Southern Pines is the final installment in a trilogy of restored Donald Ross classics
Words by Jim MoriartyPhotos by William Rainey
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There are many underappreciated, if not outright neglected, golf courses in this world, but there are damn few that, once you’ve picked them up and dusted them off, wind up looking like you’ve raised the Titanic. A few blocks from my house, the course we locals simply called “the Elks” is such a place.
Better known as Southern Pines Golf Club, our once-downtrodden little gem has joined Pine Needles Lodge and Golf Club and Mid Pines Inn and Golf Club to become the third show pony in a troika of Donald Ross–designed courses snuggled under one umbrella in the piney midsection of North Carolina. Each of these Ross masterworks, located just 5 miles down Midland Road from the Village of Pinehurst, has been painstakingly restored and updated under the direction of Kelly Miller and largely at the hands of architect Kyle Franz. Pine Needles hosts its fourth U.S. Women’s Open Championship this summer, making Peggy Kirk Bell’s old home about as significant a place as exists in women’s golf in America—particularly now that the LPGA has pulled up stakes in the Coachella Valley, leaving nothing behind but an empty pond just off Dinah Shore Drive. The updated Southern Pines forms a virtually unheard-of trio of courses rooted in the golden age of golf course design. Want Ross? Come and get it. And it’s all within jogging distance of Pinehurst No. 2, a Ross magnet so powerful that the United States Golf Association has thrown its anchor out there.
Mike Davis, the former CEO and executive director of the USGA who has since formed his own architecture firm with Tom Fazio’s nephew, Tommy, was both a staunch ally when Pinehurst gambled on its restoration of No. 2 and a strong voice in bringing the Women’s Open to Pine Needles. “As many times as I’d been to Pinehurst, going back to the late ’70s and early ’80s when I was playing in the North and South Amateur, I’d heard about the Elks Club, but I’d never been there,” says Davis. “It was the 2000 U.S. Amateur at Pinehurst, and I decided to go over early one morning just to see what it was like. I was completely bowled over by how great the bones were. Goodness gracious, you think about how sandy it is and the topography of the beautiful rolling land. I called up [Miller]—he’s been a friend for years—and I said, ‘Kelly, you’ve got to get Southern Pines.’ You just knew that in their hands they were going to respect the heck out of what Donald Ross was trying to create there.”
And what they have in their hands now is something totally unique in the golf space. “Of the so-called golden-age architects—Tillinghast, Ross, MacKenzie, Macdonald, Raynor, Colt—I can’t think of anywhere, resort or otherwise, that would have three,” says Davis. “Bethpage has got three Tillies, but if you talk to people who really know, they’re not really Tillinghast courses anymore. There’s certainly places that have two, but not three. Sunningdale has two Colt courses. But of the golden-age architects, it’s hard to think of a place that’s got three.”
Miller is CEO of the fittingly named Ross Resorts, the Bell family company that owns (partially) and oversees (entirely) this threesome. He’s someone I’ve known—or, more properly, known of—for more than 40 years. We both grew up in Michigan City, Indiana, a small town at the southern tip of Lake Michigan. Miller was a star high school golfer in the days when I was a sportswriter for the South Bend Tribune, 35 miles to the east. I don’t know if we talked at, say, a high school tournament, but it wouldn’t have been outside the realm of possibility. If that did happen, he seems to have survived the experience.
Miller left Indiana to attend the University of Alabama in 1977, a year after the Crimson Tide’s most famous golfing alum, Jerry Pate, won the U.S. Open at Atlanta Athletic Club in his first season as a professional. During his four years in Tuscaloosa, Miller came to two important decisions. The first was that, unlike the elegantly swinging Pate (whose silhouette still graces the PGA Tour logo), he wasn’t good enough to play in the pros. The second, and more consequential, was to marry Peggy Ann Bell, the daughter of LPGA founder and World Golf Hall of Famer Peggy Kirk Bell, who—with her husband, Warren “Bullet” Bell—had by then been owners of Pine Needles for almost 30 years. If you wonder about Miller’s playing bona fides, however, you can rest in stylish comfort. In the intervening years, he’s won the club championship at Seminole Golf Club five times and added four more at Pine Valley.
