Club TFE Design Notebook: Architect Roundtable on Pinehurst No. 2

Plus: Some cool photos of The Kittansett Club


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Hello and welcome back to Design Notebook, where we can’t wait for our first look at a ball hitting a green at Pinehurst No. 2 and rolling… somewhere else.

In this special U.S. Open-week edition of DN, we’re excited to present an extended roundtable discussion of Donald Ross’s No. 2 course with four practicing golf architects: Rob CollinsBlake ConantMike Koprowski, and Jaeger Kovich. It’s a rich and insightful deep dive into one of America’s greatest courses. Enjoy!

Architect Roundtable: Pinehurst No. 2

By Garrett Morrison

It’s not hard to get a golf architect talking about Pinehurst No. 2. For students of golf course design, Donald Ross’s masterpiece in the North Carolina Sandhills is an essential textbook—an example of what’s possible on a well-draining and decently varied but not exceptionally dramatic piece of land. To learn the nuances of the No. 2 course is to receive a graduate-level education in routing, strategic design, bunker shaping, green contouring, and the presentation of turf and native areas.

So in preparation for this week’s U.S. Open at Pinehurst, I emailed four golf architects to get their thoughts on the finer points of No. 2’s architecture. Below you’ll hear from:

Rob Collins, principal at King-Collins Golf Course Design and designer of Sweetens Cove and Landmand

Blake Conant, principal at Dundee Golf and co-designer of Old Barnwell

Mike Koprowski, collaborator with Kyle Franz and co-owner/co-designer of Broomsedge

Jaeger Kovich, principal at Proper Golf and longtime shaper for Gil Hanse and Tom Doak

Donald Ross is often cited as one of history’s great routers of golf courses. What do you admire about the routing of Pinehurst No. 2?

Rob Collins: The variety. While each hole presents a new set of questions, it remains cohesive and ties together perfectly. For a site that doesn’t feel like it has a ton of contour, there is also great variety in the pitch and slope of the holes. It’s always shifting and keeping you on your toes from the first tee to the 18th green.

Blake Conant: The juxtaposition of being repeatedly bludgeoned while taking a pleasant stroll. That distinction is unique among great and difficult golf courses in the U.S. Pine Valley, Oakmont, Seminole don’t feel that way. You’re happy to be at those places playing golf, but in a masochistic way. At Pinehurst you’re just happy. The terrain is high and dry and sandy. There’s an abundance of dramatic topography surrounding No. 2, but Ross wasn’t tempted by it, for it’s made of a heavier clay soil. He was happy to trade dramatic terrain for better-draining soil, and it’s maybe the best lesson he/Pinehurst has taught the golf architecture community. Second, the difficulty is more about focus, concentration, and repeated execution. Playing well at Pinehurst is less like a heavyweight boxing match and more akin to driving through the Midwest during a snowstorm. The physical exertion is low, but the mental toll builds over time, almost without you realizing it. It’s technical and stressful and no single maneuver is hard, but collectively the focus and energy to get through four hours of it drains everything out of you, and you wonder why you’re exhausted once you’re through. And that’s what’s so strange about the walk at Pinehurst, internally you’re grinding but doing so in such a peaceful, serene, and beautiful setting. I’m not sure there’s anything else like it, really.

Jaeger Kovich: It’s not your classic Ross routing that uses the same couple natural ridges over and over again for multiple greens, tees, and landing areas. I like how Pinehurst No. 2 meanders around. It has a few sequences of two-hole loops, but doesn’t feel simply out/back and parallel. It even works around the massive driving range in a way that doesn’t seem forced. It’s gentle but also purposeful.

Mike Koprowski: Pinehurst No. 2 should give all architects hope that you can still build a perfect 10 on land that isn’t spectacular. While blessed with deep sandy soils, the land movement itself is pretty darn flat (with the notable exceptions of holes 4 and 5). In addition to constructing what I believe is probably the best set of greens on the planet, Ross maximized every square inch of the topography with his routing. Take, for example, the switchback eighth hole, where the landing area usually has the ball slightly above your feet, but a tug left of the green is death and the appropriate miss is almost always short right. Or consider the modest ridgeline where the 13th green is perched, 15 feet above the fairway landing area, which is now the false front from Hell. Even when Ross had virtually no land movement to work with at all, he would do something interesting with the grassing line and/or green orientation. Take, for example, the second hole, which is pancake flat. On the tee, the grassing line is offset left of the player, so balls are landing somewhat diagonally across the fairway which makes it harder to hit than it appears. Golfers can see the pin from the tee, and it’s usually dangling somewhere along the right edge of the fairway grassing line. Naturally, your eye is enticed to take the shorter route directly at the pin, but, of course, this oddly oriented green will only accept shots from the left side of the fairway.

