Golf: Pinehurst stands tall as one of golf's greatest challenges

US Open: Fabled No 2 course designed by the master finally plays host to a major championship
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IT IS NOT often that modern golf professionals sound like a bunch of tourists. What has induced this rare occurrence is the fact that in North Carolina this week Pinehurst No 2, one of the most fabled courses in the world, will host the US Open for the first time. "Those of us who haven't been there before are in for a treat," says Colin Montgomerie. "I believe it's a wonderful place and a wonderful golfing arena and I think we'll find, at the end of the week, that the course is the winner."

The sense of anticipation is genuine. Even without the great championships to define its history - the only other major to be played there was the USPGA, won by Denny Shute in 1936 - Pinehurst has established a revered reputation within the game.

The main reason is its designer, Donald Ross, the grandfather of modern course architecture. Ross built four courses at Pinehurst - there are now eight - but No 2 was his favourite. He spent more than 40 years tinkering with the layout until his death in 1948 and called it "the fairest test of championship golf I have ever designed".

That is high praise given the Scot was also responsible for Seminole, Oak Hill, Oakland Hills, Inverness, Interlachen and Aronimink. Eleven of Ross's courses are ranked in the top 100 of America's best courses and No 2 has consistently been in the top 10. Some 18 US Opens have been staged on courses designed by Ross. Many have seen modern designers remodel the original layout in order to bring them up to scratch. In a curious link with Carnoustie, which stages its first Open for 24 years next month, Pinehurst No 2, after some years of neglect, has been returned to former glory.

Though he lived for much of his life, and died, in Pinehurst, Ross was born in 1872 in Dornoch, the eldest son of a stonemason. By the age of 10, Ross was caddieing and playing golf and he went off to learn clubmaking and greenkeeping from Old Tom Morris at St Andrew's. For six years from the age of 20 he was professional and greenkeeper at Dornoch before a Harvard professor, on a golfing holiday, persuaded Ross to return with him to Boston.

In 1899, Ross became the pro at Oakley Country Club, where he became acquainted with James Walker Tufts of the American Soda Fountain Company. A few years before Tufts had founded a New England-style resort called Pinehurst in North Carolina and he offered Ross the job of professional for the winter season.

Ross quickly redesigned the initial course and, in 1901, staked out the lay-out for No 2. Six years later, 18 holes were completed. Although he was a good enough golfer to finish fifth in the 1903 US Open and eighth in the 1910 Open, Ross eventually gave up playing and teaching to concentrate on his design work, which took up his summers when the resort was closed due to the harsh southern summer.

He kept working on No 2, particularly after losing out on the job to build Bobby Jones's Augusta National, which went to a fellow Scot, Alister Mackenzie. It was not until 1935 that the lay-out found its final form, with the sand greens converted to grass.

In his day, the game was played nearer the ground than it is today and that can be seen in Ross's designs. Though the course is entirely lined with pines, they only come into play for the most wildly struck shots. Nor is water a feature of his work, with the only pond on No 2 coming in front of the 16th tee. It helps to frame the hole but the carry of 180 yards will not inconvenience this week's competitors.

The pine needles under the trees are the main penalty for missing the fairways, instead of heavy rough, while the course's main defences are the small, highly contoured greens, more perplexing than Augusta, according to Ron Whitten, the architecture editor for Golf Digest.

"The greens," he explained, "have the profiles of slumbering hippos, with humps, knobs, dips and troughs throughout, and nearly everything rolling off in some direction. Each green is different but, on most, a seemingly perfect shot to the centre might nearly come to a stop, then roll along a barely perceptible slope and trickle sideways clear off the green, into a sand bunker or a pocket of grass or, in the case of the back of the eighth green, all the way to the ninth tee."

"There are days when, if you miss a green at Pinehurst, you spend the rest of the afternoon trying to get the ball back on," said Jack Nicklaus. "That's the way I think Pinehurst should be. From an architectural standpoint, No 2 is one of the top-five courses in the world. The use of the land as it equates to the golf holes is absolutely superb. The terrain and contours are perfectly moulded with the topography."

Nicklaus is among the winners at Pinehurst, being the 1959 North & South Amateur champion, while Ben Hogan won his first professional tournament, after seven years of trying, in the 1940 North & South Open. The World Open was staged regularly in the 1970s, but by then the resort had been taken over and No 2 was modernised, destroying the Ross look. Gibby Gilbert and Tom Watson posted the course record of 62 in 1973 in the soft autumnal conditions.

But in 1984, billionaire Robert Denman's Club Corporation of America bought the resort, modestly called "the golfing capital of the world", and the restoration work began. The US Tour Championship was played twice there earlier this decade, to rave reviews from the players, with Craig Stadler and Paul Azinger the winners.

But why has it taken so long for the US Golf Association to bring the National Open to Pinehurst? One reason was the ownership. Prior to the disastrous management of the '70s, it was under the direction of Richard Tufts, grandson of the founder and a USGA committeeman and eventually president. Rather than use his influence, he kept Pinehurst out of the running.

Another reason is location. Pinehurst can be found somewhere south-west of Raleigh and east of Charlotte. The US Open did not go to a venue away from a large metropolitan area until 1972 at Pebble Beach. But David Fay, executive director of the USGA, said: "The Open has reached the point where it transcends geography."

Climate, though, is another matter. With the US Open played in June, few southern venues could survive staging such a championship in the hot summer. Technology has come to their assistance with the development this decade of a bentgrass hybrid called Penn G-2, developed to withstand heat, humidity and drought.

Finally, there is the design itself. The USGA usually likes its venues to have narrow fairways with five-inch rough, especially in the collars around the greens. This does not always lead to thrilling golf and the natural characters of courses such as Pebble Beach and Shinnecock Hills have not always been allowed to shine through. Last year, the Olympic Club was emasculated, as were the players, and the week turned into a highly tedious bogeyathon.

But with the shaved areas remaining around the greens at No 2, shotmaking in the approach shots and chipping around the greens should be more intriguing than at most US Opens. "Pinehurst No 2 is one of the greatest recovery golf courses in America," said the architect Rees Jones. "Because the greens are convex, you are always chipping uphill. It gives golfers a lot of choices."

That means more interesting golf for all the tourists going to Pinehurst to watch, as well as the players to play.