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Yardage Book: Golf 101

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Listen to a reading of this feature by the author.

A curmudgeonly old Scot taught me how to play golf. It was a nifty trick, since Donald Ross died a little more than two and a half years before I was born. While it’s true that in the course of my lengthy and undistinguished golfing life my personal game never rose to anything grander than a state of acceptable repugnance, it was the old fusspot himself who taught me how golf is supposed to be played. And it was at Mid Pines Inn & Golf Club, specifically the wildly fun and devilishly sneaky slalom of the 15th hole, where he conducted this bilious tutorial.

Learning on the job

I became a golf writer the way most young sports writers of my era did: because no one else wanted to do it, and because the local country club member-guest had to be fully staffed, since that’s where all the advertisers—mostly car dealers—hung out, played gin and smoked unfiltered Camels. My previous experience in the game had been confined almost entirely to the day I shagged balls for George Thomas, a very good local pro who previously had been a very good pharmacist with a degree from a very good college, Purdue University. Thomas began qualifying for U.S. Opens (twice) when he was 40 years old and actually got paired with Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer at Bellerive CC in 1965. He and Palmer missed the cut. I one-hopped Thomas’ iron shots using my Smoky Burgess–model catcher’s mitt. Baseball was my game, and I played it very poorly. After I became the local golf writer, I figured the least I could do was learn how to play that game just as badly. And I did.

Covering golf was a lot easier than playing it. The first great player I ever laid eyes on personally wasn’t named Nicklaus or Palmer. It was Mickey Wright. By then she was playing in tennis shoes. It was at a bucolic LPGA stop in Plymouth, Indiana, and what I remember most about it was that half of Wright’s gallery was composed of fellow competitors who either stayed late or came out early just to watch her swing a club. I’ve always believed that explains a lot about real players.

When I got my fill of being a sports writer, I joined Golf World magazine, then based in Southern Pines, North Carolina. It was started in 1947 by Bob Harlow, whose many hats included, at one time, being Walter Hagen’s agent. That was probably the top hat. Harlow is the guy you never heard of who’s a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame. When I joined Golf World’s three-man staff, the magazine was about a year removed from being so broke it couldn’t afford paper or ink, or at least couldn’t pay for it. Golf writ large wasn’t in much better shape.

One of the chief perks of being the lowliest member on the lowly staff of a lowly magazine was that we had carte blanche at virtually all the courses in the Sandhills. Since I’d already mastered being a truly awful player, my goal upon joining Golf World was to become a golfer of sufficient quality that I would no longer be an embarrassment to my dead ancestors. While the jury remains noncommittal as to the ultimate result, Mid Pines became a central character in this quest.

Pine provenance

Mid Pines and its cousin across Midland Road, Pine Needles, were conceived 100 years ago as a wholly owned subsidiary of the Tufts family empire 5 miles away in Pinehurst. While Ross was toiling away on the golf course, Aymar Embury II, a Hall of Famer of a different stripe, was working on his part of the bargain, the 100-room hotel. Embury’s architectural works in New York City include the Central Park Zoo, the Triborough Bridge and the Henry Hudson Bridge. His footprint in the Sandhills was less monumental, but no less impressive. It includes country homes like the great house on James Boyd’s estate, Weymouth (F. Scott Fitzgerald slept and got knee-walking drunk there), and Pinehurst’s elegant hexagonal theater building. None of his North Carolina works, however, make a more stunning pronouncement than the stately inn that rises behind Mid Pines’ 18th green. The guest registry includes names like Sam Snead, Bobby Locke, Babe Zaharias and Palmer in addition to the Baroness Maria Augusta “the hills are alive with the sound of music” von Trapp. (Sing along, you know the tune.) 

The stock-market crash of 1929, and the Great Depression, initiated a lot of financial begetting. The Tufts family sold Mid Pines and Pine Needles in an effort to hold on to enough cash to keep Pinehurst afloat. Then, during World War II, Embury’s grand hotel was conscripted by Army Air Corps military police and the course became overrun with prickly grapevines and all manner of undesirable weeds. The only way to play it was if you were carrying a machete and driving a jeep.

