The Mostly True Story of Pinehurst

The Mostly True Story of Pinehurst

Wandering through the history, legends, rumors and ghosts in this hub of American golf

When James Michener’s tome Hawaii was published in 1959, it tipped the scales at nearly 1,000 pages. The famed novelist of intricate family sagas who always made geography one of his characters began his seminal work with a fissure in the Earth’s surface oozing liquid rock at the bottom of the ocean. Wrapping your arms around Pinehurst, North Carolina, doesn’t require a similar trip, but the simple truth is that without its unique geology, the place would as likely be a Sheetz at the intersection of two interstates as the nucleus of American golf that it has become. There are no cool mountain vistas, nor a windswept seashore with craggy cliffs and barking seals. There are clouds of yellow pine pollen in the spring, the occasional ice storm in the winter and August heat waves that can make your eyelashes sweat. So why in the hell are we all so damn happy to be here?

It begins roughly 45 million years ago, in something called the Eocene Epoch, with an ancient seabed and coastline that left behind sandy, rolling ground diabolically suited to a game that is, by comparison, a newborn. Golf grabbed some headlines in Scotland in 1457—because it was an utter nuisance—and roughly 440 years later it discovered the sandhills of North Carolina to be about as commodious a place to play this infuriatingly addictive game as any in the world. 

This natural partnership between game and ground explains, if only tangentially, why I moved here 45 years ago. The original idea for Pinehurst was that it would be a sanitarium for consumptives. When that proved to be a nonstarter, golf and the trappings of a mid-South resort filled the void—thanks in no small measure to the presence of a stern Scottish immigrant named Donald Ross, who knew a thing or two about mashies and niblicks, having grown up in Dornoch. In the process, the game has become as emblematic of the place as a kilt is to a clan, woven so tightly into its fabric that you can no longer imagine one without the other. Here, where I live, if you yank on the string that is golf, the story comes out like the multicolored scarves a magician pulls from his sleeve, with no end in sight. The universe of golf is a compact and serendipitous one. Like the weaving, curving streets of the Pinehurst village—laid out by a man who never set foot there—everything seems to mysteriously intersect.

Where to begin? James Walker Tufts and his 1895 purchase? Frederick Law Olmsted and his city plan? Donald Ross and his greens? William Payne Stewart and his fist pump? The beginning for me was far more mundane. I’d taken a cut in pay for a job as the associate editor of Golf World magazine, printed (badly, I might add) in those days in a drab and soulless industrial building on U.S. 1 in Southern Pines, 5 miles from Pinehurst. And I simply never figured out a good reason to leave. The last game story I wrote for Golf World was about the 2014 Open Championship at Hoylake, won by Rory McIlroy. Thereafter, the magazine ceased appearing on paper. There are days now when I feel like the bookend on a long library shelf.

Born in 1947, Golf World was the creation of Bob Harlow, newspaperman and promoter extraordinaire, who quit a radio-division job at the Associated Press in 1921 to become the agent for Walter Hagen. It was Harlow who brokered the famous 1925 home-and-home exhibition match between Hagen and Bobby Jones, won by Hagen 12&11. Five years later, Harlow would be hired as the PGA of America’s first tournament bureau director. Charles Price, the legendary golf writer who got his start writing for the Pinehurst Outlook and Golf World, once explained to me that Harlow kept track of the business dealings of the thing that would one day become the PGA Tour by scribbling notes on the back of an envelope he kept in the inside pocket of his jacket. It was a job that was rather short-lived given Harlow’s obvious conflict of interest (i.e., Hagen), which he leveraged without the slightest hint of remorse.

By 1937 Harlow had settled in Pinehurst, becoming the resort’s publicist and the owner of the Outlook, the local newspaper begun in 1897 to inform the wealthy visitors from Pennsylvania, New York and New England of the comings and goings of, well, each other. The inaugural issue of Golf World, which came out in June 1947, featured coverage of the U.S. Open at St. Louis Country Club with Sam Snead and Lew Worsham on its cover. In those days, Harlow and his wife, Lillian, once a New York opera singer, resided in the second-story apartment of the red-brick annex of the Harvard Building on Market Square in the village. The story I’ve always heard, which I repeat with relish while not being able to confirm even a word of it, was that between deadlines Harlow was given to lengthy afternoons of cards, gin mostly, fueled by day drinking at Pinehurst CC. If you’re among those in Pinehurst for the 2024 U.S. Open—its fourth in what appears to be a forever-lengthening string—you’ll notice the black-frame windows on the second story of that downtown building. There was no air conditioning in those days, and Lillian, who was no fan of her husband’s card playing, would open those windows and project the high notes of her displeasure for all the village to hear. Harlow, certainly in the running as the least-known of all the inductees of the World Golf Hall of Fame, was enshrined in 1988, the same year as Tom Watson.