On a hot summer afternoon, Miller and I took a cart and drove around SPGC, then a work in progress that remains, for him, a passionate adventure. Davis’ phone call those years ago was no revelation for him; he’d already been eyeing the place. Though not a Southerner by birth, every time he mentions the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, which bought the club in 1951, it’s as if he silently tacks on the region’s traditional “bless their heart” modifier for those who try, but just aren’t quite up to the task. “The Elks [bless their hearts] had it for something like 60 years,” Miller says. “It had its ups and downs, but probably more downs in the last dozen years. They’re great people [bless their hearts], but they’re not in the golf business.” He is. He’s also an Elk, with a working knowledge of the secret handshake and everything.
The things that make SPGC so attractive are not confined to its history or its clever design, both of which are nonetheless compelling. In Miller’s case, it’s also personal. “I’ve been chasing this one for a long time,” he says. When he first moved to the area, he played money games at Southern Pines with his father-in-law and other local high-stakes low handicappers and pros who gleefully took turns picking each other’s pockets. “I tried to lease it or purchase it over 20-plus years,” he explains. “I guess if nothing else, I’ve been diligent in trying. In the end, it probably worked out for the best, because now, with a little bit of age and maybe a little bit more wisdom, it was probably the right time. If I’d have gotten it 20 years ago, I don’t think it would have turned out like this.”
While it was never a venue for tournaments of consequence, the course takes advantage of one of the most dramatic pieces of rolling land the North Carolina sandhills had on offer in the early 1900s. The first nine opened in 1907, and by 1914 Ross had taken over the rudimentary layout and turned it into something special. “The case of SPGC is quite similar to No. 2,” writes local historian Chris Buie in The Early Days of Pinehurst. “Both started primitively and through Ross’s extended attentions evolved into very advanced courses. One can debate the degree to which he was involved in the very first days but in both cases the assertion that they are Ross courses remains quite valid.”
The roller coaster of the Roaring ’20s, the bungee jump of the Great Depression and the slog back up the hill through the war years of the ’40s and into the ’50s are all genetic markers on SPGC’s DNA. It had expanded to 36 holes by 1929 and made plans for another nine, which crashed and burned along with the stock market. By 1937, the club was down to 27 functioning holes. To this day there are ghost holes among the pines and waist-high weed fields that branch off from the existing 18. The course that was once privately owned by a group that included Ross himself was sold to the town of Southern Pines, then resold to an individual who, in reasonably short order, passed it along to the Elks.
In 1924, Walter Hagen partnered with the club’s pro, Emmet French (who lost to Gene Sarazen in the finals of the ’22 PGA), in an exhibition match—a common way for touring pros to make a few bucks in those days. They took on the reigning British Open champion, Arthur Havers, and the Open de France champion, James Ockenden. (Somehow, they managed to spell Ockenden’s name correctly on the posters, but screwed up Hagen’s. No biggie—Sir Walter had only won two U.S. Opens, a British and a PGA by then.) In 1946, Sam Snead and Ben Hogan met at SPGC, with Snead setting a new course record by three shots, his 63 besting Hogan’s 71.
The course’s original clubhouse—a modest dwelling belonging to H.P. Bilyeu when the land was devoted to peaches and grapevines—gave way in 1924 to a building of 124,000 square feet designed by renowned architect Aymar Embury II, famous for his grand country houses and, later, his public works in post-Depression New York City. The building, praised in some golf circles as widely as Stanford White’s clubhouse at Shinnecock GC, was featured in a 1925 edition of The Architectural Forum. It burned to the ground under somewhat mysterious circumstances in 1971. At the time, the man who would become my first boss at Golf World magazine, the late Dick Taylor, was living in a home a feathered wedge shot away from the one I live in now. He walked the few blocks uphill to watch the clubhouse burn. As legend has it, so did the entire neighborhood. “Leave it to the Elks,” the acerbic Taylor is reputed to have said, beverage in hand. “They always have something going on on Saturday night.”
So what kind of course did Miller inherit? The one I knew was short, not particularly tight unless they let the Bermuda rough grow, and, to an extent, scorable. By that I mean it was the kind of course where an average player like myself could post a number that would be profoundly satisfying over a post-round Stella Artois, while players of some excellence would invariably feel as though they’d left a lot out there. The greens had been redone by John LaFoy in 1989 and were as steeply tiered as the rapids of a Rocky Mountain river. There were several short par 4s, at least one of which was drivable, and a couple of stout ones where you’d happily take a par and go to the next hole. The three par 5s were all reachable in two for a talented player, particularly the first two, where one could take advantage of the fairway slopes with a big tee ball. The par 3s were the stiffened spine of the course. They all seemed to play longer than their marked yardage, and while it felt like you had the same club in hand a lot, it never felt like you were playing the same shot. In the last few years, the conditioning had deteriorated badly and the drainage issues, which had always existed, had become manifestly obvious. In short, it was time to call the rescue squad.
