Pine Needles Lodge and Golf Club is located in the sandhills of North Carolina. It’s where course architect Donald Ross lived, as the area reminded him of his Scottish home.
Laid out in 1927 Pine Needles is one of Donald Ross’s best creations. Most people head to North Carolina to play the courses at Pinehurst but overlook Pine Needles at your peril. Host to three US Women’s Open Championships, most recently in 2007, Pine Needles is a supreme challenge. The 2005 course restoration by John Fought has returned the classic Ross course to its former glory. “Time had softened some of the challenges of Pine Needles,” said Fought. “We tried to bring those subtleties back, especially around the greens.” Aided by vintage aerial photography Ross’s original vision has once more become a reality.
Donald Ross believed that a hole should yield an equal number of birdies and bogies and the 3rd, the signature hole is perhaps the perfect example. It’s a lovely one-shot hole that calls for a precise tee shot over a small pond and wetlands area. The deep and slippery putting surface slopes sharply from back to front. Five bunkers guard the green and if you leave yourself above the hole, three putts is a real possibility. We’re sure Donald Ross smiled when the 3rd yielded 52 birdies and 53 bogeys during the 2003 US Women’s Open.
The following article was written by golf course architect John Fought and is an edited extract from Volume Four of Golf Architecture: A Worldwide Perspective. Reproduced with kind permission. To obtain a copy of the book, email Paul Daley at [email protected]
The original plan for Pine Needles was developed in 1927 and construction began the same year by one of Ross’s trusted associates, Frank Maples. Upon study of the course drawing that Ross developed, it can be noted that the original greens were small squares. At this time in the Pinehurst area, fairways and tees were grassed with common Bermuda grass, while greens in the sand hills in the 1920s were sand, not grass. In the mid-1930s, when simple irrigation systems were installed on the golf courses, grass was then planted on the putting surfaces.
Pine Needles actually began as one of the first golf/residential communities. This project also featured a wonderful art-deco hotel at its core. Early photographs of the course reveal the hotel in the background. Unfortunately, when the depression began in the early 1930s, the hotel was converted to a retirement care facility. The golf course was also sold but faded from view until approximately 1950 when Warren and Peggy Kirk Bell purchased the course and began construction of a lodge on the south end of the property. Further land was cleared in the swale between the new lodge and the course to accommodate a spacious driving range and practice facility.
As golf grew, Pine Needles made improvements to the golf course and surrounding facilities. The original Bermuda grass greens were replaced by bent grass along with changes to the infrastructure, such as better irrigation and cart paths. For more than 50 years, these improvements aided the resort’s reputation. After considerable discussion among the Bell family, however, it was decided in 2003 that these modest changes were not keeping pace with the resort guests’ tastes for quality turf conditions. The family decided that major infrastructure improvements were needed to the golf holes.
At our initial meeting during 2003, I discussed the important elements that would need attention. Without question, the biggest problem was the old push-up greens that were now 70 years old. It was essential that the greens be reconstructed to USGA specifications with proper drainage and irrigation. I knew that we would have to also remove a large quantity of the trees that were encroaching around the green complexes (and) this tree removal would have to be undertaken before the green complexes could be reconstructed. To a lesser degree, we focused on the reconstruction of bunkers and the addition of some new tees.
With our work completed, the golf course reopened during the late fall of 2004. The only remaining test would be from the USGA and the contestants of the Women’s US Open (in 2007). Unfortunately, just as the tournament began so did the thunderstorms but the course responded beautifully to the demands put on it. It was one of my proudest moments when Mike Davies, USGA Director of Rules and Competitions, related to me that this is now one of his favourite courses. Another official stated that it was the finest restoration he had ever seen. I was proud and happy for my friends, the Bell family, who had put their confidence in me just a few short years before. Pine Needles will always remain one of my favourite golf projects.
During the summer of 2012, I had the great fortune to serve as a USGA P.J. Boatwright intern for the Carolinas Golf Association which was then headquartered ten miles away from Southern Pines in West End. Living in the Sandhills for a summer was such a blessing, and of course, I spent as much time as I possibly could at the Pinehurst Resort. My direct supervisor continually told me throughout the summer that if I wanted to experience the best Ross greens in the area, I ought to get down to Pine Needles, advice that I never heeded. Ironically, the CGA relocated to the Pine Needles resort a few years after my internship.
Having played Pine Needles a few times since, I believe that my old boss’s statement had real validity. With 83 courses played in North Carolina, Pine Needles easily sits in my top 5 driven primarily by some of the most memorable Ross green complexes I have experienced.
Prior to playing, I honestly did not expect to appreciate Pine Needles as much as I actually do today. Knowing that much of the course was routed through houses, I assumed that the property would be narrow and that holes would be too bland due to the “championship” nature of the design. In fact, in my opinion, the bold scale of the course and width of the fairways actually provides strategy, options, and diversity in shots required throughout the day, forcing me to hit every single club in my bag with a wide range of flights. Despite the challenging nature of some holes, the course felt very playable – one which I could enjoy every day.
