I awoke early morning on Kiawah Island. I had a persistent cough that had made it hard to sleep. I also awoke with a new ailment. Somehow during the night, I had sprung my big toe. I found it hard to put weight on my right foot.
It was 4 am and as dark outside as I'd ever seen it. The darkness also engulfed my mind as I wondered whether I'd be able to play golf as planned on this day at Pinehurst which was a four hour drive away. I hobbled and loaded the car before starting my drive into the darkness with a blind hope that my toe would stop hurting by the time I stood on the tee box of the legendary course in the pine trees of south central North Carolina.
Into the darkness I drove headed toward an unknown fate. As I drove, I was greeted by a beautiful sunrise and cloudless sky. It was a crisp but beautiful morning. Along the roads though the fields that made cotton king, I drove. My toe wasn't feeling any better and my spirits weren't either as I considered the prospect of facing Pinehurst #2 with my body not at its best.
As I approached the historic facility that is home to not only Pinehurst No. 2, but 8 other courses, I thought back to my days of playing through pain as an athlete. I remembered the last football game of my junior year in high school when we faced Saint Pius X with Gary Kubiak as quarterback. I was playing defensive end. St Pius X, like almost every other high school team in Texas during the late seventies ran the wishbone offense.
The wishbone set was one with a quarterback under center, a fullback directly behind him and two wingbacks slightly behind and on each side of the fullback. On defense we were in a 4-3 set. This was a defensive set with four down linemen, backed by three linebackers, a cornerback on each side, a strong safety and a free safety. I played defensive end on the left side of the defensive line. Yes, all lanky, 6 feet three inches and 165 pounds of me. This position was one of the four down linemen (as in Ed “Too Tall” Jones and Mean Joe Green, not that I was trying to add “Slim Jim” to that list). By the way, in small Texas towns, every player played offense and defense. On defense I was a lineman. On offense I was a wide receiver.
Almost every play out of the wishbone started in the same manner. There was actually just one play, “the triple option.” The quarterback would start down the line, put the ball in the belly of the fullback, if there was an opening in the line, he'd give the ball to the fullback. This was the first option. If there was no opening, he would keep the ball as he continued down line. As the quarterback came down the line, it was my job to knock his jock strap off. If I didn't, he executed the second option which was to keep the ball and turn up field. If I did hit him, he would take the third option which was to pitch to the wingback if the cornerback didn't come up and take him out. This was Texas football in the era after Darrell Royal had made this offensive set famous after winning several National Championships at the University of Texas and pretty much dominating the old Southwest Conference.
On a sunny Saturday afternoon in Texas (yes Friday night lights sometimes took place on Saturday afternoons because there were not enough stadiums to play all the games on Friday night), Gary Kubiak and I met in a collision along the left corner at the intersection of the offensive and defensive lines. I hit him as hard as I'd ever hit anyone. In an attempt to knock his jock strap off, I picked him up and threw him to the field. As I slammed him to the ground, my right hand got caught between the hard Texas ground and the shoulder pads that protected his chest. The first metacarpal in my right thumb snapped. My hand immediately began to swell. I think Gary’s bell may have been rung, but his jock strap was intact. My hand was not, but this was Texas football. I was young and invincible. Besides, this was the last game of the season. I would have the full off-season to recuperate. So, I played on. At halftime I did get my hand taped, but I did what I had learned to do as an athlete. I sucked it up and played through the pain. I didn't know at the time whether my hand was broken or not. I did know that it hurt a lot.
X-rays later showed that the bone was broken in half. To repair it required surgery to install a pin. My right thumb still bears the scars from that surgery. But on that Saturday afternoon, it didn't matter. This was Texas football and I was an athlete. So, I sucked it up. On this crisp Monday morning in North Carolina, it would be no different. Just as I had a job to do then, I had a job to do now and that was to play the top 100 courses on the Golf Digest 2017-18 list in one year. So, I had to suck it up. I took 800 milligrams of ibuprofen, put on my golf shoes and got ready to play golf.
As I arrived at Pinehurst I entered the club house and made the long walk down the hallway from the entrance to the clubhouse to the Pro Shop. This had to be the longest walk from entry to pro shop at any of the 52 clubhouses I’d been in up to this point. The walls were filled with the history of all the championships that had been contested on Pinehurst #2. This place was as steeped in history as Merion and Baltusrol. At the end of the hallway was a case with the trophies for each of the championships.
