By David Droschak
Few states offer more golfing diversity than North Carolina. And there are few places the United States Golf Association favor more than here … and in particular the Sandhills area.
Pinehurst Resort hosted U.S. Opens in 1999 and 2005, then an historic men’s and women’s Open doubleheader in 2014. Meanwhile, Pine Needles Lodge and Golf Club touts the three U.S. Women’s Opens it hosted between 1996-2007, while the U.S. Amateur along with various other USGA events have been hosted in the Tar Heel state over the past two decades.
And there is plenty more on the way starting in 2019 with the second U.S. Senior Women’s Open slated for Pine Needles in mid May, while the U.S. Amateur returns to Pinehurst courses No. 2 and No. 4 in August. Later that month, the U.S. Senior Amateur will be hosted by Triangle-area club Old Chatham.
“We were with Fox Sports filming recently and they see lots and lots of golf courses all around the country and we walked out the back door at Pine Needles and went down the first hole and the director said, “This place is gorgeous,” said Matt Sawicki, director of U.S. Women’s and Senior Women’s Open Championships. “I think that’s your natural reaction. It’s just a gorgeous area. You could easily call (Pine Needles) the epicenter of women’s golf and make a strong case that (the Sandhills) is the epicenter of golf in this country for either gender. It’s a remarkable place. From a USGA standpoint we’re so appreciative to be included in the history down here with our Open Championships and amateur championships. You could use 100 difference adjectives but the one that resonates with me the most is the word ‘special.”’
Unlike many USGA championships the U.S. Senior Women’s Championship is in its infancy, heading into just its second event after the inaugural championship won by Laura Davies in Chicago in 2018.
The USGA is heading from a large city to a quaint area of the country noted for its towering pines and sandy soil.
“When we were looking at where to conduct this championship we wanted to make a splash and certainly with the announcement back in 2015 we did that with the first two sites, Chicago Golf Club — one of our inaugural founding clubs with a great history – and then Pine Needles this year with its connection to Peggy Kirk Bell, it’s connection to the women’s game, and certainly the golf course speaks for itself,” Sawicki said.
“What we’ve heard from the players and trying to learn how to build this championship is that everyone had a fond memory of either this golf course or some interaction with Peggy Kirk Bell, and it just re-affirmed our decision to come here. In Chicago, we received good coverage and we had good crowds, but at the end of the day we were competing with the Cubs and White Sox and everything else that Chicago has to offer,” he added
Bell will be inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in June under the Lifetime Achievement category. Bell, who passed away in 2016 at the age of 95, was the longtime owner of Pine Needles and Mid Pines resorts. She received the PGA of America’s First Lady of Golf Award in 2007 and was an avid supporter of the game as a top 100 golf instructor for decades.
With a volunteer backbone second to none in golf, a unique fan experience on tap and an historic Donald Ross design recently renovated by architect Kyle Franz, the USGA is confident the Pine Needles location will once again be a hit with the female golfers we all remember from the past.
“When we are in a market like this it feels like the entire community rallies around the championship,” Sawicki said. “It’s not just the USGA that feels that but it is the players and they are the most important staple. At the end of the day, when the players feel that support, when they go out to dinner and everyone is talking about the championship they are playing in that week it makes it that much more special to them. That’s why we love coming to this region, everybody gets behind it – city and county governments, even the state – and that’s a great feeling to have.”
Nancy Lopez was a top target of the USGA heading into year two, but a second knee replacement surgery will have the former LPGA star still sidelined from competition. However, the USGA is making a conscious effort to lure more good and “name” golfers to this event.
“Last year’s event was so wildly successful, and the players said from the moment they arrived in the area it brought back memories of playing in an Open Championship,” said Shannon Rouillard, USGA senior director of championships. “When you think about it so many of them are removed from playing in a USGA championship, so it was a great feeling for them. We’re working on building upon that momentum into this year’s championship. So many players have come up to us and told us how special they felt at Chicago to the point that some players are writing letters for us to hopefully reach players who decided not to play, or to put them over the edge to enter into this year’s championship. There is no better voice for us than the players and if they are behind it … it will continue to grow.”
“We’ve talked about that need to build equity with our fans, but it exists with the players too at the end of the day,” added Sawicki. “I think there was an instantaneous buy in from the players, even from those who didn’t know what they were stepping into. And there was probably a little bit of an intimidation factor going into last year. Some were even thinking, ‘Gosh, are they going to set up the course to embarrass us?’ They found out at the end of the day it was like all the other Open Championships – it was hard, it was fair and it was a wonderful experience.”
The course is expected to play tougher than it did for the U.S. Women’s Opens previously staged at Pine Needles, with Franz adding subtle mounding to the greens, impressive native areas that pop, tight mowed down approach areas around the putting surfaces and a course that no longer has rough.
“The goal was to try to make the golf course feel more like the 1940s style of Donald Ross than his mid 1930s style, which is a little bit different,” Franz said. “He became much more mellow; and how that relates to the USGA is that golf course is going to play really big and wide. If you get off into the native areas and the pine trees you are going to get into trouble pretty quickly. We’ve actually made the fairways harder by making them wider; you get balls running into trouble much quicker this way.”
“When I look at pictures from back at the other Opens at Pine Needles and you look at the course now it is very, very different,” added Rouillard. “It was much more of a parkland style then, a lot more rough and now it’s more closely mowed areas, a lack of rough and more natural grasses out there that really lend to the architecture in a very positive way. The players know what they’re getting into. They are going to see a lot different golf course from previous Opens to what they are going to see here in May.”
The fan experience at the women’s event May 13-19 will be unique to say the least, with the ability of fans to walk along with players in the fairway. Unlike major USGA Championships, only the tee and green areas will be roped off from spectators.
“We’ve made a concerted effort to spend time with the players and ask what the players want to see out here,” Sawicki said. “That’s how we came up with the concept of allowing fans to walk inside the ropes with the players, who said they wanted to interact with the fans, they wanted that experience. It was well received by the fans and the players last year.”
The frequent flyer miles from New Jersey to North Carolina have already started adding up for USGA officials … with a host of championships here leading up to the U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2 in five years.
“There will be a lot of talk about 2022,” Sawicki said of the upcoming U.S. Women’s Open at Pine Needles. “And what that championship is going to mean, and I don’t think it’s too early to start talking about the 2024 U.S. Open and what that’s going to mean to this community. We are certainly going to operate in the present but there will be references to those as well. In this community our effort and our goal is to try to use some of the things we do here at this championship as preparation for 2022.”