Ross Legacy Enhanced Once Again
Greens Conversion At Pine Needles Elevates Vintage Golf Experience
By Lee Pace
The 1928 Pine Needles golf course reopened in early September with freshly planted bermuda greens, some new bunkers and a few subtle tweaks to its overall appearance. The project improves the playability and ambiance of a classic Donald Ross course that, paired with the Mid Pines layout across Midland Road, gives Pine Needles and Mid Pines resorts as fine a set of vintage Ross courses as exist in the world.
“I’ve seen a lot in golf, but I don’t know where you can show up and stay at the same hotel and play two very well-preserved Ross courses like these,” says architect Kyle Franz, who coordinated the work along with the resort’s maintenance staff. Franz supervised the restoration of the 1921 Ross-designed Mid Pines layout in 2012-13 that has been roundly applauded by members, resort guests and architecture buffs.
“We have two different looks now— the Mid Pines course is very rugged and natural looking, the Pine Needles course not quite as extreme but still very much the look and feel of classic Ross design,” Franz says.
Kelly Miller, president and CEO of the company that owns and operates both Pine Needles and Mid Pines, said the successful conversion of the greens at Mid Pines in 2013 is part of the motivation to do a similar greens resurfacing at Pine Needles.
“We believe that bermuda greens are an integral part of helping us achieve the overall design philosophy of Donald Ross as it allows for firmer surfaces on a year-round basis,” Miller says. “While the winters are a bit more challenging when extended low temperatures require us to cover the greens at night, we feel the benefits of having outstanding bermuda greens in the summer far outweigh this winter inconvenience.”
The work began in early June 2016 and the new greens were planted in July with MiniVerde, the same strain used at Mid Pines. Those greens have been well-received as they putt smooth and true during the hot summer months when bent greens are watered and softened to stay alive.
“We’re really excited about this project,” says Miller. “The old stigma on bermuda greens is that they were grainy and slow, but that’s not true anymore with the new ultra-dwarfs. We had nearly 50 days with temperatures in the 90s during the summer of 2015, and it’s a struggle to keep the bent healthy. Meanwhile, the greens really thrived at Mid Pines. After watching them closely for two years, we thought it was time to pull the trigger at Pine Needles.”
Pine Needles and Mid Pines both remain in essentially the same routing and configuration as when they opened nine decades ago, the only difference that the hole numbers at Pine Needles have changed to allow for a new beginning and end to the course after the Bell Family bought the property in the 1950s and built a new clubhouse and lodge.
The bermuda greens at Pine Needles combined with some restructured fairway lines and bunkers modified to make them more visible will more closely link Ross’s original style with the modern game.
“We’re trimming around a lot of bunkers and adding some shapes and flutters so you can see them better,” Franz says. “We’re keeping fairly close to the style you saw from Ross in the 1940s—with the bunker faces flashed up enough that you can see them.
“We’re also adjusting some of the mowing patterns. On some holes, we’ll maintain rough on one side and mow to the tree line on the other side. The fairways had gotten pinched in pretty tight in some cases that the strategic element of the hole had gotten lost.”
Beyond the bermuda greens, changes that golfers familiar with the course will notice are new bunkers on two, nine, eleven and 18.
Three bunkers have been spaced on the right side of the second fairway, mimicking a technique Ross used often. A new bunker will be positioned on the right of fairway in the 280-yard range from the back tee.
“The bunkers will be spaced 50 to 60 yards apart, but Ross made it look as if there is no room to miss between them,” Franz says. “It will look like a wall of bunkers in front of you, but actually they’ll be spaced out. It will be a little more daunting tee shot. It will be more risk-reward if you aim to the right side to get a better look at a left-side pin.”
Franz built a series of bunkers down the right side of the par-four ninth fairway and redesigned the mowing line, all to give players a moment’s pause about pulling the driver out and banging away.
“If we can get them into the 130- to 150-yard range for the second shot, it changes the dynamics of the hole somewhat,” Miller says. “There’s also a bunker front-left of the green that you really can’t see from the fairway. Kyle rebuilt it so it will flash up and be more pronounced.”
The fairway of the par-four 11th was inordinately wide in the landing area, so Franz built a bunker on the right side. He’s also sculpted a bunker complex on the left side of the 18th fairway and redesigned the fairway lines to make it more visually and competitively stimulating.
“Eighteen was originally the first hole. We want it to be more of a finishing hole,” Franz says. “We have a terrific-looking bunker complexdown the left side and it’s been turned into a very memorable finishing hole. We’ve also extended a couple corners of the green to add some new hole locations. It will be a great finishing hole.
“Looking back up the fairway from the green, before you essentially saw two straight mowing lines. It looked like a bowling alley. Ross’s fairways had such great motion. We’ve let one side go to the native, hardpan sand look. It adds a lot to the finish.”
Miller understands that Pine Needles has served many constituencies over the years and thinks the new greens and design enhancements will better address the desires of the better player. A handful of new tees will stretch the course during another project to follow in 2017.
“We want to make the course a little more relevant for the good player,” Miller says. “We’re thinking about the 30, 35-year-old guy with a good game. We want to have adequate length but not make it harder for our newcomers who come here for a Golfari.”
The work continued throughout the fall and Franz is making frequent return trips to Southern Pines to tweak and continue his work. All the bunkers on 15 have been rebuilt and adjusted in placement, for example the second one on the left of the fairway being moved 15 yards closer to the tee and more into the fairway. The bunker in the corner of 17 fairway has been raised so it’s more visible from the fairway.
“We plan on working on every bunker by March 1 of 2017,” Miller says. “Already people have been impressed with the playing surfaces, shot-values and more natural appearance. That will only get better as the restoration matures.”