I entered the Pro Shop where I chatted with the first assistant pro Matt about my quest to play the top 100 courses. The head pro, another Matt had not yet arrived. As I left the Pro Shop, I headed to the men’s locker room to get a locker to store my belonging. I asked this young unassuming guy if there was a locker attendant. He said no, but he'd be happy to help me. He got a key and assigned me to locker number 102.
After storing my things, I headed down the stairs to the caddie station. I was assigned a legendary looper for my round. My caddie on this day was Jeff Ferguson, known around these parts as “Ratman.” Jeff had been inducted into the Pinehurst Caddie Hall of Fame. He was one of ten caddies who had been so honored.
Jeff was born to be a caddie. Literally, he was born in a hospital on the second tee box at Southern Pines. The building had started out as a hotel. It was then converted to a hospital but was now an assisted living facility. Jeff and I joked that the end of his life could occur in the exact building where it began. Jeff told me that the most famous person he had caddied for was Davis Love III back in the 80’s. I told him that my game was probably going to be a little different than that of DL3.
By now the pain in my right big toe had subsided. The Advil had done its job. I was able to put pressure on my right foot. I felt no pain as I warmed up on the practice range. The slight limp I had as I favored my left foot, disappeared. After a few full swings, Jeff and I headed to the practice green to putt from off the green and to chip. Jeff made it clear to me that scoring at Pinehurst #2 would be hard because the greens were difficult to hold. He said that I would hit some shots that would look really good, but good would simply not be good enough. I didn't quite understand what he meant at the time, but I quickly learned that on Pinehurst #2, good shots are not good enough!
There are precious few flat spots on the greens. Jeff told me that during championships on the course, they keep a stat – greens hit but not held. Keeping the ball on the green whether it's an approach shot, a chip, a bunker shot, a putt from off the green or even a putt from on the green, is hard.
I practiced my putts from off the green and I practiced chipping. Jeff and I got comfortable that either should work for me. We then headed to the first tee where we met, Peter, a gentleman’s gentleman, Barbara, stylish and classy, and Mike, as salty as they come. All three were members at Pinehurst. Peter and Barbara were married and lived primarily in Las Vegas and part time at Pinehurst. Peter was a retired Pathologist. Barbara told me that she decided to take up golf while on a couple’s golf trip in Ireland. She decided one day to walk the course with the women as they played their round. She said her decision to take up the game occurred on a hole where her friend Margie hit the ball into a deep bunker. She looked at Margie and said, “that’s going to be a tough shot.” Margie looked at her and said, “no it won't, it will be an easy shot.” With that, Margie stepped down into the bunker, picked up the ball, tossed it onto the green and said “see, I told you it would be easy.” That’s when Barbara decided that golf was a game that she could play. Now in full disclosure, I did not see Barbara use a hand wedge at any time during our round. She hit solid shots and played very well, especially for someone who had only been playing the game for three years.
Mike was from Idaho. He was retired. He had spent a career running restaurants and bars. He later told me what kind of bars, but we won't get into that. It's time to talk about my round.
We played from the white tees. They measure just 6300 yards with a rating of 70.7 and a slope of 126. The first hole at Pinehurst # 2 is wide open and unintimidating. The fairway is generous. It is bordered by sand and trees on both sides from the tee boxes to the green. There is a bunker in the fairway about 40 yards short of the green and one on the left side of the green. The hole measures 375 yards. I hit my first drive of the day to the right, the ball rolled into the sand. There were trees blocking the path to the green.
My only shot was to pitch the ball back to the fairway. My third shot landed on the green, pin high to the left of the flag. It looked like a good shot, but it wasn’t good enough because the ball rolled left and off the green.
I putted from off the green to 12 feet. I missed the bogey putt and ended up with a double bogey to open my round.
The 410 yard par four second hole has a fairway that is even more generous than the one on the first hole. Like the first hole, it is lined with tall pines and lots of sand. The sand is in the form of hard pan waste areas and several bunkers. The fairway does narrow as it approaches the green which is angled to the right. I hit a nice 250 yard drive down the left side of the fairway leaving 160 yards to a back left pin position which took the bunker off the front right of the green out of play.
I hit a seven iron on my approach shot to just right of the flag. The ball rolled by the pin and off the green to the left.
I chipped on and two-putted for a bogey. After two holes, I’d hit two good shots to the green and neither of them were good enough. Both shots rolled off the turtle back greens. The challenge of Pinehurst #2 is clearly its greens. In two holes, they’d already cost me two to three strokes.
