Golf is going through clear growing pains - most especially in the United Kingdom and United States. After The Great Recession ended in ‘09, the number of total golfers has been declining. The drop in America has been in the range of 20-25%.
The new generation of Millennials - those born since 1980 - have not replaced aging Baby Boomers. Golf facilities are facing serious challenges in keeping club rosters full with active members. In the last few years in America, courses closing have easily exceeded openings by a significant margin.
One of the emerging strategies that seems to be making some clear headway is reinvestment in facilities - both on the golf side and elsewhere. This is especially so on the resort side. Locations that depend on visitors are keenly aware that failure to stay “relevant” will likely mean a bleak future.
Among the leaders in America is Pinehurst. The Village in North Carolina is steeped in a rich tradition with golf being at the forefront. In 1895, James Walker Tufts purchased 500 acres and eventually purchased an additional 5,500 acres of land for approximately $1.25 per acre in the Sandhills region of North Carolina. The vision of Tufts was to create a special getaway location - free from the harsh Boston winters where the Tufts family called home. In the years to follow, the Tufts family cultivated a resort second to none. The Village of Pinehurst was the handiwork of the skilled planner Frederick Law Olmstead - the man hired by Tufts who was responsible for the creation of Central Park in Manhattan, NY and countless other community projects throughout America. Fast forward to present times and the Resort now has nine golf courses under its umbrella, three hotels, a spa and a multitude of sports and leisure facilities.
Renowned architect Donald Ross created his most significant design in the creation of the iconic #2 Course which was completed in 1907 and continuously worked on by Ross for the remainder of his life. Amazingly, the facility hosted just its second major championship - the US Open in 1999 - but the premiere event in American golf returned in ‘05 and ‘14 and a fourth event is scheduled for ‘24.
Much of the success of Pinehurst in recent years is tied to the stewardship of the club by the Dedman family. Robert H. Dedman, Sr., through his company ClubCorp Holdings, Inc., was the guiding light in taking ownership of the Resort in 1984 after a bleak 14-year ownership control by the Diamondhead Company. The golf side of the equation had drifted from its original intent and Dedman played a proactive role in reinvigorating the Resort. Prior to his passing in ‘02 - his son Robert H. Dedman, Jr., had taken the reins of ClubCorp and while that company was sold in ‘06 - the Dedman’s kept ownership of Pinehurst. In the years to follow - Dedman, Jr. played a key role in hiring the talented architectural duo of Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore to restore the qualities of the famed No. 2 course. That unveiling took place on the grandest of stages when over a two-week period both the men’s and women’s Open Championships were conducted in consecutive weeks in June 2014.
Even with these successes, the golf world is changing rapidly and selling history and tradition will only go so far - especially for a Millennial audience interested primarily in how relevant a resort can be to their needs now.
Just opened a few weeks ago is The Cradle, a 9-hole short course that even the newest to the game can enjoy. Designed by golf architect Gil Hanse, The Cradle features holes ranging from 56 to 127 yards. Mere steps from the Resort Clubhouse, it is the same area where, in 1898, Dr. Leroy Culver carved our first nine holes out of the sand. Over the next century, Pinehurst came to be referred to as the Cradle of American Golf. The Cradle is built on the land where the very first golf holes at Pinehurst were built in 1898. In short order, the Pinehurst Golf Links were hailed as a triumph in early American golf, leading many to adopt the design principles of Pinehurst all over the country.
Gil Hanse, whose design projects include work at some of the most well-known courses around the world: the Rio Olympic Course, Winged Foot, Merion, Los Angeles Country Club and others took a hands-on approach in building the Cradle, spending several weeks at Pinehurst on a bulldozer crafting his design.
The Cradle incorporates many of the traditional and trademark golf course characteristics that Pinehurst has become known around the world for, including native sandscape rough and wire grass and rough-hewn bunkers guarding sloping greens. Greens fees for The Cradle are $50 for adults, and vary seasonally. The fee is for the day, and golfers may enjoy replay rounds. Kids 17-and-under play The Cradle free when accompanied by an adult. The Cradle is open to the public, which can inquire about tee times 24 hours in advance.
On October 2nd of this year, Hanse began his year-long redesign of Pinehurst No. 4. Last redesigned in 1999, No. 4 will return to many of its original characteristics when it was first designed in 1919 by Donald Ross. Hanse will return sandscape rough with native grasses and wire grass, allowing No. 4 to better represent the era in which it was originally built.
Pinehurst opened its original putting course, Thistle Dhu, in 2012. As part of the Hanse renovations, Thistle Dhu was moved to the primary putting area about the iconic Putter Boy statue. The new Thistle Dhu is 75,000 square feet – four times larger than the original – and features rolling hills and wide, sloping valleys over 18 holes of fun, putting challenges. Thistle Dhu is open to the public.
In September 2016, Pinehurst opened the Deuce, a new pub overlooking the 18th hole of Pinehurst No. 2. Adorned with vintage photographs and other memorabilia illustrating the storied history of No. 2, the 5,000-square-foot Deuce serves provides a slew of food and drink options. The bar, which is open to the public, features an assortment of specialty cocktails and North Carolina craft brews.
Pinehurst will also open a new microbrewery and restaurant in the late spring of 2018 at the historic steam plant in the Village of Pinehurst. The plant, which opened in 1895 and helped Pinehurst prosper from its earliest days, is located less than a mile from The Carolina Hotel and is mere steps away from The Manor Inn and the historic Village of Pinehurst. The Pinehurst Brewery will feature on-site brewing and comfortable indoor and outdoor seating, including a beer garden. Much of the original brick and façade will be used in the restoration of the building, including its unique brick corbeling and original steel windows.
The various investments are all crucial elements in keeping the Pinehurst name front and centre. The original vision of James Walker Tufts has clearly come a long way since its humble beginnings. Golf is still the main item at Pinehurst Resort and the countless slew of other courses that are in and around the area. But the nature of what role golf will play in the 21st century is still an evolving storyline. Short courses such as The Cradle will no doubt play a role. Can such courses bring more people into mainline golf? That question remains to be answered. What is clear is that those facilities which fail to make timely improvements will likely be on the casualty list - whether in the short or long term.
Pinehurst’s promise was to provide a clear getaway from the daily drumbeat of ordinary life. The Village of Pinehurst provides an authentic charm at its core, where gentle conversations mix with robust commerce. Years ago, Clifford Robert, the major domo of Augusta National Golf Club, was asked by a media person about the “changes” made to the course. Roberts bristled at the insertion of the word “change” and countered that Augusta had made “improvements.” In summary, you can sell yesterday’s history, but one needs to live in the present moment because there is a clear fine line between a location being seen as “rustic” and one that is simply “rust.”
The pathway others follow will no doubt differ in scope but failure to act means certain demise. Pinehurst is a link to when the roots of golf germinated in America. Keeping that promise alive is now taking shape. How matters fare will be a most interesting scene to observe in the years ahead.