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April 26, 2014

DeCock: Pinehurst renovations about future as much as past

While the reworking of Pinehurst’s No. 2 course returned it to the spirit of the original Donald Ross design, it also reduced the course’s water usage, a major priority for the USGA going forward.

The return of Pinehurst’s No. 2 course to the spirit of the original Donald Ross design is in so many ways an embrace of the past, of tradition, of what the master architect intended. It may also be a brave step into the future.

The renovations conducted by Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore ahead of the U.S. Opens in June, working from archival photos and Ross’ original plans and drawings, replaced the rough with the sandy areas of scrub brush and wire grass Ross originally intended.

Not only are the changes pleasing from the golf and aesthetic perspectives, they’re revolutionary from an ecological perspective. By removing 40 acres of grass, Pinehurst cut its water usage on the No. 2 course almost in half.

It’s an important issue for the U.S. Golf Association, which has put its two flagship national championships together for the first time this summer. Running the U.S. Open is the most visible page in the USGA’s portfolio, but perhaps more important are its administrative roles, overseeing both the rules of golf and the growth of the game.

Over the years, in the service of the latter mission, the USGA has taken on slow play and encouraged youth participation. But as Pinehurst steps into the spotlight, it also happens to be a test case for the USGA’s newest initiative.

“All of us who care about the game, we talk about the time it takes, the dwindling participation levels from junior golfers, we talk about the cost of the game. At the USGA we would say the biggest threat, the biggest threat to the game longterm, is water,” USGA executive director Mike Davis said. “When you think, whether it’s 20 years from now, whether it’s right now in certain parts of the country or a hundred years from now, water is going to be the thing that ultimately is going to affect the game the most.”

Ross’ original designs for Pinehurst, completed in 1907 and tweaked until he died in 1948, predate modern irrigation equipment and use the Sandhills’ natural terrain and scrub brush in much the same way the first Scottish courses utilized the inherent topography and hazards of pastures.

As technology improved, wide expanses of grass became the American standard. A Golf Course Superintendent Association of America study found that U.S. golf courses use more than 2 billion gallons of water per day, about 0.5 percent of the country’s water use. For some courses, that can cost more than $100,000 annually.

For decades, Augusta National’s lush vistas of perfect green turf have been the ideal. Even Pinehurst fell into the trap, papering over the waste areas with acres of turf carpet under previous owners. That was the course the world saw at the U.S. Open in 1999 and 2005.

The world will see a very different course this time around, because in a future where water resources will be increasingly scarce, golf courses constructed that way will be increasingly unsustainable. Pinehurst’s renovations were conducted with that in mind.

“First, it was to become more authentic. Secondly, be more strategic. And the third was really – and I think this is really about the future of golf – is to be more sustainable, certainly ecologically,” said Pinehurst Resort owner Bob Dedman. “They removed over 40 acres of turf, over 700 sprinkler heads. We spend a lot less on chemicals now. It is tough to maintain these courses to look in their natural state, but that’s good for golf. So it’s more sustainable ecologically, but also economically.”

Few courses will have the plans of an early 20th Century genius to fall back upon, let alone the money to conduct the kind of comprehensive renovations Pinehurst has undertaken. But every golf course in the country will, to some degree, have to address the water issue.

Whether it’s through reclaimed water or greywater or on-course retention ponds, the amount of water used by golf courses is going to shrink. It’s an environmental and financial necessity.

Beyond the renovations, Pinehurst stopped overseeding the No. 2 fairways in the winter, letting them lie dormant instead. They remained perfectly playable, if not perfect in appearance. That saves water and reduces the use of fertilizer, another ecological benefit. In the summer, the fairways aren’t watered as often as they were, leaving them firmer to usher off-target drives into the waste areas.

“We hope that this kind of shows the golf world that this can be done other places too,” Davis said.

The overwhelming theme of these Opens in June will be about the past, about Pinehurst as it was meant to be, as Ross envisioned it. The real impact may be on the future, about golf courses as they will have to be built and maintained for the game to thrive.

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