The fairway on the short par four third hole is slightly narrower than the previous two holes. The hole measures 330 yards with trees that are very tight along the left side and room between the right edge of the fairway and the trees. There is a bunker that cuts into the fairway from the right about 80 yards from the green. I hit my three hybrid off the tee to the left side of the fairway.
I hit my approach shot fat. The ball landed in the sand well short and right of the green.
My sand shot landed on the green and then rolled back into the sand. I hit my next shot to six feet.
I made the putt for a bogey.
The fourth hole is rated as the hardest hole on the course. The hole measures 435 yards from the white tees with one of the narrowest fairways on the course. As with all the previous holes there are trees, waste areas and bunkers lining both sides of the fairway. The hole was playing into a stiff wind. Jeff said that I wouldn’t be able to reach the green in two, so I should play it like I par five.
Well I love a challenge. I told him that I was just going to have to hit the ball hard. And that’s what I did, 250 yards right down the middle into the stiff wind. I swung out of my FootJpys and didn’t feel even a tinge of pain in my toe.
With 190 yards left to a back right pin on a green with a long bunker off the left side and a small bunker off the front right. The green slopes right to left. I hit my three hybrid into the stiff wind. The ball held its line and landed to the right of the flag, pin high. It then rolled closer to the flag, leaving a 15 foot down hill putt for birdie. Jeff looked at me in amazement, handed me my putter, and I took a nice long walk in the short grass. While a good shot might not be good enough, a perfect one works just fine!
I tapped my birdie putt. It creeped toward the hole and turned ever so slightly as it reached it. I tapped in for my first par of the round.
While there are some long par fours on Pinehurst #2, the four par fives are all rather short and are rated as the four easiest holes on the course. The fifth hole is the first of these par fives. It measures just 460 yards from the white tees. The fairway makes a right to left dogleg turn as it flows past the bunkers and cuts gently through the trees. There is sand off the left and right sides of the bunker. Jeff said that even with the wind at my back, it would be hard to reach the green in two on this short par five. Like I said, I love a challenge. I hit a nice fade that easily carried the first fairway bunker on the left, landed in the fairway 220 yards out and rolled to 190 short of the green.
The pin was positioned on the back left portion of the green. I started by approach shot along the right side of the green, trying to draw the ball back toward the flag. The ball stayed straight, landed pin high on the right side of the green and rolled just off the right edge.
My eagle putt had the right speed but didn’t come down toward the flag. Now I was left with a five foot downhill breaking birdie putt. I missed the putt and tapped in for a very disappointing par.
The sixth hole is a 180 yard par three with a large green that has lots of sand just off the left and right sides. I hit my tee shot fat. The ball landed well short of the green.
I pitched my second shot to three feet left and short of the flag. The ball rolled back toward the front of the green and then rolled left and into the bunker. I then hit my sand shot to three feet short of the flag, the ball rolled back into the bunker again. I had hit two really good shots and was lying three in the bunker. My fourth shot stayed on the green. I made the putt for a double bogey.
If the sixth hole didn’t convince you that at Pinehurst No. 2, a good shot isn’t good enough, the seventh hole surely will. The hole is a 385 yard par four with a fairway that makes a hard dogleg from left to right at about 150 yards from the green. The fairway is framed by sand on the left and the right. I hit my drive straight down the middle of the fairway. A drive down the middle of the fairway is usually a great drive on any hole. Not on this one. The ball rolled through the fairway into the sand off the left just past where the dogleg begins.
I lost my footing on my approach shot and hit the ball way right.
I hit my third shot onto the green. When I hit the ball, I thought I’d hit a good shot, but at Pinehurst No. 2, you can’t say good shot until the ball stops rolling. Mine didn’t stop rolling until it was off the green. I chipped on and two putted for a double bogey.
I thought that I was hitting the ball well, I’d hit the ball fat a couple of times and had balls that didn’t fade or draw like I wanted, but I was striking the ball well. Yet, after seven holes, I had three double bogeys, two bogeys, and just two pars.
The eighth hole is another of the short par fives on the course. It measures just 440 yards from the white tees. The narrow fairway slants to the left, then bends to the right, and then back to the left before heading toward the green. All while it slopes from right to left. I hit my drive 265 yards down the left side of the fairway. The ball rolled just off the left edge, leaving 190 yards to a middle left pin.
My club hit the sand before hitting my ball. The ball landed well short of the green.
I pitched on to five feet below the flag and made the putt for a birdie.
Finally, a score that represented how well I was playing on this day that begin with an ailing toe and doubts that I’d even be able to play with the ensuing pain. 800 milligrams of Ibuprofen work wonders.
