdom, growing up in London and attending the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, and for two years has been on staff at Pinehurst as its “digital storyteller.” His background on the sandy landscapes of the British Isles provides excellent perspective to generate and curate a rich mixture of images and video clips on the resort’s nine golf courses (and soon to be 10 with the opening in early 2024 of Tom Doak’s new layout).
“I think the best sports photographers are the golf photographers,” Gibson says. “You think about an NFL game or a baseball game, you have the same feel essentially every match, right? There are only a certain number of lines you can find. But every golf course is different. The lines are infinite.”
One of Gibson’s favorite images is from course No. 4, taken early one morning of the second green in the foreground and the fifth fairway in the distance. The early light is the star of the show — how it tweaks the knob of the green where the pin sits, how it blushes across the bunkers and grass of the next fairway, how it kisses the underside of the clouds in the sky. By the end of August, it had gotten more than 6,000 “likes” on Instagram.
Zach and Andy Pessagno are brothers operating a photography business called Chasing Fowl Photography — as in the pursuit of birdies, eagles and the rare albatross on the golf course. They are natives to the Sandhills and were exposed to golf as kids through their parents’ passion for the game. Their specialty is work-for-hire for golf groups who want to commemorate the round with images taken with light, angles and perspectives beyond the usual.
“Our business evolved out of taking our cameras out on the course with our buddies and having some fun with the shots we took,” Zach says. “Then it kind of snowballed and three, four, five years later we’re doing a significant amount of work in the golf industry.”
The brothers have collected dozens of alluring images during the North & South competitions at Pinehurst, among them this shot of Emilia Migliaccio and her mother/caddie during the 2022 event.
“There are so many epic vistas that are out there,” Zach says. “It’s just finding those sweet spots on the course. It might be a sweeping vista; it might be a tight shot where you only see the golfer and their emotions. There are lots of emotions that accompany a pretty significant amateur tournament.”
Golfers are apt to see one of the Pessagnos stretched out on the grounds or crouching on a knee to get one of the low-angle perspectives they are particularly fond of.
“That perspective kind of takes you back to your childhood, where everything is on that level,” Zach says. “It’s like in some way tapping into that feel of just the grandness of life.”
Read more about area photography with Lee’s story about Loving Our Black & Whites.
Lee Pace is a freelance golf writer who has written about Sandhills area golf for four decades and is the author of club histories about Pinehurst Resort & Country Club, Mid Pines, Pine Needles and Forest Creek.