Danesha Seth Carley knows not every golf course can undertake an $11 million restoration the way Pinehurst No. 2 did for its unprecedented doubleheader U.S. Opens. The resort paid architects Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw a lot to take the course back to Donald Ross’ original vision when it opened in 1907 and the course’s heyday in the 1940s.
The assistant professor of crop science at N.C. State knows that not every course in North Carolina – where the golf industry pumps $2.6 billion into the economy every year – will be able to convert its Bermuda rough into natural areas filled with Eastern prickly pear, pineweed, flea bane, pink purslane or other native plants that returned to Pinehurst No. 2 after more than 40 acres of Bermuda was stripped from around the fairways.
She knows not everyone completely appreciates the importance of what may be remembered as golf’s boldest experiment, with brown edges on the fairways and purposefully unkempt natural areas. Such is the result of taking out more than 700 sprinkler heads and going back to a straight-line irrigation system, which helped the resort reduce its water usage by some 40 million gallons per year.
The results of the radical restoration, however, speak for themselves, especially in the eyes of the United States Golf Association and Pinehurst Resort. The daring challenge to host back-to-back men’s and women’s championships on a zero-rough golf course was roundly lauded by the golfing public.
USGA and resort officials couldn’t have been more pleased with the way the course held up to world-class play both weekends, to the wilting June heat and to a recent dry spell that saw only one significant rain event in the six weeks leading up to the Opens.
Sure, there was some grousing by TV commentators and fans who don’t yet accept that brown is the new green and that there is nothing wrong with playing off dormant – not dead – Bermuda fairways.
The players, men and women alike, said they loved the set up and the look, especially, as you might imagine, winners Martin Kaymer and Michelle Wie.
Carley and her team of graduate and undergraduate students, with the help of a grant by Morrisville-base Bayer CropScience, spent three years cataloging more than 80 native plants as they returned to the grounds of the historic course, filling in the gaps around the 200,000 sprigs of native wire grass hand planted by the restoration team in the natural areas. They identified what those plants looked like when emerging, when blooming and when dormant, and showed them to Coore and Crenshaw and Pinehurst officials, who picked and chose which plants they would like to thrive.
They took that research and developed pocket guidebooks to give to the grounds crew, showing them which native plants to keep and what invasive and native plants to destroy.
“We originally came down here to say, ‘Here’s what you’ve got,’” Carley says. “What we ended up doing was making a broader biological survey, with plant counts and a process to identify the plants that need to stay and those that need to go. The plants that stay, in other circumstances, might be considered weeds. Here, they are an important part of what the course will be.”
Generally, the native plants are less flashy than, say, the blooming azaleas of Augusta National. But, Carley notes, they have a subdued beauty in the khaki backdrop of sand, pine needles and wire grass.
“One of the things we hoped throughout the process is that the traditional idea of a Southern country club golf course will be changed,” Carley says. “A course as historic as Pinehurst No. 2 doesn’t have to be wall-to-wall Bermuda grass, manicured within an inch of its life. It’s okay for it to be a little wild.”
The Pinehurst Resort and the USGA consistently say they didn’t make changes to the course to reduce water, fertilizer or herbicide usage. It was a side benefit to restoring one of the nation’s oldest and most important courses to Ross’ original design.
But, as USGA president Mike Davis said leading up to the Opens, the biggest issue facing the golf industry is not in building participation but reducing the amount of water – a superintendent’s most precious commodity – used in daily upkeep. The restoration certainly isn’t for everyone.
“Most courses don’t have the resources to do a whole scale renovation the way Pinehurst No. 2 did, but anybody can start with a little area and do some of what Pinehurst did, if they are interested,” Carley says. “This is an inspiration to reform the thinking about what golf courses need to look like.
“Pinehurst wasn’t doing it for the economics of it. They were taking it back to the original look of the course for that historical perspective. But from an economic standpoint, it is a great example of what could be done by courses across the country.”
Carley said that small changes at a course can make a big difference, just by taking out a few areas of grass from fairway-to-treeline. Allowing other areas to be populated by native plants that are predisposed to survive in a certain regions reduces the care that groundskeepers have to devote to that area. In the end, it adds up.
The trick is to find what plants are native to any given course, whether it is in Pinehurst’s sandy soil, the salty air of the beach or the cool climate of the mountains. For too long, Carley notes, courses have tried to become more homogeneous, with wide stretches of manicured grass.
Carley attended a couple days of competition during the Opens and was pleased to hear the positive comments from the players, the fans and the people who were on the grounds.
Her only disappointment was that the fans outside the ropes kept walking all over the native plants she has so carefully cultivated for the last three years.
The new look will take some getting used to. But Pinehurst’s golf doubleheader was the perfect showcase for a new path forward.
“This may look like golf in the past, in terms of the presentation of the course, but in many so many ways this is golf of the future,” architect Coore says. “In today’s world, with water issues, environmental impact issues, the costs associated… the majority (of courses) are going to have to go more in this direction.”