I mention Watson because the current owner of the Harvard Building, Tom Stewart, has his business, Old Sport & Gallery, on the ground floor, directly underneath the Harlows’ former apartment. His shop is chockablock full of autographed golf photos, rare books, old hickories and other treasures packed into a weaving labyrinth of rooms half the square footage of the tiny third green at Pinehurst No. 2. Stewart is a gregarious PGA professional who could chat up the sunrise. His last club job—he’s been in Pinehurst since 1997—was at the Adios Golf Club in Coconut Creek, Florida. Arnold Palmer designed that course, and among its first members were New York Yankees great Whitey Ford and Wendy’s founder Dave Thomas. 

Stewart grew up in Petoskey, Michigan, the son of a mailman and a nurse. When he was in high school, he played basketball and golf; being vertically challenged, his career in the latter held far greater promise. During his teenage summers, he was the night waterman at Walloon Lake Country Club. It was nine holes and had two sets of tees so you could go round and round the little gem without getting dizzy. Stewart constituted much of the grounds crew. Pop-up sprinklers were an innovation that hadn’t reached northern Michigan yet, so he snapped in those quick-coupling Rain Birds in the star-filled darkness, finishing around 4 a.m. Then he’d come back and play.

That’s how he got to know the Watsons, a family from Kansas City, Missouri, who spent part of every summer in a rental house on Walloon Lake. One of the Watsons was also named Tom, and those summers were, for him, the sunny days before golf became more than just a game. Even an eight-time major champion was a kid once, putting for dimes on a practice green with an endless supply of sidehill lies. My own earliest recollection of Watson the player was of him sailing a driver off the deck directly at the pin on the 16th hole of Pinehurst No. 2 in the 1979 Colgate Hall of Fame Classic, on his way to making eagle and beating Johnny Miller in a playoff. Years later, I asked Watson if he remembered Stewart from those carefree summers. “Tom Stewart and I played a lot of golf together,” he said wistfully. More than he ever played with Miller, I’d wager.

Stewart shares his stories of Fords and Watsons and Thomases with the endless stream of customers and tourists inside Old Sport, and then with me on evenings when we commiserate over a pint or three at our pub, the Bitter and Twisted. It’s the favored watering hole for some of America’s most well-armed operators, past and present, which is among the reasons I prefer to use a pseudonym for the place. Thankfully, the language of golf is spoken inside. That explains, at least partially, why our presence is tolerated. That and the fact that we’re big tippers. As for the rest of its patrons, as someone once explained to me, it’s the most dangerous bar in North Carolina—and the safest.

Pinehurst is a few miles from the edge of Fort Liberty, one of the largest military installations in the world and home to the U.S. Special Operations Command. (It used to be Fort Bragg, named for Braxton Bragg, regarded as one of the most inept Confederate generals of the Civil War.) The military legacy is as rich in the North Carolina Sandhills as the golf. General George Marshall, the man who ran World War II, had retired to Pinehurst when, after serving as the Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense in the Truman administration, he learned he’d been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for the plan, named after him, that rebuilt an entire continent. 

During the war years of late 1942 and early 1943, Camp Mackall, on the outskirts of Southern Pines, went up faster than an inflatable tube man outside a used-car lot. Together with Fort Bragg, the pair housed five airborne divisions training to invade France. In December 1943 a massive parachute and glider exercise, called the Knollwood Maneuver, captured what is now the Moore County Airport in an attempt to convince a highly dubious General Dwight Eisenhower of the feasibility of deploying division-sized airborne units—that whole Band of Brothers thing. Camp Mackall still exists as the training ground for the U.S. Special Forces. If you think Tiger Woods is a Type A personality, I can assure you from the assembled characters in the Bitter and Twisted that he’s got nothing on those guys.