There are so many memorable holes at Pine Needles. Some of the standouts for me include:
• #1: The elevation changes on the first hole at Pine Needles are very compelling. With the first shot playing up a steep ridge, a player has to carefully think through their next shot. The fairway first dips before rising again to the green, and any shots missed to the right will surely find out-of-bounds; this challenge is compounded by the tumbling fairway. This tough opener sets the tone for a round that will continue to be mentally and emotionally stimulating.
• #2: This strong par four first plays downhill with a blind tee shot. The very large green is raised, but also welcomes run up shots which can be necessary due to the forward cant of the fairway. On a recent podcast, I heard Bradley Klein, a Ross expert, mention that the true best approach to this interesting green is a clubbed-up shot which lands short and bounces once or twice. That type of thinking and shotmaking is all but obsolete in the modern era!
• #3: This par three is not simply photogenic! With many different tees, no two days will play alike. In the same way that many classic architects often ‘hid’ hazards from the players’ sightline, Ross expertly concealed a welcoming collection area behind this green for the ‘safe’ play to avoid all water and bunkers.
• #4: Like the 4th at Mid Pines, this slightly canted fairway fights the golfer’s desire to keep the ball on the left side. From there, a harrowing approach shot to a green with a scary false front awaits.
• #8: While this hole routed through home sites may seem bland at the surface, I found the tee shot to be thought provoking. An aggressive shot has to content with a fairway bunker down the left while a safer play may be impacted by overhanding limbs. Stepping up to the tee, a player may assume this is an easy driver/wedge, but Ross shows that even the seemingly mundane can be transformed into greatness.
• #9: I have a soft spot for tightly mown collection areas, and the deep swales surrounding most of the 9th green at Pine Needles are among my favorite of 3500 unique holes played. One of the items on my golf bucket list is to literally take a basket of balls and chip all day around this green. Bump and runs, pitches, banked shots, and even little flops are all possibilities. All this variety in what seems like an ordinary straight hole!
• #10: After the exciting tee shot to the big left turn, a player is left to decide whether or not to try to reach this green. Usually, that decision can be made challenging by water, bunkers, or other hazards. In this case, it is complicated by the steeply raised ‘mini-volcano’ green itself.
• #11: My favorite hole on the property, the 11th fairway is pinched by a beautiful sandy waste area. While a lay up shot to the wider part of the fairway may seem like the safe play, the rolling topography of this hole can actually deaden that shot upon landing. The reward for the aggressive player can, conversely, be even greater. The green is large and again offers many chipping options with its shortgrass surrounds.
• #12: Blind shots can be polarizing, but in general, Ross incorporated them skillfully into many of his designs. At Pine Needles, the blind shot at #12 makes sense with the natural flow of the land, and the inviting green welcomes any number of flight types.
• #18: The finishing hole at Pine Needles is a real stunner. A properly shaped shot can pick up extra yards on this handsomely sloping fairway. While the green is set well below the player, it welcomes run up shots or aerial approaches, either of which may be appropriate depending on pin placement. Seeing the clubhouse, it is so easy to get lost in the history of the property, especially thinking about the champions who have walked the fairway before you.
Pine Needles is a real superstar in a land filled with superstar golf courses. Its deep-rooted tradition of supporting Women’s Golf further builds my admiration for the entire resort. It provides challenges, options, and variety from tee to green, demanding every shot shape and just about every type of chip/pitch/flop/etc. shot in your bag. Who would not want to play this type of course every day?
On other forums, I have seen debates of how players might split 10 rounds at the Mid Pines/Pine Needles resort. Truthfully, my own preference has wavered over time, and quite frankly, I feel that any combination of the 10 rounds could be argued and justifiable. That said, I generally would lean towards 6-4 or 7-3 Pine Needles. To me, the larger scale of the course – despite being routed through homes – actually provides more variety and interesting shot options. If you are making your way to the Sandhills, especially for the first time, Pine Needles and Mid Pines should BOTH be on your list of must-play designs. My older supervisor was right – these may be some of the best Ross greens anywhere.
Beautiful golf in a beautiful setting. Played in late May and the conditions were perfect. The staff and welcome were first class and similar to the excellent Pinehurst resort down the road. The course has proven a worthy venue for several previous women’s U.S. Open’s and set to host that championship again in the near future. The greens here are pure Donald Ross. My description to a friend was “they are just like Pinehurst #2 except the top 10% of the green has been removed”. In other words just not quite as severe as the famous greens of #2. The land is subtle yet rolling, and the holes all flow fairly gently through the countryside. The good player has the chance to work the ball in all directions, but the course has enough room to allow players of all skill levels to enjoy the course. I would love to be a member here, and to be able to play Mid Pines next door as a member would be a phenomenal experience.
Read my full story: The Sandhills – high-class designs outside Pinehurst
At the end of July I managed to play Pine Needles for the first time. It’s currently being looked after by architect Kyle Franz and he been working his magic here just as he did over at Mid Pines.
Most of the work is restoration centered but with great improvements. It has a similar look and feel to Mid Pines though is not quite as strong a layout, fairways are very wide and forgiving and there is short grass everywhere outside of the waste areas.
It’s full of solid holes and is a very fun course to play for all levels of golfers. A definite must to add to any trip to the Pinehurst area.