Club TFE Course Profile: Pinehurst No. 2

The Club TFE review and rating of Pinehurst No. 2


Pinehurst No. 2

Location: Pinehurst, NC
Architects: Donald Ross (original design, 1907); Robert Trent Jones (renovation, 1974); Rees Jones (renovation, 1996); Coore & Crenshaw (restoration, 2011)

Pinehurst No. 2 is one of the pillars of American golf—the home of the most prolific golf architect in American history, Donald Ross, and a newly chosen “anchor site” for the U.S. Open. For anyone who can afford its lofty price tag, it is among the few publicly available opportunities in the U.S. to play a Hall of Fame architect’s best work. Ross’s masterful design was expertly restored in 2011 by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw in one of the most important golf course projects of the 21st century. Coore & Crenshaw peeled back years of lush conditioning to reveal No. 2’s original aesthetics of wire grass and sandy native areas. Through this work, the course has become more natural and sustainable, maintaining less turf and requiring fewer resources and inputs. Pinehurst No. 2 is the rare high-profile championship venue that challenges elite players while also setting a responsible example for the golf course industry as a whole.

This Club TFE course profile on Pinehurst No. 2 was originally published last year, exclusively for members. Because of system issues currently affecting Club TFE sign-ups, we’re making the profile free to the public during U.S. Open week. Enjoy, and consider joining us in Club TFE when we’re back up and running!

Take note…

“Ross greens.” Pinehurst No. 2’s unforgiving turtleback greens, which repel even slightly wayward shots into collection areas, are core to the course’s championship identity. This style of green design is often associated with Ross, but it’s actually the exception rather than the rule in his catalog. No. 2’s greens evolved into their contemporary shapes over time, and Coore & Crenshaw decided to honor that evolution rather than trying to recapture their exact initial forms.

Casa Ross. Donald Ross’s Pinehurst home sits just left of the spectacular third green. The architect reportedly tweaked this green continually through the years.

Par is a social construct. As part of their work at No. 2, Coore & Crenshaw flipped the pars of the parallel fourth and fifth holes: No. 4 is now a par 4 and No. 5 is a par 5.

Dormant dreams. Pinehurst’s Bermudagrass goes dormant in the colder months and plays wonderfully firm and fast. If you can find a pocket of dry weather, winter is the best time to visit the resort. The wider range of shot options around the greens makes for a delightful experience. It’s thrilling to employ a Scottish-style bump-and-run and not see the ball grab on summer Bermuda. Another benefit to the winter is that lighter crowds mean somewhat faster play, but no matter when you show up, be prepared for a lot of waiting on No. 2.

Favorite hole

No. 5, par 5, 576 yards

The second of the back-to-back par 4.5’s on the front nine, the fifth is one of the rare holes at Pinehurst No. 2 where you feel pressure to make birdie.

The fourth and fifth occupy No. 2’s most dramatic terrain, and both call for long second shots from uneven lies. Since the holes run out and back, the direction of the lies is opposite: the fourth fairway banks significantly from left to right, and the fifth from right to left. On No. 5, playing up the left shortens the hole but comes with the risk of bouncing into the waste area. Because of the green’s severity, gaining access to it is difficult from any distance and angle. It has a big false front, a fall-off back right, and nasty bunkers in the likely zones for misses: left and short right. Because of how punishing these surrounds are, any score is plausible.

Illustration by Cameron Hurdus

Overall thoughts

I admire so many facets of Pinehurst No. 2’s design, ranging from how effortlessly it moves across its modest Sandhills property to its intricate greens, which strike fear into the hearts of players of all skill levels. It is perhaps the toughest golf course in America that doesn’t feature thick rough or an abundance of water hazards. It will kick your ass, yet you won’t lose a golf ball.

Above all, No. 2 wages psychological warfare on those trying to go low while remaining supremely playable for the masses. It’s a unicorn in this regard, as most championship courses verge on unplayable for 15 handicaps. In fact, it is more playable in some ways for the average golfer than for the scratch or better player. The course achieves this rare mixture through smart design and maintenance choices, the most influential of which can be seen on the greens, fairways, and native areas.

Speak to anyone about Pinehurst No. 2 and the conversation will quickly turn to the greens. They are utterly diabolical. Famously, most of them are substantially pushed up from the grade, with numerous repelling edges. What’s underrated about No. 2’s greens is how complex their internal contours are, and how these shapes relate to the overall strategy of each hole. Each green has small pockets that tempt players to aim away from the middle in order to pursue birdie opportunities.

