Prepping Pinehurst

No stranger to big tournaments, No. 2 will make history in 2014 with two U.S. Opens in two weeks played there.
By Lee Pace
 
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Golfers try to keep their hands warm and backs limber while waiting out a 90-minute frost delay on Pinehurst No. 2, site of two U.S. Opens, two U.S. Amateurs, one PGA Championship and one Ryder Cup Matches over its century-plus existence. As the temperature inches into the 40s, Don Padgett II — the president and chief operating officer of Pinehurst LLC, which owns The Carolina Hotel, Pinehurst Country Club and eight golf courses — inspects work on the Member Clubhouse, which overlooks the 18th green. Built in the 1970s, this appendage on the north side clashes with the original clubhouse’s early-1900s look, and the club is spending $3.7 million to renovate and update its interior and rebuild the façade to harmonize with the columns and arches seen behind Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus and Billy Joe Patton as they collect victory checks or trophies in the old black-and-white photos.

The restoration is not being done specifically for Pinehurst’s next major event — the U.S. Opens for men and women on consecutive weeks in June 2014. A more ambitious project of demolishing the addition and starting from scratch was on the drawing board in 2008 before the recession scuttled it. But the Opens provide a deadline for getting the smaller-scale project done. “You’ve never seen a really good photo of the 18th hole from the fairway because the Member Clubhouse in the background didn’t fit,” Padgett says. “This is going to have an iconic look; it’s going to look like it would have 50 years ago. It will be spectacular — for our members any day of the week and for spectators and TV viewers the week of the U.S. Open.”

Seventeen months out, the preparatory pulse remains languid, but in many quarters of this 118-year-old village nails are being hammered, dirt sculpted and ideas hatched as its residents prepare for their third U.S. Open and first U.S. Women’s Open — and the first-ever staging of those events on one golf course on back-to-back weeks. “One of the most important elements in accomplishing anything is urgency,” says Marty McKenzie, a lifelong Pinehurst resident and businessman. “We’ve needed to address some problems in the village for years — parking, streetlights, sidewalks. We’ve got some major infrastructure improvements in the works. And having the U.S. Open gives us a reason to do them now.”

In the center of town, approximately a quarter-mile from the clubhouse, is the Pinehurst Department Store building, which opened in 1897 and originally housed a general store, post office, library, meat market and the village offices. Today on the ground floor are a men’s clothing store, a deli and a gift shop. A sign hanging from the white, wood siding beneath the forest-green roof identifies the second-floor tenant — “United States Open Office.” From this suite, Reg Jones, director of the event, and four colleagues plan the details and logistics of America’s national golf championship in such locales as this year’s event at Merion Golf Club, near Philadelphia. Four more staff members work exclusively on the 2014 Pinehurst events from an office on the ground floor of the Member Clubhouse. “This will be such a historically relevant set of championships,” Jones says. “That’s the driving force behind it. It’s something that’s never been done before — the opportunity to crown the two best golfers in the world on back-to-back Sundays, on the same golf course, pretty much under the same conditions. The level of discussion and debate and attention these two events will receive will be good for the game. And 2014 is a ‘home game’ for us, so it’s extra special.”

The United States Golf Association, which holds 13 professional and amateur championship competitions, is based in Far Hills, N.J., but opened its Pinehurst office in 2007 because the U.S. Open is such a travel-intensive enterprise — Jones is on the road about 130 days a year — and communication is so seamless over cables and cyberspace that it doesn’t matter where key executives are based. Jones cut his teeth in golf administration in the 1990s working for Pinehurst Championship Management, a division established by the resort to operate the men’s Opens in 1999 and 2005 and the three women’s Opens at Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club in neighboring Southern Pines in 1996, 2001 and 2007. Jones left for the USGA in 2006 to run all the U.S. Opens. Since he lived in Pinehurst, it made sense to let him stay there and build a staff around him.

