Subtle and Strategic: The Pinehurst No. 2 Green Complexes August 11, 2019 | LIBERTY CORNER, N.J. By George Waters, USGA

The plateau greens of Pinehurst No. 2 are a stern test of any golfer’s approach and recovery play. (USGA/John Mummert)    

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The greens on Pinehurst No. 2 have been a source of enjoyment and frustration for generations of golfers. Rising from the gentle terrain, the convex plateaus are eye-catching to say the least, and they play a starring role in both the strategy and challenge of the classic Donald Ross course. The turtle-shell shape of the greens demands extremely precise approach play, and many shots that find the putting surfaces only do so temporarily before trickling off an edge. Once off the green, the golfer is greeted by bunkers, slopes, humps and hollows that will put anyone’s recovery prowess to the test.

For golf course architect Bill Coore, a native North Carolinian, Pinehurst No. 2 was always one of the courses he most admired. One can only imagine the excitement Coore and his design partner Ben Crenshaw felt when the Pinehurst Resort entrusted them with restoring the course in 2010-11. While very few alterations were made to the putting surfaces during the restoration, recapturing the width of the fairways and the strategic angles that had been lost over the years brought the greens, and their unique challenges, back into focus.

“In general, the greens are fairly large,” said Coore, “but they play extraordinarily small with those fall-offs on the edges. That is what makes them so demanding for approach shots. You could take a player who is an absolute magician with their irons, drop them at whatever their ideal distance might be and see what percentage of greens they hit and hold. I guarantee it won’t be a very high number.

“We like to talk about the shots that ‘visit’ the greens at Pinehurst No. 2,” laughed Coore, “those that catch the surface for a short while and then roll off and end up who knows where.”

Indeed, recovery play is a huge part of the story at Pinehurst No. 2 and Coore believes that Ross put his full attention into the surrounds, knowing what a key role they would play in the interest and challenge of the course.    

Recovery shots around the tabletop greens at Pinehurst No. 2 are no picnic, even for the best players in the world. (USGA/Steven Gibbons)

“When Mr. Ross molded the amazing greens there, he also molded the surrounds. It wasn’t just a putting surface; it was an entire green complex of little humps and hollows and closely mown contours. He wanted to emulate some of the windblown dune contours he had experienced in Scotland because they were extraordinarily important for creating interest on those courses.”

Some contours around the greens can help you safely find the putting surface, while others can turn a short chip or putt into a terrifying proposition. In fact, the complexity of playing from the closely mown surrounds sometimes makes the greenside bunkers a more appealing miss.

“I’ve always been fascinated by the first hole,” said Coore of the 402-yard par 4. “The left greenside bunker is so visual that the natural tendency is to think about avoiding it at all costs. But, when you find yourself to the right, amongst the humps and hollows, you begin to worry that you may hit it across the green and end up in the very bunker you were trying to avoid! Good players, when they see a pin on the left or in the back, they might decide they’d rather miss in the bunker because they have more control over the shot and all those little contours on the right make it hard to get close to the hole.”

The second hole, which will play as 507-yard par 4 for the U.S. Amateur, provides a great example of how restoring the fairways to their original width helped to bring the interest of the green complexes back to life.

“The fairways had narrowed to the point that there was hardly any decision-making off the tee,” said Coore. “As a player, it was being dictated where you were going to be. From all we had read from Mr. Ross, and what we had seen in the diagrams and old photos, that was not the intent. The intent was to give you freedom to play, but the angle to the greens – their axis to the line of play – would either help you or hurt you. Oftentimes the direct route that you saw from tee to green was not the ideal angle to take.

‘The second hole is a perfect example. You see the green straight down there from the tee and it’s saying to you ‘come on, come this way.’ But you were left with a long shot, to a green that was angled away from you, with a bunker across your line of play and this large hump that encroached from the bunker into the green. If you play down the left, which seems totally out of the way off the tee, the axis of the green is aligned in your favor and the hump was off to the side more – making for an easier shot.

‘Now, the players in the U.S. Amateur, they might not concern themselves with some of those angles because they can hit it so high and so far. However, playing that aerial game makes distance control such an absolutely critical factor. Playing from tough angles, even from the fairway, is often going to catch up with you at Pinehurst No. 2.”

“It all comes back to those greens,” said Coore. “It’s the convex nature of the green landforms and the molding of the features, bunkers, humps and hollows, dips and swirls around the greens, that’s what Pinehurst No. 2 is all about.” 

George Waters is the manager of Green Section education at the USGA. Email him at gwaters@usga.org. 


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