I live in Pinehurst and have played No. 2 probably 300+ times, and I am continually amazed at the subtle genius. It never gets old. You can easily find “better land” just in Moore County alone, but you’ll never find a better designed golf course anywhere in the world.

Pick one hole and discuss what you like about it.

Conant: The first hole [pictured below] grabs your attention, mostly because of the green. The tee shot is wide and flat, but you can’t miss. I like holes that put pressure on you right out of the gate. Separates people immediately. Green-side, the deep bunker left, the grassy hollow short, and the roly-poly ground right make for tough recoveries.

Aerial view of No. 1 at Pinehurst No. 2 (Fried Egg Golf)

Collins: No. 1 sets the tone thematically for much of what you are about to encounter. The fairway is generous, but it’s hard to get comfortable on the tee. It’s hard to silence the negative thoughts: what if I tug it a little left? I know it will be hard to make par from there. What if the fairways are firm and it runs through on the right? Same thing, par will remain elusive. Once in the fairway (hopefully!), you know that a good swing will put you on the center of the green. It doesn’t seem that hard, but then the thoughts come back… a pull left will leave a very difficult shot and a push will leave a delicate up and down that you might have the opportunity to try more than once thanks to the beautifully rolled edges of the putting surface. In the end—and just like the rest of the course—it is a perfect blend of simplicity, varied shotmaking questions, and an understated yet very bold green complex that can reward you or ruin your day in a hurry.

Koprowski: Tough to pick just one hole, but I’ll go with the short par-4 third. While most holes at Pinehurst No. 2 require extreme discipline and restraint from the player, the third is probably as close to a “risk/reward” hole as you’ll get. Some players will try to drive the green, which sits high in the air and is protected by bunkers left, right, and short, and has a deadly runoff long if you go over the back infinity edge. I usually play my rounds early in the morning, and I love watching the sun peek over the horizon line of this gorgeous green complex. If a player tries to go for it off the tee, the opening to this green is about 10 yards wide and requires a fade, so no player can reasonably expect to hit the green in one shot. It’s more about your risk tolerance given the strong likelihood that you’ll end up somewhere around the green. And here, it’s a mixed bag. Long is dead in all circumstances, as the green rises sharply from the front to back.  The left and right bunkers aren’t too bad, as long as you haven’t short-sided yourself to the pin.  There is a sea of fairway grass left of the left greenside bunker that looks like it’s a good bail area from the tee, but you’ll soon realize that you’ll have a 40-yard approach shot over a deep bunker with the green running impossibly fast away from you. The fronting bunker is pretty easy to front and middle pins but is really dicey to back pins—the only way to get it close from the front bunker to a back pin is to carry it almost all the way to the pin, which is perilous because a few paces long of the pin will roll off forever into the abyss. All in all, you’re really rolling the dice if you try to drive this green. But there is a less risky route, which is to lay up short of the fairway cross bunker, as close to the right edge of the fairway as you can get. This leaves you about 100-120 yards into the green and nearly every pin is accessible from this position (except maybe the far back-left pin which is always a sucker pin). The green contours themselves are beguiling, with a pronounced middle-left nose and a subtle front-right nose creating havoc on a green that is already aggressively sloped and tilted with false edges everywhere.

Kovich: No. 9 is a beautiful par 3. I love the restored bunkering. It is super artistic, natural, and very authentic to how it was back in Ross’s time. The two-tiered green (high left and low right) is awesome. It’s very wide and shallow, which makes it super difficult to hit/hold. The giant tier makes it almost two greens in one. It’s a wonderful test for a mid- or short iron.

No. 14 green at Pinehurst No. 2 (Fried Egg Golf)

Pick one green (from a different hole) and discuss what you like about it.

Koprowski: I’ll talk about the 14th green [pictured above], one of my favorites. So much is said about No. 2’s pushup turtleback greens that sit above grade with a false front. But what is often overlooked is that several greens sit at grade, at least in certain sections. The approach to the 14th green has a 20-yard-wide portion that is perfectly at grade and is totally flat—no capricious micro humps and hollows, which is en vogue at the moment in architecture. If players hit a lower shot into this approach, they can expect a very predictable straight bounce into the green. It’s also a good miss for a front pin, leaving a very makeable up-and-down. The 30 yards leading into 14 green is very gentle, and I think a front pin on 14 makes it one of the easiest holes on the course. However, for every inch back the pin goes, the hole gets incrementally harder and eventually turns into an all-out monster. The at-grade front of the green progressively falls off on both the right and left edges. The pinnable surface narrows with each step toward the back of the green. By the time you get to a back pin, you are essentially “walking the plank” with the sharpest falloff on the entire course waiting over the green. This green is a great example of the day-to-day versatility of No. 2.