The USGA announced in 2007 that it would bring the men’s Open back to No. 2 in 2014. In 2009, it picked the course for the women’s championship for 2014. Now, Jones and his staff are juggling dozens of tasks — preparing for this year’s Opens plus those next year and in the future. Jones has preliminary blueprints and site maps for 2014 spread on a conference table that detail master plans for parking, transportation, entry gates, grandstands, concessions, restrooms, corporate hospitality and a retail pavilion. Most of the footprint will remain the same as it was in 1999 and 2005 — “with a few tweaks here and there,” Jones says. One change will be the relocation of the primary parking lot for spectators north of the club. The property off N.C. 211 used in 1999 and 2005 is now the site of Dormie Club, a course that opened in 2011, so Jones has had to identify a new lot and negotiate terms and improvements with its owner.

Mike Davis, who became executive director of the USGA in 2011, and Jones see no problem with running two Opens on successive weeks. The Sandhills has proved that its roughly 2,800 hotel rooms plus privately owned homes and condos can handle lodging demand, particularly when spread out to Fayetteville and Raleigh. The region also has a deep reservoir of volunteers to handle two weeks’ worth of assignments. As of early February, the USGA had commitments from about 5,400; its goal is 6,500. Some have wondered how the course will stand up to two weeks of intense competition. Davis, who controls the course while Jones manages everything outside the ropes, says the greens will be maintained at the same speed for both the men’s and women’s events, but he’ll strive for them to be slightly softer the second week. “We want a 6-iron, if it’s struck well from the fairway, to bounce, bounce and stop. The women can’t spin the ball as much, so the ball won’t stop as quickly if the firmness is exactly the same.”

The only nightmare scenario playing in his mind is that storm delays or a playoff — ties in U.S. Opens are settled by 18 holes on Monday — infringe on practice rounds for the women’s Open. “Let’s face it, we’ve been lucky both times at Pinehurst. I say this every year, and it applies to Merion this year as well, I just don’t want to get a bunch of rain. It takes so much away strategically from the championship when they can just throw darts and not worry about what happens when the ball lands.”

The most fascinating twist to the 2014 Opens is that they’ll be played on a course bereft of the long, thick rough that has been a trademark of U.S. Open courses. Pinehurst owner Robert Dedman Jr. and Padgett hired Austin, Texas-based Coore & Crenshaw Inc. in early 2010 to return the course to how designer Donald J. Ross envisioned it — wide fairways, firm and fast turf and roughs of native wire grass, pine needles, pine cones and hardpan sand. “Tournament golf has gotten to be 99.9% pound it out of heavy rough,” says Ben Crenshaw, a World Golf Hall of Fame member. “To me, it’s very boring. I’ve gotten sick of it. There’s got to be something different from that. Yet that’s the mainstay of defenses put on courses. It’s anything but interesting. I sense that other players feel that way also. And I think Mike Davis and the USGA recognize that. I think Mike has the idea that maybe, just maybe, you can have a U.S. Open that’s just a little bit different.”

Neither the USGA nor Pinehurst officials will disclose much about the financials of the event, but the U.S. Open is the USGA’s cash cow through media rights, ticket sales and corporate hospitality. The USGA did report that corporate-hospitality revenue from the Open ranged from $11.6 million to $13.6 million between 2008 and 2012. It expects the 2014 event to draw on the high end of that. Attendance of 325,000 in 2005 remains a U.S. Open record. “The business community in Pinehurst and around the state of North Carolina has always supported this event,” Jones says. “For one week, it is the place to be.”

In late February, corporate sales for the 2014 events, which are being packaged together, were further along than at any similar juncture post-2008, when the golf industry took a hit along with the rest of the economy. All 11 packages that include access to the Member Clubhouse have been sold. USGA sales materials set them at $385,000, which also buys 75 daily tickets to the men’s event and 30 daily to the women’s. Options for hospitality tents that include 100 men’s and 40 women’s Open tickets are $215,000. Pavilion tables are $45,000. The championship is certainly a boon to the host community. The Pinehurst, Southern Pines, Aberdeen Area Convention & Visitors Bureau estimates that the 2005 Open generated direct spending of $70.8 million and a total impact of $124 million. Numbers compiled by the USGA put the estimated total economic impact in 2008-12 at between $140 million and $170 million to the event’s host community.