The front nine ends with a par three that was playing 160 yards into the wind to a back middle pin position. I hit my seven iron to 20 feet to the right of the flag. The ball rolled down the slope back toward the front of the green, stopping 45 feet from the hole.
I hit the ball too hard on the uphill birdie putt. The ball rolled 15 feet past the hole. My par putt held its line and dropped into the cup. A birdie, par finish to the front nine resulted in a score of 43. I felt like I’d played much better than that but was pleased that I finished the front nine well.
The back nine opens with the third of the short par fives on the course. The hole measures 455 yards from the white tees with a narrow fairway that winds through the trees past two fairway bunkers on the left and sandy areas on both sides. My drive started along the right side of the fairway, faded and hit a tree. The ball kicked back toward the tee box and landed in the sand 270 yards from the green.
I laid up with my second shot to 95 yards short of the flag which was positioned slightly left of middle on a large green with very little flat space. That’s why Jeff advised that I lay up to my lob wedge distance. This would set me up to hit a high shot to a part of the green that would hold the ball.
I hit a high approach shot with my lob wedge that landed exactly where we had planned, 12 feet to the right of the flag.
Unfortunately, I left my putter face open on my birdie putt and the ball slide just right of the hole. I tapped in for a par to open the back nine.
The 375 yard par four 11th hole has one the narrowest fairways on the course. The fairway looks deceptionally wide because of the space between the trees. However, there is more sand taking up that space than there is fairway. There is one actual fairway bunker in the sand off the left side of the fairway near the landing zone. The green is also well bunkered. I hit a nice 250 yard drive down the middle of the fairway leaving 130 yards to the green.
I pulled my approach shot and the ball landed in the left greenside bunker.
I hit my sand shot to 30 feet short and left of the hole. My par putt stopped just short of the cup. I tapped in for a bogey.
The twelfth hole is the second of four straight par fours on the back nine. It measures 360 yards. It’s another hole with more sand between the trees than fairway. The fairway is very narrow and very undulated as it approaches the green. The fairway also bends from left to right as it approaches the green. I hit another drive down the middle of the fairway, leaving 115 yards to a back middle pin.
With the pin at the back of the green, Jeff was worried that the ball might roll off the back of the green if I tried to get the ball all the way to the flag with my approach shot. I told him that with only 115 yards left, I could hit a very high shot with my sand wedge that should be able to hold.
My approach landed just below the flag and spun back. It then rolled down slope toward the front of the green leaving a long putt for birdie.
I lagged my birdie putt to two feet right of the cup and made the putt for a par. I had now played the last five holes at even par.
The thirteenth hole is another short par four. It measures 360 yards but with all the hard pan sand along both sides of the fairway and a well bunkered green, it was rated as the sixth hardest hole on the course. There are probably fewer trees on this hole than any other hole on the course. I caught the top half of the ball on my drive. The ball never got more than three feet above the ground, but it traveled 210 yards and stopped in the left side of the fairway.
I hit my approach shot right at the flag. The ball landed on the front left portion of the green and rolled back off. It was a good shot, but not good enough.
I chipped on to four feet but missed the par putt and made a bogey on the hole.
As we walked to the fourteenth tee box, I was surprised at how easy the course was playing. The greens were tough and hard to hold, but the layout of the course seemed easy. I asked Jeff what type of scores the pros usually shot while playing the course. He started by telling me that the worst score that he had seen on the course was a 162, so clearly the course was not that easy. He went on to say that Hal Irvin, Tom Watson, and Gibby Gilbert held the course record at 62, but that the most impressive scores were a pair of back-to-back 65’s shot by Martin Kaymer during the US Open that was contested on Pinehurst No. 2 in 2014. I think all those scores were safe on this day.
The fourteenth hole is the last and longest of four straight par fours. It is also rated as the second hardest hole on the course. The hole plays very straight from tee to green. The fairway gets very narrow at about 100 yards out from the green. The sand cuts into the fairway several times from that point to the green. I continued with some of my best driving during my quest. The ball landed in the middle of the fairway, 155 yards from the pin.
My approach shot landed 20 feet to the right of the hole.
I left my birdie putt one foot short of the cup and tapped in for a par. I had now made par on the two hardest holes on the course. If I could have handled the greens better, and made a few more putts, I would have a good round going.
The fifteenth hole is the first of the two par threes on the back nine. The hole was playing 180 yards to a back middle pin position. The hole is straightforward. There was nothing between the tee box and the green, but air and opportunity. I hit slightly behind the ball on my tee shot and the ball landed a foot short of the green.