My doctor is the rare physician who still makes house calls, only his are at our pub. Walt drops in occasionally for a pint of Guinness and to make sure Stewart and I, who are generally stationed at the far end of the bar like the geriatric Muppets Statler and Waldorf, are still alive. He takes care of us out of the goodness of his heart and because he’s a golf guy too. Walt was Harvie Ward’s doctor, which couldn’t have been easy because Harvie didn’t have many habits that a physician would categorize as “good.” But Lord, could he play golf. Jack Nicklaus can attest to that. Harvie won back-to-back U.S. Amateur championships in 1955 and 1956, taking up half the years between Palmer’s and Nicklaus’ national am victories. After he settled back in Pinehurst, Harvie was Payne Stewart’s swing coach for a short spell. I tried once to get Harvie to tell his stories, but he wouldn’t ever give me all of them. With the good looks of Brad Pitt and a shag bag full of Southern charm, he was a kind of well-armed operator too. “I can’t. Some of those people are still alive,” he told me in his smooth Tarboro, North Carolina, accent. The ones he did tell included, but were not confined to, the Match, when Harvie and Ken Venturi played Byron Nelson and Ben Hogan in a legendary four-ball arranged by Eddie Lowery, who first made his name as Francis Ouimet’s 10-year-old caddie when he beat Harry Vardon and Ted Ray at the Country Club in 1913. Lowery would become a multimillionaire car dealer in San Francisco and the “employer” of golf’s two finest amateurs of the day, Venturi and Ward. You see, American golf doesn’t run through Pinehurst. It gallops.

In May of 2004, Harvie called up Dr. Walt and asked him to accompany him on one last golf trip. Ol’ Harv knew he was dying—he’d be gone by September—but he wanted one last go at Cypress Point GC and San Francisco GC, and to see Venturi at his home in Palm Springs. Doc and I talked about their trip not long ago over tacos in an out-of-the-way restaurant in Aberdeen, the third town in the equilateral triangle that includes Pinehurst and Southern Pines. He said that when they were playing Cypress, someone asked Harvie what he remembered about the Match and he said, “Not a damn thing.” They had Harvie’s old locker set up for him when they got to SFGC. And, in Palm Springs, Venturi had a special welcome for him. 

Venturi had won the San Francisco City Championship in 1950 and 1953. When Venturi was away satisfying his military-service requirement, Ward captured the title in 1955. They met in the championship match of 1956. Venturi had nearly stolen the Masters as an amateur that year, leading the tournament through 54 holes before shooting 80 in the last round and finishing a shot behind Jackie Burke Jr. Harvie was the reigning U.S. Amateur champ. There were 10,000 spectators at Harding Park Golf Club to watch them. They shook hands on the first tee, and Venturi said, “Harvie, I’ve come to take my city back.” He did, 5&4. When Harvie walked into Venturi’s desert home in 2004, terminally ill but still unwaveringly affable, the trophy most prominently displayed wasn’t from the heatstroke U.S. Open of 1964 or any of Venturi’s 13 other Tour victories; it was from the San Francisco City Championship of 1956. And they laughed like old fools.

“It’s impossible not to get caught up in the great history [of Pinehurst]. It’s everywhere. It’s where you look, it’s in the air, it’s in the turf, it’s in the images on the walls, it’s in the church bells. You can almost feel the ghosts coming out,” David Fay, who worked at the USGA for 32 years, 21 as its chief executive officer, told Lee Pace, who lives in Chapel Hill and has written more about Pinehurst than any other living human. Pace writes a golf column for an arts-and-entertainment magazine I edit these days, enough of a job to keep my bartenders at the Bitter and Twisted well compensated.

I get my dose of Pinehurst history from my wife, whom we’ve lovingly dubbed “The War Department” (a nickname stolen straight from P.G. Wodehouse) and who for more than two decades has been the archivist at the Tufts Archives, housed in the rear room of the Given Memorial Library on the Village Green, more or less across the street from the Holly Inn, built in 1895 and beautifully renovated in advance of the 1999 U.S. Open. It would be fair to say that the bedrock of the collection was retrieved from the garbage dump by Mildred McIntosh, Richard Tufts’ secretary, who gathered up all the Tufts personal and business records when the Diamondhead Corporation cleaned house after buying the resort in 1970. Those bits and pieces dated from before the first shovel went into the ground in Pinehurst. Among the highlights in the Archives’ collection is a library of historical photography that includes shots of John Phillip Sousa, Annie Oakley, Gloria Swanson and at least five presidents, beginning with Teddy Roosevelt, not to mention a large swath of the players in the World Golf Hall of Fame. The Donald Ross Society stores its treasure trove of maps, drawings and letters there. It’s the Archives that supplied a great deal of the history Fay saw on the walls of Pinehurst’s hotels and its clubhouse.

