When They Were Young
Photo header courtesy of Chris Smith, Fayetteville Observer
By Lee Pace
Ben Hogan was a 30-year-old journeyman when the PGA Tour came to Pinehurst in March 1940. Hogan had been playing for eight years and didn’t have a win to show for it. He was out of money — and confidence. If he didn’t crack the winner’s circle that year, he was going to go back home to Fort Worth, Texas, and work full-time as a club pro.
But with a lesson from good friend Henry Picard that helped eliminate his dreaded hook, with hours-on-end putting practice in his hotel room late at night and a driver on loan from Sam Snead, Hogan put together a magical week on No. 2, bolting into the lead with a 66 in the first round and cruising to his first professional win.
“I won one just in time,” Hogan said. “I had finished second and third so many times I was beginning to think I was an also-ran. I needed that win. They’ve kidded me about practicing so much. I’d go out there before a round and practice, and when I was through, I’d practice some more. Well, they can kid me all they want because it finally paid off. I know it’s what finally got me in the groove to win.”
And what a groove it turned out to be. The volcano had erupted. Hogan proceeded to win the Greater Greensboro Open and then the Land of the Sky Open in Asheville. Three straight tournaments in North Carolina, three straight wins.
The rest, as they say, was a Hall of Fame career and a victory in every major championship.
“I always loved to play Pinehurst,” Hogan said. “I thought it was a great place. I thoroughly enjoyed every minute I stayed there. The whole golf course was a most pleasant and testing golf course. It’s a real test of golf. The North and South Open was a ‘major’ then. Pinehurst was a golf mecca.”
Many more luminaries in golf have won at Pinehurst in the early stages of their respective careers.
Tiger Woods was a high school senior when he competed in the 1992 Independent Insurance Agents Junior Golf Classic at Pinehurst No. 7. Pat McGowan, a tour pro and Southern Pines resident (his wife Bonnie was the daughter of Pine Needles owner Peggy Kirk Bell), had heard about the young phenomenon from California and made a point to find him on the golf course. There was a gallery of some 75 people already curious as well.
“Tiger hit a one-iron off the tee to the same place I hit my driver,” McGowan said. “At the time, I was driving the ball 255 yards or so. I said, ‘You’ve gotta be kidding me.’ I turned to someone and said, ‘This kid is for real.’
“He hit that that one-iron pure and high. It climbed up and up and up. You just don’t hit a one-iron 255 yards that high. That just doesn’t happen.”
McGowan followed Woods for two holes and had seen enough.
“He strikes the ball like a 25-year-old man,” McGowan said. “He is going to be a real hero someday. People are going to follow him like they do Michael Jordan.”
Jack Nicklaus won the 1959 North & South Amateur, beating Gene Andrews 1-up, and ever since has had a soft spot for Pinehurst and the Donald Ross-designed No. 2 course.
“I think it’s a very enjoyable golf course to play,” Nicklaus said. “I’ve said many times it’s my favorite golf course from a design standpoint. It’s extremely difficult around the greens, but it also gives you an opportunity to play. Pinehurst and Augusta probably give you the two toughest sets of greens I know. I think Pinehurst’s are more difficult than Augusta’s.”
The North & South in the mid-1900s was dominated by the “career amateur,” the elite golfer who rejected the vagabond and not particularly lucrative pro tour in favor of a good job and stable home life. Billy Joe Patton of Morganton won three North & Souths while selling lumber across the Carolinas, and Bill Campbell of Huntington, W.Va., won four times while owning an insurance agency. But after Campbell won in 1967, the North & South became the bastion of the college golfer on the way to the pro tour.
Joe Inman, Gary Cowan, Eddie Pearce, Danny Edwards, George Burns, Curtis Strange, Gary Hallberg, Hal Sutton, Corey Pavin, Davis Love III and Billy Andrade won from 1968-1986.
The Donald Ross Memorial Junior held each December and the North & South Junior for boys and girls conducted each summer have produced future pros as well.
Leonard Thompson from nearby Lumberton won the Donald Ross Memorial Junior in 1963 and ’64. Chip Beck from Fayetteville won in 1972 and ’73. Donna Andrews won the 1984 North & South Junior Girls and Beth Bauer won in 1996. Woody Austin won the 1981 Junior Boys and Hunter Mahan was the 1999 champion.
The USGA has conducted three U.S. Amateurs and one Women’s Amateur at Pinehurst, with Labron Harris Jr. winning in 1962 and later collecting two PGA Tour wins; Danny Lee prevailing in 2008 and notching one win each on the PGA, European and Nationwide Tours; and Vicki Goetze winning in 1989 before launching a 15-year LPGA career.
In recent years, the North & South Women’s Amateur and the U.S. Kids Golf have been the notable incubators for future stardom. U.S. Kids Golf, headquartered at Longleaf Golf & Family Club in Southern Pines, runs the U.S. Kids National and World competitions each July and August.
Allisen Corpuz, who won the U.S. Women’s Open at Pebble Beach in July, was medalist in the 2019 North & South, runner-up in 2020 and semifinalist in 2021. She won the U.S. Kids three times in different age brackets.
Brittany Lang, Morgan Pressel and Yani Tseng were an impressive triumvirate of North & South winners from 2003-05, with Lang posting two LPGA wins, Pressel four and Tseng 15. Similarly, Danielle Kang (2011 winner with six LPGA wins), Austin Ernst (2012, three wins) and Ally Ewing (2013, three wins) used Pinehurst as resume builders before professional success.
Since first conducting its national and international championships in Sandhills area courses in 2006, U.S. Kids has seen a slew of future stars come through, including Justin Thomas, Patrick Reed, Brooks Koepka and Lexi Thompson.
Later as a professional, Thomas barely missed winning a major and was asked if that was the most disappointing loss he’d ever had. He answered that no, finishing second in the U.S. Kids World was more heartbreaking.
Indeed, collecting a Putter Boy trophy or other piece of hardware by winning at Pinehurst is a special moment.
“Some of my proudest moments were the scores I shot at Pinehurst,” says Curtis Strange, who won the North & South in 1975 and ‘76. “When you go to a place like Pinehurst and do well, it means so much more than winning on a golf course that no one’s ever heard about. My name will be on that plaque in the clubhouse for a long time.”
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.