I hit my birdie putt online but not nearly hard enough. The ball stopped 15 feet below the flag. I hit a really good putt for par, but it just wasn’t good enough. I’m not sure how the ball got by the hole without dropping in, but somehow it did. I made the comeback putt for a mysterious bogey on the hole.
The sixteenth hole is the last and the longest of the par fives on the course from the white tees. It measures 480 yards. The hole has the only water on the course. There is a small pond off the left side of the beginning of the fairway. The rest of the fairway is lined with the usual suspects – pine trees, hardpan sand, and bunkers. The fairway has a slight dogleg left. My driving prowess continued. Jeff told me to take the ball over the left bunker just past the pond. He said that was the line the Pro’s usually hit there drives on. So, I hit my drive over the bunker on the left to the left side of the fairway.
My second shot landed short of the green and in the bunker off the front right side.
My third shot landed on the right side of the green and rolled into the fringe off the right side.
My ineptness at putting continued with a three putt. My first putt from just off the green hopped and didn’t get to the hole. My five-foot par putt was a good putt, but like some of my other putts, it wasn’t good enough and didn’t drop into the cup. I made a very disappointing bogey.
The 17th hole is the last and easiest of the par threes on Pinehurst No. 2. I should say that it is rated as the easiest hole. In my opinion the fifteen hole is easier. It is longer from the white tees, but the front of the green is wide open. The 17th hole has a smaller green with bunkers that comes into play along the left side, the right front and the right side. There is also a bunker off the back right for balls that are hit over the green.
I hit my tee shot to the left side of the green. From the tee box it looked like the ball rolled off the green and into the bunker. I was surprised and pleased when I got to the green and saw that the ball had stopped just inches from the edge of the bunker.
I didn’t have much of a stance, but I was able to putt the ball to 10 feet right of the flag. I then finally made a putt that was more than a couple of feet and made a par on the hole.
Pinehurst No. 2 finishes with a tough par four. At 365 yards, the hole isn’t very long, but it has a narrow fairway with tight trees along the left side and sand and trees along the right side. I hit way behind the ball on my drive but was able to square the club face. The ball didn’t travel very far, but it did land in the fairway. The good news is that I hit every fairway on the back nine. I missed three on the front nine, but one of those was a nice drive that ran through the fairway. The bad news was that on the 18th hole, my drive had traveled just 135 yards. I was 230 yards from the green.
I have a rule of thumb about waiting for the green to clear. If after your drive, you are standing closer to the tee box than you are to the green, you don’t need to wait for the green to clear before hitting your next shot. Well I didn’t have to worry about that since the green was already clear when Jeff and I approached my ball. I then hit one of my best ever three wood shots. I hit the ball toward the bunker on the left side of the green expecting a slight fade and to avoid the large sandy area and bunker on the right front portion of the green. The ball stayed straight, landed short of the left front bunker and then rolled in.
My bunker shot was another good shot that wasn’t good enough. The ball landed on the green and rolled off the front of it.
I putted onto the green but missed the cup. I made the next putt to end my round with a bogey for a 41 on the back nine and a total score of 84. I don’t think I could have gotten close to the 76 I shot on the Shore Course at Monterey Peninsula Country Club, but if I’d putted better, I think I could have broken 80.
Following my round, I returned to the Pro Shop to see if the Head Pro was around. Turns out that the unassuming young man who had assigned a locker to me before my round was Matt, the Head Pro. We spent a few moments talking about my quest and my opinion of the course. I told him I thought the course was fair and very playable except for the difficulty in keeping the ball on the greens. The sixth hole had been especially irritating for me after hitting two shots within three feet of the hole and having the ball roll into the bunker. I also told him that I enjoyed meeting the legendary Jeff “Ratman” Ferguson and having him on my bag for the loop.
All-in-all it was a good day at the historic Pinehurst Resort. After my conversation with Matt, I stopped to take a picture by the statue of Payne Stewart in the legendary pose following his 1999 win at the US Open. Payne Stewart was one of the golfers I admired during the years before I started to play golf. He has class and a passion for the game. I loved he wore knickers. I have a couple of pairs in my closet thanks to him. And all of us that live in warm climates should thank him for inventing sleeveless rain gear. Legend has it that one day he ripped the sleeves off his rain gear and a new style was born.
After my picture in the ironic pose, I loaded by clubs in the car and headed for Wilmington, North Carolina for my round at Eagle Point Golf Club the next day.