The Mostly True Story of Pinehurst
With the Pinehurst resort’s roots reaching into the late 1800s, the Tufts Archives works to keep every historical document of the area, including early 1900s postcards of Pinehurst No. 2 (top), the Pine Crest Inn (above) and century-plus-old paraphernalia (below).
The Mostly True Story of Pinehurst

The War Department takes groups of tourists for walking tours in the village, where they learn that the first course here, a forgettable nine-holer, was born in 1898; that Donald Ross, our patron saint, arrived and set about performing miracles in 1900; that during World War II the Holly Inn housed conscientious objectors who had volunteered as guinea pigs (their own description) in atypical pneumonia experiments and lived on its third floor; that the Magnolia Inn, a Queen Anne–style building with two large turrets on top, was built in 1896; and that the upper floor and the turrets of the inn were removed because they blocked the view of the Carolina Hotel from the village, leaving behind an interior stairway that goes nowhere. She doesn’t tell them the local rumor that when Oprah and Stedman stay at the Carolina, the sous chef cooks for their dog, but I’ll tell whoever will listen. 

Tourgoers will also learn that Ross once owned the Pine Crest Inn and had the faux stone façade applied to it. It’s been the preferred housing for players from Jack Nicklaus to Payne Stewart and the favored dark bar of many a golf writer, including Charles Price and Bob Drum, who both moved back to Pinehurst at the end of their lives. Charley, who played some PGA Tour events in the days when amateurs were allowed to try, knew both Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen well and wrote about the sport more elegantly than just about anyone, right up to the time of his death in 1994. The Drummer was working for the Pittsburgh Press when he spied a high school kid named Arnold Palmer. Those coattails took him all the way to CBS, where he offered entertaining musings in something called “The Drummer’s Beat.” He died in 1996. Drum was larger than life, barrel-chested, with a set of vocal cords made out of 40-grit sandpaper. Charley was a wisp of a man whose body armor was a navy blue blazer or a seersucker jacket. They each had occasional collisions with alcohol. The story is told—perhaps it’s even true—that Drum once escorted Price on a transcontinental flight meant to deliver Charley to a rehab facility. Imbibing as they went, when they arrived at their destination Drummer supposedly instructed the white coats, “Take the little guy and leave the big one.” His memory is kept on tap by his son, Kevin, at the popular Drum & Quill Public House in the village.

 About a year ago, I sat in the Roast Office, a coffee shop in the old post office building, sharing a cuppa with Reg Jones, who is something like the General Marshall of U.S. Opens. While others handle the donnybrook inside the ropes, he arranges for all the materiel outside them. His official title is managing director of Open Championships, and he’s been in Pinehurst since he saw Arnold Palmer play Jack Nicklaus in a Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf match here in 1994. I guess Reg, like me, just never found a good reason to leave. Now the USGA is moving—at least partially—down to join him with the creation of Golf House Pinehurst, which boasts a testing center, championship offices, an extension of the USGA’s Golf House museum and, above that, the happy return to Pinehurst of the World Golf Hall of Fame, which was originally housed in a leaky building behind the fourth green of the No. 2 course. It opened to great fanfare in 1974 with the living members of its first class—Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, Byron Nelson, Patty Berg, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus all in attendance, along with President 

Gerald Ford—before a 26-year hiatus in St. Augustine, Florida, where it sadly withered in a massive housing development that never took hold.

The USGA is here because of the area’s golf bona fides, but, selfishly, since it came down for the U.S. Open in 1999, it’s been obvious that the resort is among the most accommodating of American venues for a major golf championship. Perhaps only Augusta National, by dint of its ability to buy up the vast tracts of Georgia that surround it, can exceed Pinehurst’s sheer capacity to handle all the trappings of a modern event. And Reg is quick to point out the happy coincidence that the two, Pinehurst and the USGA, were born roughly within six months of one another, with the USGA being formed three days before Christmas 1894 and James Walker Tufts purchasing the land for Pinehurst in July 1895. It also doesn’t hurt that the current man behind Pinehurst’s curtain is Bob Dedman Jr., the resort’s owner who signed off on an extraordinary string of brilliant renovations (No. 2, No. 4, the Carolina, the Holly, the Manor), a worthy repurposing (the Brewery) and several new projects (the Cradle, Nos. 9 and 10). While lots of clubs that host major championships have benevolent dictators, as far as I know, this is the only place to host a major that’s owned by one guy.

