Count your elbows

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© matthew wharton

We hear the phrase “managing player expectations” all the time. These words are normally in the context of course conditions, and great superintendents are good at managing or tempering those expectations, so golfers do not come away disappointed following their round.

But what about other expectations? Ever play a new course that you have heard nothing but grandiose things about only to come away underwhelmed? I know I have on numerous occasions.

I had a history teacher in high school who used to say, “Opinions are like elbows ... everybody has two.” I first played Southern Pines Golf Club in 2008. We had just finished planting the last fairways of our renovation at Carolina Golf Club and the past president thought it important I see two other courses originally designed by Donald Ross: Pine Needles and Southern Pines.

Pine Needles had hosted three U.S. Women’s Opens (in 1996, 2001, 2007) and was renovated by John Fought prior to that 2007 event. Pine Needles was polished and highly conditioned while Southern Pines was raw, “rough around the edges” and in need of a makeover. With similar features to ours, I could easily envision what a renovation would produce at Southern Pines.

Since that initial visit in 2008, I have lost count of the number of times I have played both courses along with neighboring Mid-Pines. These are three classic golf courses designed by Ross, residing in the shadows of the towering pines cast by his most famous course in the area, Pinehurst No. 2, which I played in 2012 shortly after the famed Coore-Crenshaw renovation.

After all these visits and trips around the courses, Southern Pines became my favorite. I genuinely thought it might be the best golf course in Moore County, despite its Spartan appearance and upkeep. Every time I played the course I could see past the present and envision the past. What resided in my mind was truly special.

Last month Southern Pines reopened following a major renovation led by Kyle Franz. Following the success of the Pinehurst No. 2 renovation in 2011, Franz, who worked as a shaper for Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw on that project, took up residence in the Pinehurst area and began renovation work on Mid-Pines. That work was highly touted. He then parlayed that experience into the opportunity to renovate Pinehurst No. 3 in 2017, a golf course barely measuring over 5,000 yards and playing to a par 68.

In 2018, Franz began renovations to Pine Needles as they were preparing for the 2019 U.S. Senior Women’s Open and the 2022 U.S. Women’s Open. Every time I play Pine Needles, I see a little more of Mid-Pines as he continues to tweak and adjust the rustic appearance. Both courses have been renovated to look like Pinehurst No. 2 with vast open sand scrapes and native grasses in lieu of thick, manicured rough.

Which brings me back to Southern Pines. The group that owns and operates Pine Needles and Mid-Pines purchased Southern Pines in late 2020 and wasted no time in giving Franz the opportunity to restore the golf course.

I traveled to Southern Pines this past April to see the ongoing work and was immediately impressed with the tree removal, creation of sand scrapes and the bunker renovations that would restore the rugged character to this 1906 Donald Ross design.

The course reopened last month following the greens conversion and I could not wait to play it. For 13 years, I have imagined what this golf course could be. But I somehow knew it was not going to live up to my expectations.

I loved the golf course and did not love it at the same time. The view of the 11th hole from the eighth green was breathtaking, and the repositioning of the 11th green nearer the water looked like it had always been that way, simply brilliant.

But I believe the enlarged greens probably possess less pinnable area than prior, and the bold contours and slopes within will be difficult to maintain. Visually, I would describe the golf course as Pasatiempo meets Tobacco Road, though I have never been to Pasatiempo. The golf course is perfectly suited for walking, although the rerouting of nearly all the natural paths creates awkward moments getting from green to tee without interference.

I waited 13 years for this renovation, and I am happy this vintage Ross course finally received the long-awaited makeover it has needed. But the makeover was too extreme for what this girl really needed and the hidden gem those of us in the know adored for years no longer resembles her former self. I miss her already.

Matthew Wharton, CGCS, MG, is the superintendent at Carolina Golf Club in Charlotte, North Carolina and past president of the Carolinas GCSA. Follow him on Twitter @CGCGreenkeeper.