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Pinehurst remembers US Opens, wonders when next one will arrive

Spectators give Martin Kaymer a rousing ovation as he approaches the 18th hole during the final round of the 2014 U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2. Kaymer won the tournament by an eight-stroke margin.
Spectators give Martin Kaymer a rousing ovation as he approaches the 18th hole during the final round of the 2014 U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2. Kaymer won the tournament by an eight-stroke margin. NEWS & OBSERVER FILE PHOTO

A year ago, Tom Pashley spent Father’s Day watching Martin Kaymer win the U.S. Open on Pinehurst No. 2, later joining him for a champagne toast at the Carolina Hotel.

This year, Pashley’s Father’s Day will be spent at home with family, leisurely watching the U.S. Open telecast.

Pashley, president of Pinehurst Resort, is passing up a trip to Chambers Bay in the Pacific Northwest, where Kaymer will defend his Open title this week. Like most in Pinehurst, his job and his life returned to a more relaxed normalcy after Pinehurst hosted both the U.S. Open and U.S. Women’s Open in back-to-back weeks last June.

The Open doubleheader was unprecedented. It was, as former U.S. Golf Association executive director David Fay put it, the “grand experiment.”

For two weeks in June, Pinehurst was the “epicenter of the golf world,” to use another of Fay’s expressions. Kaymer was a runaway winner in the U.S. Open and Michelle Wie gave the two-week run a dynamic finish in the U.S. Women’s Open with an emotional, long-awaited breakthrough victory in a major.

And then Pinehurst went back to being Pinehurst.

A new pool complex is being built to the left of the resort’s iconic clubhouse. The No. 2 greens were converted from bent-grass surfaces to Champion bermuda after the Opens and the restored No. 2 course, brazenly brown during the playing of the Opens, has a greener appearance. There is a business-as-usual manner, at the club and in the village.

“It’s amazing how we can be seemingly overwhelmed by a major event, then so quickly be back to being the quaint, quiet village again, “ said Pat Corso of Moore County Partners in Progress, an economic development company.

Corso once was a big part of bringing the major events to Pinehurst and the No. 2 course that Donald Ross sculpted out of the Sandhills. As former Pinehurst president, Corso worked closely with the late Don Padgett, then director of golf at the resort, in securing the 1999 and 2005 U.S. Opens.

Not if but when

Fay first broached the idea of back-to-back Opens to Donald Padgett II, who followed his father’s path to Pinehurst and became the resort president in 2004. It came up at breakfast at the Pinehurst Track Restaurant, Fay recalled, over a plate of blueberry pancakes.

Fay likes to joke that when Padgett didn’t immediately dump the pancakes in his lap, he knew there was a good chance of Pinehurst hosting the unique golf doubleheader. Padgett checked with his boss, Pinehurst owner Bob Dedman, who gave his approval and it was on.

Padgett retired in October and was succeeded by Pashley, who now fields the two most-asked questions: when will the U.S. Open return to Pinehurst and will there ever be another Open doubleheader at No. 2?

The USGA awarded the 2017 U.S. Amateur Four-Ball Championship and the 2019 U.S. Amateur to Pinehurst, but what about getting the big one back? Some of the locals are guessing the U.S. Open will be back in 2023 or 2024 – the USGA has sites selected through 2021 – but Pashley prefers not to guess.

“I always quote the USGA and they’ve said it’s not a question of if but when,” Pashley said last week. “We are in ongoing discussions. With the U.S. Amateur announcement, we’re in no rush. We feel blessed to have one on the calendar and one of their majors. So we just kind of wait patiently for the timing to work itself out, knowing it’s not a question of if but when. Who knows when it will be.”

As for staging another doubleheader, Pashley said, “You never say never. It went so well.”

Economic boon

The U.S. Women’s Open was held in 1996, 2001 and 2007 at the nearby Pines Needles resort and the long-time owner, Peggy Kirk Bell, was disappointed in missing out on the 2014 championship. Fay, who retired from the USGA late in 2010, mentioned Pine Needles and Mid Pines Golf Club – also owned by the Bell family – while discussing possible U.S. Women’s Open sites.

Having Opens in back-to-back weeks proved to be an economic boon. There was $140 million in visitor spending, with an economic impact of more than $238 million over a 26-county region, according to a report prepared for the USGA and the Pinehurst, Southern Pines and Aberdeen Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.

In terms of attendance, the report said there were 340,834 “unique gate scans” for the two Opens. Corporate support again was strong.

“It was a statewide effort and I’m not sure you see that in other markets,” Pashley said.

While the two weeks were a blur for Pashley and those at the club, he said there was a moment early in U.S. Open week that was unforgettable. The USGA’s Bob Jones Award was presented to the family of the late Payne Stewart, the 1999 Open champion, and Stewart’s daughter, Chelsea, later posed for photos by the statue of her father behind the 18th green at No. 2.

Stewart’s wife, Tracey, seemed hesitant to join her, Pashley said, but finally approached the likeness of Stewart’s indelible victory pose.

“She kissed him on the cheek,” Pashley said. “That will always be memorable.”

Browning effect

Most of the golfers’ concerns before the Opens centered on No. 2 and its playability for two weeks. Some of those competing in the U.S. Women’s Open questioned if the greens would be too stressed or the fairways and green surrounds would have too many repaired divots after the men were finished.

Bob Farren, Pinehurst’s director of golf course maintenance and grounds, and Kevin Robinson, then the No. 2 course superintendent, worked with the USGA to see that no such issues arose. The course had undergone an extensive renovation by Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore, narrowing fairways and adding more natural areas and native grasses to give No. 2 a more rustic look, and the weather before the Opens resulted in a browning effect.

Some aesthetic criticism stung. “We knew it would happen, because people were used to seeing it green,” said Robinson, since promoted to golf course maintenance manager for the nine Pinehurst courses.

Robinson noted while it rained all around the Pinehurst area, there was just one significant “rain event” during the Opens. He said No. 2 was “100 percent” greener now than a year ago.

But appearance aside, No. 2 played much the same for the men and women, even if Wie couldn’t match Kaymer’s eight-shot victory.

The final round of the U.S. Open was on Father’s Day, and Pashley said Kaymer, dressed in a white T-shirt and jeans but without the Open trophy, later attended a small, private champagne and sushi party that night at the hotel.

One Open down, one to go. “Halftime,” Farren said.

Then, Wie won. Farren soon noticed some large, noisy generators near his office no longer were humming.

“All was quiet again,” Farren said. “It was over, we did it and we were undefeated.”

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Twitter: @ice_chip

U.S. Open sites

2015 Chambers Bay, University Place, Wash.

2016 Oakmont (Pa.) Country Club

2017 Erin Hills, Erin, Wis.

2018 Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, Southampton, N.Y.

2019 Pebble Beach (Calif.) Golf Links

2020 Winged Foot Golf Club (West Course), Mamaroneck, N.Y.

2021 Torrey Pines Golf Course (South Course), San Diego

U.S. Women's Open sites

2015 Lancaster (Pa.) Country Club

2016 CordeValle Country Club, San Martin, Calif.

2017 Trump National Golf Club, Bedminster, N.J.

2018 Shoal Creek Golf and Country Club, Birmingham, Ala.