Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 1, 2022

A Little Course with Big Teeth

PGA Tour pros played the final regular tournament of 2022 the weekend before Thanksgiving.  The RSM Classic, a relatively new Tour stop, has been staged since its 2010 inception over two courses on St. Simons Island, Georgia.  While the tourney has a well-liked host in veteran pro Davis Love III, the RSM remains a middling event on the professional golf calendar, as indicated by its late autumn date.  But that doesn’t mean the two golf courses on which the deciding birdies and bogeys were made are nondescript.  To the contrary, the Sea Island Golf Club’s twin routings are set up as muscular brutes for the PGA Tour’s annual visit, with each measuring more than 7,000 yards.

While it may not have a favored spot on the schedule, the RSM is typical in that respect, for it is now the rare Tour stop that is played on a course of less than 7,000 yards.  For its part, the LPGA is not far behind.  The same week the PGA Tour’s wraparound season reached its break for all but a handful of exhibitions over the holidays, the preeminent women’s tour conducted its season-ending CME Group Tour Championship at Tiburon Golf Club in Naples, Florida, where the Gold Course was stretched to nearly 6,600 yards. 

Nor is it just courses vying for a spot on the weekly schedule that are adding more and more distance.  When Matt Fitzpatrick won this year’s U.S. Open at The Country Club, the layout played 7,264 yards, more than 1,000 yards longer than when amateur Francis Ouimet made golfing history and helped popularize the sport in this country with his unlikely triumph over British pros Harry Vardon and Ted Ray in 1913.  And as tournaments wind down until the new year, golf fans have turned their attention to analyzing aerial photos of Augusta National, where the stewards of the green jacket are finally implementing their long-rumored plan to lengthen the 13th hole, a par-5 that is woefully short for the pros at 510 yards, by building a new tee on land purchased from the adjacent Augusta Country Club.

For the top echelon of golfers, the tiny number who play their way onto the professional tours, it all makes sense.  Constantly evolving club and ball technology, a greater focus on improved conditioning, and easy access to high-tech tools that both clarify and measure the physics of striking a golf ball, have combined to make it possible for the elite to send their balls soaring prodigious distances down fairways.  But the vast majority of amateurs, be they weekend players, those just starting out, or even club champions, do not play at that level.  A recent analysis by Arccos Golf, which sells shot measuring technology, found that a golfer averaging 277 yards with his driver would outhit 98% of amateurs.  But that same player would have ranked dead last in driving distance on the PGA Tour’s season statistics for 2021-22. 

Despite the data, far too many amateurs are convinced they are hitting their shots nearly as long as the pros they watch on TV.  Suitably armed with that mistaken belief, they regularly begin a round by sticking their tee in the ground next to the marker furthest from the hole, intent on getting their money’s worth by playing from the tips.  It’s a conceit that slows down play, reduces enjoyment in the game both for those players and anyone unlucky enough to be paired with them, and perhaps explains the lack of acclaim for Pinehurst #3.

Nestled in the North Carolina sandhills, the village of Pinehurst, home to the resort of the same name, attracts golf enthusiasts from around the world.  They come to play the resort’s ten courses, nine of which are known simply by their number, assigned in order of construction, or in the case of #8 and #9, when the resort took ownership of the layout. The tenth and newest links is the Cradle, a 9-hole short course that can be viewed in its entirety from the massive putting green next to the resort’s main clubhouse.  Golfers come to play #2, the historic Donald Ross routing that has hosted a PGA Championship, a Ryder Cup, three men’s and one women’s U.S. Open, and which is now one of the USGA’s anchor courses, meaning it will host multiple Opens over the next three decades.  They come to play #4, also a Ross course, but one that has been subjected to multiple redesigns over the decades.  The most recent of those was by Gil Hanse, whose 2018 reshaping has been widely hailed, and which vaulted #4 to a spot just behind #2 as the most played Pinehurst course.

But few visitors travel to an out of the way location in rural North Carolina to play #3, for one look at the scorecard convinces those golfers that the old routing is not a “real” golf course.  After all, the layout plays to a par of just 68, and measures less than 5,200 yards from the back tees, which aren’t even the traditional blue, but rather white, the color typically signifying a distance appropriate for weekend golfers and their hacker friends.

What those players who do not deign to make the short trip from the clubhouse across Beulah Hill Road to #3’s first tee miss is both a unique example of Donald Ross’s design skills and a powerful reminder that golf is about so much more than hitting the ball a great distance.  Locals refer to #3 as a “mini #2,” and the green structures, always a signpost of a Ross course, are exactly that.  Like its more famous sibling, the greens on #3 are almost all raised, and feature sharp undulations, false fronts, and runoff areas on every side.  But they are smaller than the greens on #2, which means #3 is an even stronger example of Ross’s penchant for target golf.  An age-old golf statistic is GIR, greens in regulation, meaning the number of greens that a golfer reaches in the assigned number of shots.  The joke at Pinehurst is that the local stat is GVIR, greens that a well-struck ball visited in regulation, before rolling back down a false front or skidding off the rear of the putting surface and into an adjoining swale.

On a recent visit, Pinehurst #4 provided the best score in relation to par.  But a course marketed as very playable, which is to say not that challenging, also provided the least interesting walk.  Pinehurst #2 delivered on its promise, a stern, dramatic, and lovely test of one’s golfing skills.  Even the weekend player could see why the USGA has favored #2 with its anchor designation.  Of course, improbably sinking not one but two 60-foot putts from off #2’s greens, up, over, around, and down into the cup, made the walk immensely more enjoyable for both the golfer and his caddie.  But the real find was the little layout across the street.  Pinehurst #3 showed its teeth, not just the tiny target greens but also yawning bunkers placed in strategic locations on many fairways and the area’s trademark pines and massive holly trees encroaching from the sidelines.  By the end of the visit, it was the card from #3 that had the highest number in relation to par, a reminder that in sports, as in life, bigger isn’t always better.

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