Recalling a stay in the balmy air of Santa Cruz, California, course architect Alister MacKenzie admitted he had “always wanted to live where one could practice shots in one’s pajamas before breakfast.”
It seemed an uncharacteristically impish remark for the sober-minded Scotsman, but it came to mind one early morning as I peered through louvers at the empty practice tee smack outside my ground-floor room in the Ross Lodge of the Pine Needles resort. At this peaceful but golf-obsessed refuge, if you open a sliding glass door and walk 10 steps in your slippers you can strike an iron shot or two before your night’s sleep is fully dispatched.
The spring of 2005 was a time of reawakening for Pine Needles. The North Carolina resort’s beloved 1928-vintage Donald Ross golf course—which underwent a wall-to-wall renovation the previous summer by a team under the direction of Scottsdale course designer John Fought—was embarking, to warm reviews, on its first full season of a new era, with plenty of maturation time built in before it would host the 2007 U.S. Women’s Open.
For a small dinner gathering the previous October, Fought (rhymes with boat) put on a slide show explaining the careful steps and historical research his team had undertaken prior to the big dig. Their task was to make Pine Needles everything it had been in the early days while giving it what it needs to charm and challenge golfers of the post-titanium era.
The conscience of the project was Peggy Kirk Bell, an LPGA pioneer who as resort owner and all-around Pine Needles matriarch has played thousands of rounds on the old Ross chestnut. Down-to-earth as ever but conscious of her Hepburn-like status in American golf, Bell flashed a deadpan wit often during Fought’s presentation, recounting how unceasingly she urged him to preserve hole details.
Pine Needles, now 7,015 yards long and a 35-out, 36-in par-71, is one of those hardy, handsome old courses that uses every knob and ridge and low spot it’s got to affect a golfer’s thinking—and then affect the ball as it travels. Visually, it is neither harsh and jagged nor delicate and glossy. The tee of each ensuing hole is where it ought to be, perhaps not visible from the green you’re putting on but always just around the bend. Playing it a week after it reopened, I found Fought’s restoration work so careful and complete that slightly slow green speeds would have been, to a first-time visitor, the only evidence of the overhaul.
Two hallmarks of the Ross style are constant: hole-to-hole variety and the use of just one or two land features to define each shot. Club in hand, the Pine Needles golfer visualizes any number of outcomes to the stroke he is about to play, perhaps not appreciating that these multiple eventualities are determined by a single ridge, or bank, or natural bowl, often augmented by a man-made hazard that may be at a fairly distant remove.
Consider holes 11 and 12. The par-4 11th starts in a chute, plays downhill then back up, encourages a draw on its tee shot and hides its green a bit as you approach. No. 12, also a two-shotter, calls for a slightly upslope drive to a wide landing area with a strategic premium on keeping the tee ball to the right. The second shot on 12 is to a green that sits just below you with its every detail in open view.
Annika Sorenstam and Karrie Webb were the two respective titleists from Pine Needles’ 1996 and 2001 U.S. Women’s Opens. When the top female players in the world reconvened there for the ’07 championship, the winner was Cristie Kerr by one stroke over Angela Park and Lorena Ochoa, on a golf course they found honed and sharpened to test their mettle.