After the war, Mid Pines was resurrected by Frank and Maisie Cosgrove. Their son-in-law was Hall of Famer Julius Boros, who began coming to the Sandhills when he was still an accountant. For those unfamiliar with Boros, he won the U.S. Open twice and the PGA Championship once, in 1968, when he was 48 years old. He remains golf’s oldest major champion. Boros played so fast that he could get in three holes in the amount of time it takes Bryson DeChambeau to consult his green-reading book. Boros possessed a buttery golf swing, the kind that was as prized in his day for its seeming effortlessness as violent, unbridled power moves are coveted today. Boros and his brother, Ernie, would stay connected to Mid Pines for a couple of decades. Toward the end of their lives, the Cosgroves sold Mid Pines to Quality Inns, which eventually sold it to LPGA legend Peggy Kirk Bell (let’s keep the Hall of Fame thing going, shall we?) and her family, who form the nucleus of the ownership group today.

Wake up the whispers

Three decades or so after I began playing Mid Pines, Kyle Franz, fresh from working with Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore on the reimagining of Pinehurst No. 2, approached Kelly Miller, the president of Mid Pines/Pine Needles, at a cocktail party with the idea of doing to Mid Pines what Coore & Crenshaw had done so magnificently a few miles down the road. Miller was enthusiastic, and in November 2012 Franz began fashioning one of the prettiest little makeovers the game has ever seen, restoring the sandy, wild character of the course while leaving the genius of the original design unscathed.

The head pro at Mid Pines when I first arrived on the scene was Jim Boros, Julius’ nephew. During the summer, if I wasn’t covering a tournament, I’d skip out of work by four o’clock or so and drive straight to Mid Pines. Even stray dogs and fire ants knew better than to come out in the stifling heat of the day, so I’d have the place largely to myself. I’d wave to Jimmy in the air-conditioned pro shop, with its big picture window and commanding view of the first tee, and he’d wave back at me like he was performing last rites. I’d put my clubs on my shoulder and get in 18 sweat-stained holes in time to rehydrate at my local pub, the Bitter and Twisted, by 6:30. That’s where I ran into Mr. Ross. On the golf course, I mean, not at the pub.

There is an exquisite stretch on Mid Pines’ back nine that could be labeled Golf 101, and the par-5 15th is at the heart of it. The 14th is a short par 4 of just 361 yards from the tips; the fairway is canted strongly left to right, so the proper tee shot is a nice little draw into the hill with something less than driver. The 542-yard 15th turns in the opposite direction. In the early days, before Franz pushed the tee nearly back to Pennsylvania Avenue, you could blow a drive over the fairway bunker on the right. No more. Franz also added a bunker on the left, 332 yards out. If that bunker had been there in the early days (when the course was shorter and I was longer), it would have kept me from scuttling my drives down the slope, through the pine trees and onto the 14th tee. Anyway, now the idea is to aim at the left edge of that new bunker and thread a nice little fade through the chute of pine trees and into the right-to-left slope. From there you’ve got a good chance at eagle or birdie. That’s you, not me. I bet I could count the number of 4s I’ve had on that hole on the fingers of one hand.

The green is large and receptive, though its back-right to front-left slope as it sits in the sidehill can be tricky. Oh, and if you overcook the approach and lose it left, there’s nothing down there but snakes, black squirrels and pine cones.

So, after playing a draw off the 14th tee and a fade off the 15th, you stand on the elevated tee of the dogleg-left 16th and the hole screams “high draw.” Then, on the dogleg-right 17th, Ross whispers in your ear that a wee sliding fade around the corner will do very nicely. Draw. Fade. Draw. Fade.

And so endeth the lesson. It was more fun than getting a Ph.D. in the history of rock ’n’ roll.