Reg and I were sitting across the street from the Theater Building, which the War Department informs me was opened in 1923 at a cost of $80,000. The octagonal red-brick structure where John Philip Sousa and Will Rogers performed was designed by Aymar Embury II, who had his hand in designing the Central Park and Prospect Park zoos in New York City, along with the Triborough and Henry Hudson bridges. His work in and around Pinehurst includes the Mid Pines Inn, built in 1921, which is now part of the troika of Donald Ross courses formed by Pine Needles Lodge & GC, Mid Pines Inn and GC and Southern Pines GC. Pinehurst’s No. 2 course notwithstanding, that threesome creates what purports to be—and in fact is—a faithfully tended triptych of Ross’ best work. Together they form an entirely separate vein of golfing riches that runs through the Sandhills. Pine Needles, the site of four U.S. Women’s Opens, was the life’s work of Hall of Famer Peggy Kirk Bell, generally acknowledged as the LPGA’s 14th founder. In the days when most touring pros had a club affiliation, Hall of Famer Julius Boros, two-time winner of the U.S. Open, played out of Mid Pines and was, for a time, part owner of Pine Needles.

The Boyd House in Southern Pines, now the home of the Weymouth Center for the Arts & Humanities, was another of Embury’s designs, built for the author James Boyd, who was a writer of popular historical novels. Boyd was a man of personal wealth, and his mansion in Southern Pines was a gathering place for the literati of his day, including the writers F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson and Thomas Wolfe. Like Ernest Hemingway, he’d served in the ambulance corps in World War I. He was an avid horseman and foxhunter and formed the Moore County Hounds, a hunting organization that exists today. In fact, the roots of the horse community here might rival those of golf and the military. The horse farms have been attached to names like Firestone, Entenmann’s, Ocean Spray, R.J. Reynolds and Sugar Foods. There have been Hollywood types, like Linda Blair of The Exorcist, and Olympians, like Michael Plumb. Los Angeles Dodgers great Sandy Koufax lived in horse country for three years and played his golf at Southern Pines GC back in the days when it was owned by the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks. Herb Kohler, the plumbing king and founder of Whistling Straits, wintered his horses here. 

Early last June, I spent a morning riding around the new Pinehurst No. 10 in a rental car with the course architect, Tom Doak, the creator of places like Cape Kidnappers in New Zealand, Barnbougle Dunes in Tasmania and Pacific Dunes in Oregon. Two of his former interns, Gil Hanse and Kyle Franz, have done wonderful things in the Sandhills. Hanse redid Pinehurst No. 4 and built the Cradle. Franz did the highly praised renovations of Mid Pines GC and Southern Pines GC. I asked Doak, why Pinehurst? What brings architects like him, Franz, Hanse, Tom Fazio, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Ben Crenshaw, Bill Coore, Robert Trent Jones, Rees Jones and on and on to this tiny village? It has to be more than just the sand. The man known for complex greens kept it simple: “When Pinehurst calls, you go.” It is the golf gallery where artists want to hang their work.

The comings and goings in Pinehurst of the well known and the well heeled are too numerous to mention in full. Hell, Bing Crosby once thought about buying the place. But it always comes back to the golf. Ben Hogan won his first professional tournament here. Payne Stewart won his last, the Ryder Cup notwithstanding. Stewart’s Open in ’99 was one of the most exciting in the history of the championship. The last time the Open was at No. 2, in 2014, Martin Kaymer put a sleeper hold on it. Fortunately, Michelle Wie saved the proceedings with her U.S. Women’s Open victory there the following week. Every player, win or lose, who has been here, from Ben Hogan to Tiger Woods, Payne Stewart to Phil Mickelson, has left a piece of their soul behind.

It has been 25 years since Stewart’s victory on that dreary Father’s Day, spritzed with a chilly rain, as the village chapel’s carillon played a hymn and his caddie, Mike Hicks, jumped on him like Yogi Berra celebrating a perfect game. Stewart took Mickelson’s face in both hands to console him with talk of what’s truly important: things other than golf. I was on the roof of the clubhouse that day. Then, at September’s Ryder Cup, I watched Stewart pick up Colin Montgomerie’s coin on the Country Club’s 18th green, as gentlemanly a gesture as one player has ever made to another. Years later, as the anniversaries came and went, I visited the crash site of Stewart’s plane on Jon Hoffman’s farm in South Dakota for a story in Golf World, the little magazine founded in the place of his greatest triumph. Pheasant flushed from the fields by my car flashed in front of me as I followed Hoffman’s directions down a dirt road. It’s a desolate spot where they entered the ground like a javelin. Artifacts were recovered, but “that’s where they are,” Hoffman told me. The wives placed a simple memorial there, a stone carved with a verse from Psalms 40:2. 

It is the tragedy inside the sleight of hand that is Pinehurst, a place where the ghosts survive in the air, in the turf, on the walls, in the bells. Stewart would be 67 at this year’s U.S. Open and an honored guest. Except he never really left. None of us do. 

The Mostly True Story of Pinehurst