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Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club prepares to host a milestone event while facing the familiar industry challenge of handling more play with fewer bodies.

May 16, 2022

© Chris Keane/USGA

A good case could be made that the Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club is the ultimate setting for the United States Women’s Open Championship. Located in Southern Pines, North Carolina, the club occupies an extraordinary position in women’s golf history.

Since 1953, the property has been owned by the Bell family, whose matriarch, World Golf Hall of Famer Peggy Kirk Bell, had a career in golf as a player, instructor and advocate for the game that lasted more than 60 years before her death in 2016 at age 95.

The golf course is a Donald Ross design that dates back to 1927. Updates were made by John Fought in 2004 and Kyle Franz in 2016.

Pine Needles has hosted three Women’s Opens in the past and will soon become the first club to host a fourth. The 77th edition of the championship will be contested June 2-5.

The combined crew for Pine Needles (pictured), Mid Pines and Southern Pines is less than 40 these days. That makes routine maintenance more difficult.
© russell Kirk/usga

For David Fruchte, preparing for a major event is all in a day’s work. Fruchte’s title is director of golf course maintenance and grounds. He’s been at Pine Needles since March 1992 and has no desire to go elsewhere. He also oversees two other golf courses: Mid Pines and Southern Pines. Fruchte, who received his education at Purdue, claims the job fits his personality.

“All three golf courses are family owned,” he says. “The Bell family and one other investor own all three properties. The main thing is, I answer to the family, so I don’t have a new greens chairman every two or three years. I don’t have committees on my back or anything like that. So, the pressure put on me is pretty much internal for the most part. I definitely need to do my job to make sure the golf course is right for the guests coming in, but this has worked out to a really good fit for me.”

Like his peers, Fruchte has seen his job description evolve through the years, notably in the area of equipment technology.

“The biggest thing would be moisture meters,” he says. “Before, we’d stick a knife into the turf and figure out how much moisture we had with a knife. Now, you stick a moisture meter in the ground. It gives you a good reading of what your moisture is and you irrigate to that moisture where you need to.”

The combined crew for Pine Needles (pictured), Mid Pines and Southern Pines is less than 40 these days. That makes routine maintenance more difficult.
© russell Kirk/usga

Noting that golfers’ expectations have increased over the years, Fruchte adds that today’s equipment allows crews to do more. “The mowing equipment has gotten a lot better. Nowadays, you can mow with a triplex and get just as good a cut as you can with a walk mower.”

Pine Needles is one of the busiest high-end golf destinations in America, hosting approximately 40,000 rounds per year. The tee sheet is full most of the year.

“When I first started here, we had two seasons: spring and fall,” Fruchte says. “We didn’t have much of a summer and didn’t have much of a winter, as far as play. But now that has changed dramatically. We’re pretty much busy 10 months out of the year.”

Pine Needles was awarded its fourth Women’s Open in 2018. Serious preparations for the championship began two years ago. Fruchte was on hand for the club’s three previous Women’s Opens in 1996, 2001 and 2007, as well as three other USGA women’s championship, most recently the U.S. Senior Women’s Open in 2019. He’s no stranger to hosting big events. But in the course of preparing for this year’s championship, he’s found himself doing some things differently.

“Two years out, we stopped overseeding with ryegrass,” he says. “In years past, we’ve always had overseeded ryegrass on our fairways and tees, (but) knowing that the Women’s Open was going to be in late May or June, it was best to be playing on Bermudagrass versus ryegrass.”

Fruchte notes much of the rough has been eliminated. As a result, the golf course will look somewhat different than it has for past USGA championships.

“In previous Women’s Opens, we’ve always had a thick rough,” he says. “Fairways 30 yards wide and rough on either side. Now, we’ve gone to more fairways with native areas on the sides, so we have very little rough. The only rough we have is in places to help hold the soil down.”

David Fruchte has worked at Southern Pines for more than 30 years and has no desire to move elsewhere.
© Betsey Mitchel

Chris Mintmier is the superintendent in charge of the golf course at Pine Needles. A graduate of NC State University, he started working at Mid Pines in 2012 and moved to Pine Needles two years later. He’s been the superintendent there since 2019.

Mintmier says the biggest agronomic issue he’s dealing with is getting Bermudagrass greens up to championship speeds. Because of the volume of play at the club and the necessity of keeping play moving, daily green speeds at Pine Needles are normally around 10 on the Stimpmeter. Speeds will be amplified for the U.S. Women’s Open.

“Green speeds will be much faster than we typically have them,” Mintmier says. “That’s probably going to be the biggest difference. I think they’ve got us lowering the fairway height a little bit, not anything crazy but around greens, tees and stuff.”

Arguably the most significant issue impacting Fruchte’s and Mintmier’s preparations relates to labor or, more accurately, a lack of labor. As of this writing, Fruchte has fewer than 40 people to maintain three golf courses. Mintmier’s crew at Pine Needles numbers just 11, including himself.

“We used to have 28 guys on staff at (Pine Needles),” Mintmier says. “We used to have three assistants and a super, and now we have myself and an assistant and other guys. That’s it.”

Having a smaller crew means setting priorities and some detail work must be set aside. “We can take care of mowing greens and raking bunkers, and all the main stuff,” Mintmier says, “but it’s all the detail stuff. Picking up pinecones and weeding cart-path edges, all the little stuff that, frankly, golfers probably don’t even realize, but it’s all the little stuff that is just hard to do if you don’t have bodies to do it.”

Mintmier notes the volume of play makes completing routine maintenance tasks more difficult.

“It’s just really hard for us, because it takes all of us to get the place ready in the morning and trying to do to stuff in the afternoon with the amount of play we have,” he adds. “It feels pointless at times, just because there is so much golf out there (120 to 130 rounds per day is not uncommon). It’s unreal the amount of golf that goes through this place.”

Fruchte and his team will get support during championship week from their peers from other clubs in the region. Fruchte considers that to be one of the most satisfying aspects of hosting a major event.

“In the past, I’ve had past superintendents,” he says. “The last few years it’s been local superintendents and getting together with them and their assistants and people on their crews.”

In part because the crew is smaller than would normally be the case for a major championship, Pine Needles management is planning to close the golf course earlier than it might otherwise. “Which,” Fruchte says, “is going to be very good for the golf course to heal over from all the play we’ve had. Getting all the divots filled back in and not having anybody slowing us down while we’re doing the maintenance work. … It’s going to be huge with the crew I have now. We don’t have that many people.”

Rick Woelfel is a Philadelphia-based writer, host of the Wonderful Women of Golf podcast and frequent Golf Course Industry contributor.