People ask me: “What’s the hardest hole on No. 2?” And I always say: “No clue, tell me where the pins are.” I think half (maybe even three-fourths) of the holes on No. 2 can play as the hardest hole on any given day, based purely on where the pins are placed. The 14th is no exception. When I stand on the 14th tee and see the pin in the front, I think birdie. When it’s in the very back, I think about not making double. A big thing I’ll be watching during the Open is how fast the USGA gets the greens. If they go too fast for the sake of being fast, then a lot of the tastiest pin locations become unplayable and they’ll be forced to stick pins in the middles of the greens.

Kovich: 18 is always super fun to play into. There are always people around and watching to applaud a good shot in. The classic Payne Stewart hole location is always entertaining, especially when someone makes a big putt and does that famous pose. They are sure to get a round of applause from people eating in the clubhouse. There are just so many good memories on that green—I think it is really a special one in public/resort golf.

Overhead view of the green on No. 18 at Pinehurst No. 2 (Fried Egg Golf)

Collins: I’ll take the third green. Again, it’s a dazzling blend of subtle and bold. As a short par 4, it will be one of the most delicate short irons you’ll ever hit. It’s simultaneously a simple and terrifying shot. If you go long and left, you may consider quitting the game. Once on the green, you’ll find some of the most deceptive breaks on the course. Tad [King, Collins’s design partner] and I once had an opportunity to putt around on the third for an extended period of time & we marveled at the visual deception of the break.

Conant: One green doesn’t stand out above any others in my opinion. There are certain pins that I love, though. Back right on 3, front right on that little crown on 5, front right on 9 where a seemingly perfectly struck shot can hit the green then trickle off the right, and anywhere back on 14 because it’s so hard to give it enough.

Which aspect of the No. 2 course’s maintenance and presentation since Coore & Crenshaw’s 2011 restoration do you think courses elsewhere should emulate?

Kovich: The mowing lines and having just two heights of cut. The greens and everything else. They try to keep things as simple as possible at Pinehurst No. 2, and the presentation is really elegant.

Collins: American courses have suffered from an epidemic of overwatering for generations. Going to a simple, single-row system made the course better in every way. The fairways at the edge are always crisp and varied in appearance, which blends perfectly with the sandy scrub. Also, the resort has drastically cut its water usage, an approach that helps the team fully put the brilliant ground-hugging architecture on display.

Koprowski: Since the restoration, the maintenance team deserves major praise daily. The vast sandscapes on No. 2 require constant vigilance. They don’t happen by accident and, if left untouched, would turn into an unplayable jungle. The native areas always strike that perfect balance between “I might get lucky” and “I might be screwed,” which creates a great anticipation as you walk to your ball to find out. But somehow, you never lose a ball. Members who play No. 2 a lot often talk about how they don’t lose balls, they retire balls. The presentation remains so beautiful, unassuming, and natural. Everything sits low to the ground, the bunker edges are frayed and broken, and the Bermudagrass gently bleeds into the native areas, exactly as nature would have it. They don’t try to “over-maintain” the course—i.e., perfectly clean bunker edging, hard lines between fairway and native, etc.—which inevitably leads to things looking fake. There is just an elegant messiness to No. 2. The back sides of bunkers spill over into the broader native areas; the wiregrass is clumpy and not arranged in any symmetrical fashion; the formal bunkers are raked but nothing else is; the sand is not perfectly consistent, sometimes leaving you with fluffy lies and sometimes with hardpan. And, perhaps most importantly, the maintenance team doesn’t obsess about lush green—the turf is always solid, firm, and fast. I think more courses would do well to consider these principles.

Conant: For courses trying to mesh an irrigated landscape into a native landscape, let the grass and irrigation tell you where the grassing line should be. Yes, the architect threw down a flag where he/she wanted the grassing line to be, but Mother Nature has the final say. The mesh point is critical in selling a landscape that’s of the place. At Pinehurst, there are four transitions that happen seamlessly because the superintendent(s) and architects don’t impose their will on the mesh points. Irrigated bermuda transitions to native sandy soil which transitions to wiregrass which transitions to pine forest. At Pinehurst, the philosophy seems to be, “Yes, we’d like the grass to end here, but if wind, shade, sun, or water thinks it’s better two yards or four yards in this way or that, then we won’t fight it.” I’m on board with that.