“Having the Open come to Pinehurst was never about money,” says Pat Corso, who was president and CEO of the resort in 1999 and is now executive director of Moore County Partners in Progress. “It was about the ancillary benefits, about repositioning Pinehurst as a major player in the game of golf after several fallow decades. Our objective was to have Pinehurst become known as one of the three premier destinations in golf, along with St. Andrews and Pebble Beach. I think we accomplished that objective. Now, were the first two Opens financially successful? Yes, no question. We blew away the pro forma for the 1999 event. None of us expected anything like what happened.”

Residents and businesses in Pinehurst have had quite a lot of practice over the last two decades on the ins and outs of opening their community to the world. Before the 2005 championship, community leaders worked with the N.C. Department of Transportation to widen U.S. 1 north of Southern Pines to improve traffic flow from Raleigh. Now the big project is widening seven miles of N.C. 211 west of Pinehurst to West End. “It was an awful road, bumpy and unsightly, but it’s the only way into Pinehurst from the west, from cities like Charlotte and Winston-Salem,” says McKenzie, who worked as a bellhop at The Carolina Hotel in his youth and today is a real-estate executive and developer. “I drove out there the other day, and it’s like night and day. They have a long way to go, but they’ve shaped the side of the roads, planted some grass, the road is smooth. When they finish, I think the arrival into Pine-hurst will be so much more pleasant.”

Many residents are preparing to leave town and rent their homes to golfers, sponsors, tournament officials and media. Based on market rates for 2005 and guidelines issued by the USGA, a three-bedroom home could rake in $20,000 to $30,000 for the week of the men’s Open, a three-bedroom condo could fetch $7,500 and a two-bedroom condo could rent for $5,000. Larger homes adjacent to No. 2 or in the historic section of village will draw more. In 1999, David Woronoff — publisher of The Pilot, the thrice-weekly newspaper in Southern Pines — hired extra staff to crank out a 56-page edition every day of the event and got volunteers from the Boys & Girls Clubs of America to distribute it at every restaurant that served breakfast in Pinehurst, Southern Pines and Aberdeen. It worked so well The Pilot published 72 pages each day in 2005 and plans a similar effort in 2014.

Among the most popular spots in town in 1999 and 2005 were Old Sport & Gallery, a book and memorabilia store, Villager Deli and Pine Crest Inn. Tom Stewart, a former club professional who has owned Old Sport since 1996, opened early in the morning and closed not until well into the evening during the Opens. He made enough profit in 2005 to put a down payment on his building. “It’s a windfall for us. Of course, we’re all about golf. If you’re selling trinkets, I don’t know. But if there’s traffic, I like my chances.” Villager Deli owner Koley Keel did three weeks’ worth of business in just one around the 2005 Open and expects a healthy fortnight next year. “It was a fun week but a tiring week,” says Keel, who’s owned the deli since 2001 and set up about 40 extra seats on the sidewalk for the last Open. “We were open from 7 in the morning until about 8:30 at night and had steady traffic all day long. We tried to do it with just our regular staff. We won’t make that mistake again.” So many people gathered on the front porch of the Pine Crest one evening in 1999 that a joist broke, and the floor collapsed. Staff set up an extra bar outside during both Opens and used one of its two parking lots to erect a tent, serving burgers and chicken sandwiches under it. “We didn’t realize you had to have a permit to serve food outside,” longtime employee Linda Tufts says. “I had to run to the town office and give them a check for $150 just before 5 o’clock to make sure everything was legal. We didn’t make that mistake in ’05. We’re learning as we go.”

Chapel Hill writer Lee Pace is the author of four books about Pinehurst golf.