A great example is the incredible second green, which runs on a diagonal from left to right and is protected by a bunker on the right and runoffs back and left. The green’s main internal feature is a large central bump. Off the tee, the safer line is up the right, but from that angle, the green is shallow and runs away. A precise approach shot is necessary to earn a birdie look. Players who get to the left side of the fairway are rewarded with a look at a deeper, wider target. Any type of approach shot will work. So the second green isn’t just punishing; it fits with the hole’s overall strategic design.

Approach to the second green at Pinehurst No. 2

Undeniably, Pinehurst No. 2’s savagely built-up, repelling greens have a cumulative psychological effect on skilled golfers. High-level golf is all about ball control, and controlling your ball is easier on a soft course with thick rough that holds inaccurate approaches close to the green. No. 2 offers no such comfort. If you’re a player accustomed to shooting around par, you’ll be constantly tempted to aim at flags in order to make up ground (and you will lose ground), but then you’ll start seeing your ball bound off the edges of greens to undesirable locales. After a couple of these shots, you’ll take on some mental scar tissue. You may react by playing too cautiously into subsequent greens, opening yourself up to more misses. At Pinehurst No. 2, you need to pick smart targets and swing freely. This is just hard to do because of how intimidating the greens are. It’s psychological warfare from beginning to end.

These mental gymnastics prompt a domino effect that travels back to the tee shots. After a few approaches from the wire-grass-dotted waste areas, you’ll understand how critical it is to drive the ball well at Pinehurst No. 2. Finding the fairway regularly is the only chance you have to score.

What’s brilliant about No. 2’s fairways is how they jog and narrow at key points. For average to shorter hitters, they are generous, almost all spanning at least 40 yards in common landing zones. For the tournament players, though, gaining short approaches will always be top of mind at a course with greens this vicious. And guess what, every fairway except the fourth pinches at longer tee-shot distances. Some stay fairly wide, such as the fifth, and others get extremely narrow, like the 11th, but in every case, the narrowing places an emphasis on driving accuracy and decision-making. On the seventh hole, for instance, pushing a driver up near the green can generate a great wedge opportunity, but laying back means a much better chance of finding the fairway. The conservative play will lead to a longer and more difficult approach shot, but one from a reliable lie in short grass. Longer hitters need to make this kind of decision on nearly every hole. Is it somewhat repetitive? Sure, but at least the narrowing is executed differently on each hole, with an array of widths and geometries.

Pinehurst No. 2’s fairway shapes are perfectly accompanied by waste areas. These sandy expanses are checkered with tufts (not tuffs) of the native wire grass, creating a signature look as well as a perfect hazard for the modern game. If you miss a fairway, you may land in a tuft of wire grass, and you’ll be hard pressed to advance your ball. You’re just as likely, however, to find a great lie, and the compact sand will give you a chance to hit a daring recovery with full spin.

This is what courses with great greens should do: goad players into trying difficult shots from disadvantageous positions. Sometimes you’ll succeed, resulting in thrills; other times you’ll fail and face a stern short-game test on your next shot. This unpredictability and variety of potential outcomes makes No. 2 dynamic and exciting even for the best golfers in the world.

For ordinary golfers, though, the waste areas work in another way: it’s easy to find your ball in them, and penalty strokes are rare. This is just one more reason why Pinehurst No. 2 combines championship difficulty and broad playability as well as any American golf course. -AJ

3 Eggs

Perhaps the best marker of a golf course’s quality is when each play increases one’s appreciation for its design. Pinehurst No. 2’s brilliance reveals itself with time and study. There are no weak holes, the land is scaled ideally for golf, and the resort’s agronomy team pulls off stellar presentation despite a continually packed tee sheet. Our only nitpick is pace of play, which is horrendous in spite of the presence of a team of marshalls. When a green fee gets to a certain level, it becomes tough to tell players to pick it up. A $500+ rate tends to give implicit permission to slow down and soak in the experience.

Course tour

Additional reading, listening, and viewing

Championship Chops: The 8th at Pinehurst No. 2 (article)

Donald Ross: A Golden Age Great (article)

Again, that was a free sample of the kind of content we publish on a weekly basis in Club TFE. We’re battling some tech issues right now, but once we’ve vanquished those, come back and join the hottest club in town! We’d love to have you.