Pinehurst No. 2's aesthetic is a lovely blend of the natural and the man-made (Fried Egg Golf)

As briefly as you can state it, what about Pinehurst No. 2 do you think continues to challenge elite golfers?

Conant: Contoured green complexes draped in abundant short grass.

Kovich: It’s pretty simple really: due to the raised green complexes surrounded by tightly mown turf a missed shot rolls really far away!

Collins: The combination of firm turf and contour is undefeated. It always has been and always will be the most compelling hazard in golf, and No. 2 displays this better than any other American course.

Koprowski: I think it’s fairly simple and old-fashioned: the convex shaping and the unpredictable native areas.

[Ed. note: That’s the briefly stated part, but Mike kindly offered to elaborate on those ideas below.]

First, we see broad, convex shaping that relies more on slope and tilt instead of undulation. En vogue right now is shaping that is more of the complex, undulating variety. We’re increasingly seeing greens that have prominent sections and frequent concave features that ricochet offline balls toward pins—kickers, feeders, backstops, ridges, whatever you want to call them. They’re essentially things you can use to move balls toward pins. These features offer forgiveness to the less skilled golfer in the name of fun and they reduce the disparities of outcomes between great, mediocre, and bad shots. To be sure, there is a time and place for that style. Pinehurst No. 2, by contrast, is repellant literally everywhere. You won’t find punchbowls or kickers out there! No. 2 widens the disparities between great, mediocre, and bad shots, but it doesn’t employ any bells and whistles to do so. You won’t find island greens out there! Instead, the course just uses ground contours of the convex variety. Broad landform convex shapes generate the toughest chips and toughest putts that an elite player can experience—the first half of the shot is uphill and the last half of the shot is downhill, and there is nothing behind the cup to crash into.  Is there a harder shot in golf to dial in? While it might not show very well on Instagram, a subtle convex shape remains, to this day, the ultimate test of skill, perception, touch, and nerve. More abrupt green contouring makes things obvious to the elite player. But at No. 2, there are so many subtle internal slopes and tilts that one cannot possibly read with the naked eye, but rather can only learn with time. It will surely drive this week’s field crazy.

Second, the native areas are very unpredictable—an elite player’s worst nightmare. Uniform rough is predictable, which elite players can handle. At No. 2, it runs the gamut from perfect lie to whiffable. And the fairways on No. 2 are easily missable, which means every player is going to have to navigate the natives at several points. Sometimes I read about how No. 2’s fairways are “wide,” which I suppose is a relative term. Sure, they are wide enough to think about angles—they aren’t like the bowling alley Opens of yesteryear. I’d guess most are around 30-35 yards wide in the landing zones, which isn’t really that wide and certainly pales in comparison to the gargantuan fairways that we are seeing in the modern neo-classical era. I’m sure we can all think of a course built in the modern era where an elite player could literally not miss short grass if they tried. That will not be the case this week. I think Pinehurst No. 2 uses width very effectively—always enough to think about angles, but never needless.

Despite the repellant nature of Ross’ masterpiece, it remains eminently playable for the weaker golfer—no forced carries, no lost balls, and the ability to putt the ball from way off the green. Don’t get me wrong—weaker players are still going to shoot a high number on No. 2, but probably no higher than at Bushwood Country Club with its usual array of OB and water (Caddyshack, anyone?). But unlike Bushwood, you can host a U.S. Open on No. 2 at a moment’s notice. Granted, you can also host an Open at Oakmont at a moment’s notice, but the weaker golfer is usually going to shoot a million times higher at Oakmont than they will on No. 2. Perhaps the most vexing question architects encounter is how to challenge the elite golfer while remaining playable for the weaker golfer. This is especially at the top of mind at my Broomsedge project. No. 2 remains the gold standard in this category. Very, very few places can do both.

A Course We Photographed Recently

The Kittansett Club (Marion, MA)—designed by William Flynn and Frederick C. Hood in 1923, restored by Gil Hanse starting in 1995


“The man who doesn’t feel emotionally stirred when he golfs at Pinehurst beneath these clear blue skies and with the pine fragrance in his nostrils is one who should be ruled out of golf for life.” -Tommy Armour

To repeat, because of backend tech problems affecting Club TFE sign-ups, we are making some of this week’s member content available to the public. If you enjoyed what you just read, come back and join Club TFE when we’ve sorted things out! Design Notebook is our weekly roundup of golf architecture-related news, musings, and photography, with writing from Garrett Morrison and Andy Johnson, insights from industry experts, and more.