Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Pinehurst: an experience

Last week, I scratched an item off my bucket list. I played golf at Pinehurst.

Like most golfers, I had heard stories about golf at Pinehurst. One of my more special memories of Pinehurst No. 2 is watching Payne Stewart sink a 15-foot putt to win the 1999 U.S. Open. Four months later, he was dead.

I had heard that playing golf at Pinehurst is an experience. But what does that mean? An experience. Everything you do is an experience.

And after two days at the resort and two rounds of golf on Nos. 8 and 4, I on top of the world. But I still didn't get the "experience" factor.

Then I stepped onto No. 2. I thought about the history. The tradition. The restoration project to return No. 2 to more like its original Donald Ross design.

That's when I understood. It's not that No. 2 is a great golf course, worthy of its reputation. It's the golfers who came before you. It's knowing that you're standing in the same spot that legends did - Sam Snead, Bobby Jones, Walter Hagan, Frances Ouimet, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer. The list nearly is endless.

Stewart's putt in 1999 and his face-to-face celebration with a young Phil Mickelson are defining moments in Pinehurst history. But there's so much more history. Ben Hogan won his first professional tournament there.

Jones called it the "St. Andrews of United States golf." Ironically, sand from the Old Course's Road Hole bunker was poured into the greenside bunker on No. 18 in 2005 to celebrate the relationship between these two legendary courses.

But there also were less than stellar moments at Pinehurst No. 2. The same year Stewart made history there, John Daly was having one of his legendary meltdowns when he couldn't keep his ball on No. 8 green. Known for its turtleback greens, Pinehurst No. 2 has been confounding golfers just as long as it's been enchanting them.

And that's pretty much what happened to me. I was hitting the ball fairly well on the first two days of my trip, scoring well for me on Nos. 4 and 8. In fact, I shot my best round ever on No. 8 - a 91, just missing breaking 90 for the first time.

With five holes to go, I needed four pars and a birdie to reach this feat. I parred 14, 15 and 16. And because No. 17 was a par 5 and the closing hole a par 4, I knew I needed a birdie on 17 or I was lost.

My third shot on 17 ended up just off the front of the green and about 10 feet from the front-placed pin. I missed the birdie putt by 4 inches. On 18, I missed my par putt by a foot, and ended the hole with a bogey.

My confidence was off the chart, which I figured was good, considering I'd be playing No. 2 the next day.

But after a few holes, I realized that No. 2 was going to kick my butt that day. I think it was the combination of the awe factor and the greens that require pinpoint accuracy. It got to the point where it almost was funny.

Better golfers than me have been humbled by No. 2.

I ended up with a 103, about 10 strokes over my handicap.

Oh, but what an experience.

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