Enter Franz. At SPGC, he seemed to work in a way Ross would recognize. He lives only a few miles away, and, even though his team had access to some drawings from the 1940s and a military aerial photograph of similar vintage, everything gives the appearance of being done on the ground, drawn up in the dirt. Franz would paint a line where the fairway could end and one of his “sandscapes,” with transplanted wire grass and broom sage, could begin, then drive back to the tee to see if it looked right. If it didn’t, he’d come back, erase the line in a cloud of dust with his boots and redraw it. Franz has spent time with architects Tom Doak, Gil Hanse, and Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore, the latter during their work on No. 2. It was that project that led to Franz’s redo of Mid Pines, solidifying his relationship with Miller, Ross Resorts and the old Scottish master himself.
While Miller and I were bumping along by the tee of SPGC’s redone seventh, we ran into Franz digging in the dirt. I asked him to retell his story of his first encounter with Bill Murray. Hanse was doing some work at the Vineyard Club on Martha’s Vineyard, where Murray is a member, and the actor wanted to meet the designer of the new Olympics course in Rio de Janeiro. In a typical Murray moment, once he got out there, he asked if he could drive one of the bulldozers. “So Gil lets him get in the bulldozer,” says Franz. “There’s still a mound behind the seventh green that is Bill Murray’s bulldozer mark. Then he wanted to get in the excavator. Gil’s like, ‘You got control of the whole thing, right?’ I said, ‘I got him. He’s fine.’ So Bill gets in there, he shoves down the excavator bucket and raises the whole machine like a praying mantis. I’ve run into Bill a few times since. Saw him in the airport once and he goes, ‘Hey, shaper guy!’”
Franz likes to look at his dramatic work at Mid Pines, Pine Needles and Southern Pines as three distinct eras of Ross’ evolving artistry. He likens it to different periods of The Beatles, which I suppose makes SPGC “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” or at least “Twist and Shout.” Franz envisions the course as an updated version of Ross’ work from 1914 and into the ’20s, even though the greens then were sand instead of the new Bermuda they’ve sprigged. The addition of some stunning natural crossing features like the one he put in short of the green on the 15th—a hole that will play as a par 4 for scratch players and a par 5 for mortals—is part of this reimagining. “It’s as restorative as possible,” says Franz of the overall look, while acknowledging that the game in the 2020s isn’t the game of the 1920s. “We add things to make it feel like what he [Ross] was trying to accomplish.” That also includes turning the most penal of LaFoy’s tiers into false fronts and then expanding the putting surfaces behind or to the sides while not losing the movement in the greens.
Trees have been taken out to restore vistas, particularly around the tiny lake that sits in the middle of a loop comprising the eighth, ninth, 10th and 11th holes. The 11th is a drivable par 4. Previously, the shot was blind and required a towering high drive to clear the trees. Franz removed them. “I would have left a couple,” says Miller, “but in the end I remembered the advice I give people. I think Kyle is one of the greatest young talents out there. I tell people just listen to him and let him do it. Here I am, trying to tell this kid what should be done. It turned out great.”
One of the main conversation pieces of the redo is the resurrection of the Lost Hole, a par 3 that once existed in the middle of the course but disappeared somewhere along the line for reasons as mysterious as the cause of the clubhouse fire. For decades, late-afternoon walkers at the Elks would play the first four holes, jump to the 15th tee and play the last four in before sunset. The new Lost Hole, located to the left of the fifth tee, lets those same players get in a full nine: the first four, the Lost Hole, then the last four. It even has a sand green if you’re interested in time travel.
“It’s been a blast,” says Miller of the renovation that’s been so extensive it’s almost like new golf course construction. “People ask me, ‘When are you going to be done?’ My response is, ‘Never.’” There are plans for a mini-Himalayas putting area with lights, lounge chairs and a fire pit. Small cottages will someday occupy the woods to the right of the opening hole. Miller even imagines a practice range goosed with technical help from TopGolf.
The Elks, bless its heart, has been reborn. It’s a lovely old soul where that golden hour of sunlight—the warmth cast on the bottlebrush and the wire grass, the long shadows that make the bunkers look like bottomless pits and the pines like skyscrapers—seems to be shining from more than a century ago, just waiting for someone with a bag on their shoulder.