Riding a motorized contraption though the pine forests set well to the perimeters of the holes of Pinehurst No. 2 is no way to spend four hours. Lost is the feel of the sandy loam under your feet, ignored are the moments to consider that seventy years ago Ben Hogan tread this ground and forty years ago Jack Nicklaus did as well. There are bunker edges to study, random growth amid the wiregrass to examine, problems ahead to contemplate—i.e. loft a chip over the edges of the crowned greens or pop a seven-iron into the slope?
Indeed, Pinehurst’s perpetual and quite justified “cart-paths only” policy on its tour de force makes taking a cart quite the folly. It’s pedal-to-the-metal, screech to a halt, guess a distance, grab three clubs, scurry across the fairway, catch your breath, lay sod. Repeat.
“This golf course was not meant to be played out of a golf cart,” says Tom Harmicar, who’s lived in Pinehurst since 2007 and has doubled as a member and a caddie. “Riding a cart here is like going to 31 Flavors and ordering vanilla.”
“You get to the ball too fast when you’re riding,” adds Willie McRae, at 84 the most veteran member of the caddie staff. “There’s no time to think.”
Richard Tufts of the Pinehurst founding family clung to old traditions until the veins popped in his forearms. The late Peggy Kirk Bell, proprietor of the Pine Needles course in Southern Pines, heard him say, “There will never be a golf cart in Pinehurst.” Curt Sampson in his book Eternal Summer addressed the proliferation of golf carts in 1960 and quoted Tufts as saying they were “almost degenerate.” Further, Sampson wrote in one masterstroke, the idea of golf carts to many at the time was “like Mickey Mantle taking a motorcycle to first base.”
Thankfully, the walking tradition lives on at Pinehurst. Caddies are available to resort guests, and certainly a popular bucket list item for many golfers is to play No. 2 with a caddie. If you’re not checked that one off, do so post-haste. Members have been allowed for quite a while to walk any course at any time, and the resort recently has green-lighted hotel guests the option to walk and carry as well. One of the club’s programs geared toward walking golfers is “Executive Golf”—a Tuesday afternoon twilight outing where members walk as many holes possible before dark, generally making it through the thirteenth hole, which returns to within a couple hundred yards of the clubhouse.
“It’s perfect for guys who still work,” says Patrick Butler, 53. “Some of the retired members can’t walk or don’t want to. But there are a lot of younger guys who enjoy it. It’s a way to get in some weekday golf after work.”
I’ve taken numerous caddies on The Deuce over the years—including MacRae and the late Fletcher Gaines, both members of the resort’s Caddie Hall of Fame and fonts of wisdom and good stories—and have toted my bag a handful of times as well. On this Tuesday in August I have joined Butler, Jason Richeson and Derek Pszenny as the lead group among some five foursomes in the Executive Golf outing.
“I count it as a workout day,” says Pszenny, a former Marine. “You’re walking five miles at least, carrying a twenty-pound bag, going up and down hills. It’s a good workout.”
It certainly is on this particular day, with the temperature checking at 92 as we’re walking down the first fairway. These first four holes will be forty-five minutes of the hottest golf I’ve ever played (weather, I mean, not a slew of birdies), and on the par-four fourth hole, my eyes sting from the salty sweat in my eyes as I address my second shot. But the sun recedes a little more each hole until soon it’s tucked comfortably behind the tall pine trees.
Of particular note here in the dog days of summer are the firmness of the three-year-old Champion Bermuda greens. It was during this August-September window in 1974 that Johnny Miller carved the place up with a sixty-three and three years later Hale Irwin added a sixty-two on soft bent greens that the players said were the consistency of a dart board. Several greens iterations later, the upside-down wok designs of Donald Ross are quick and true during the heat of the day, even slicker with a new dusting of sand applied the day before to help manage the frenetic August growth of the Bermuda grass.
“Buckle your chin strap,” Butler says of the taut and speedy putting surfaces. “With greens this quick, we try to play to the flat spots. That’s usually the center, but not always.”
He reels off the spots to avoid—left of the first green is dead, right of two is doomsday—and as we go around he observes that on the whole the pins are pretty tough, perhaps on account of the championship match of the Men’s North and South Senior having been played earlier. The hole on the 436-yard fourth hole is cut back-left, tucked behind a bunker.
“We call that an X-Box pin,” he says. “That’s a pin you see on a video game playing with your kid.”
Much of the talk as we lumber along is just as it is on every street corner and taproom in Pinehurst—the science of the golf swing. Pszenny has been playing a dozen years and admits to “still trying to figure whole thing out.” Butler is a ten-handicapper and plays best when he adheres to the mantra of “keep it simple. I tend to get too many moving parts and too many swing thoughts,” he says.
Richeson is the crack golfer in the group, playing from the tips while the rest of us move up to the more reasonable members tees. Walking along the seventh fairway, he cites an interesting observation he heard from Brandel Chamblee on The Golf Channel that a vast majority of golf’s greatest players allowed for slight lifting of the left heel in the backswing.
“I’m trying that with my driver,” he says. “It’s just a tiny little bit, not enough for anyone to notice. But it frees up your hips and allows you to make a fuller turn. I’m driving it pretty well. I can hit it far but not always straight. Today, I’m not missing the fairway by much, if at all.”
“I’ll roll with it a little while and see what happens.”
We play the last four holes against the lengthening shadows, the sun setting to our right as we head up the tenth fairway. Just a while earlier, the carillon in the Village Chapel hit its six o’clock chimes. To say each of us is blessed is an understatement.
“This is the sweet spot late in the day—holes ten, eleven, twelve,” Richeson says. “I love it out here. There aren’t a lot of people out here. The way the sun sets, the shadows are perfect.
“This is what golf is all about,” he continues. “It’s the way golf ought to be played. It takes me back to being a kid, when I walked with my dad. It’s peaceful, you’re getting some exercise and you have time to think about your shot.”
I have to admit this business of finding fellow walking devotes to stroll Pinehurst No. 2 late in the day is not a new idea. I did so in 1998 writing the second edition of Pinehurst Stories, again in 2004 while working on The Spirit of Pinehurst and again in 2011 while writing The Golden Age of Pinehurst. There’s never a shortage of golfers singing from the same hymnal.
“We’re the fanatics,” longtime club member Les Fleisher said six years ago. “We may be the last of a dying breed. We enjoy playing the game in its simplest form. The sad thing is that most guys have lost the ability or interest to walk. It’s not a walking game anymore. One guy the other day said, ‘Why would I walk if I can ride?’ Well, I don’t have an answer for that.”
It sort of falls into the category of you either get it or you don’t. Thankfully at Pinehurst in 2017, they provide the option for those who want to enjoy one of golf’s most exquisite flavors.
Lee Pace chronicled the restoration of Pinehurst No. 2 by Bill Coore & Ben Crenshaw in his 2012 book, “The Golden Age of Pinehurst.” Follow along as he hikes some of the best golf courses in the Carolinas for a book to be published by UNC Press. Ideas and stories welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.