By David Droschak
Remember the snickering from golf pundits prior to the 1999 U.S. Open coming to Pinehurst? How was the United States Golf Association going to stage such a major championship in a rural location? The greens would never hold up under the summer heat, would they? Where would the corporate support come from?
More than two decades later, who is laughing now?
The USGA has committed and deepened its relationship with Pinehurst Resort and surrounding Moore County golf unlike it has with any other location across the country, announcing a second headquarters to be built here by 2023, along with a visitor’s center and satellite museum, and five U.S. Opens to be staged on iconic Pinehurst No. 2 through 2047.
The 2024 U.S. Open had already been scheduled, but the USGA will also host its men’s golf championship on the Donald Ross masterpiece in 2029, 2023, 2041 and 2047, as well as bring numerous other USGA events to the North Carolina Sandhills.
Talks of this historic partnership began more than a year ago at the U.S. Amateur between USGA CEO Mike Davis, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, legislative and local government officials, business leaders and Pinehurst executives. The deal almost fell apart as COVID-19 hit in March and state coffers began to run dry, but the state was able to recently approve an $18 million incentive package, with the help of some private donors, and the land for Golf House Pinehurst was donated to the USGA for the location of a state-of-the-art research and test center.
Officials estimate the economic impact for Moore County and the Sandhills area to approach $2 billion over the next two decades.
“This is an unprecedented contribution to the economic future of Pinehurst, Moore County, the region and the state of North Carolina,” said Pat Corso, executive director of Moore County Partners in Progress and former Pinehurst Resort executive. “This commitment to these premier golf events adds another permanent leg to our local stool of economic stability of health care, tourism and agriculture.”
Local officials believe the USGA’s calling card will bring new business and industry to the area that far exceeds just golf.
“There has not been a bigger day for this destination since Mr. Tufts put a stake in the ground in the Village of Pinehurst and built this resort in 1895,” added Phil Werz, president and CEO of Pinehurst, Southern Pines, Aberdeen Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Every industry will be touched here by this.
“It’s a cute tag line we use – The Home of American Golf — but now it means so much more, and this decision by the USGA reinforces that fact, that we are the undisputed home of American Golf,” added Werz. “This is just the tip of the iceberg, and we’re just beginning to realize what the impact is truly going to be.”
Pinehurst No. 2 becomes the first “anchor site” for U.S. Open play in what Davis called “a groundbreaking” decision.
“U.S. Opens work so well here,” Davis said of Pinehurst Resort. “And with us building a state-of-the-art research and test center right here in the Village, it is not lost on us that just right up the road is the Research Triangle Park and some of the most renowned universities in the country.”
Pinehurst Resort’s U.S. Open history began with Payne Stewart’s “One Moment In Time” magical 15-foot winning putt on the 18th green in 1999, and was followed by Michael Campbell’s stunning upset in 2005. The resort and USGA then teamed up with an unprecedented golf undertaking with the men’s and women’s U.S. Opens staged in consecutive weeks on No. 2 in 2014.
“Whenever our two organizations have challenged the status quo together … it has been great for the game of golf,” said Pinehurst Resort owner Robert Dedman Jr.
Pine Needles Resort in nearby Southern Pines, which has also hosted numerous USGA women’s championships dating to 1996, also stands to be the big winner with this new USGA commitment.
“People think of us as competitors but we’re not nearly as much competitors as we are friends and trying to grow the game and work together,” president and CEO of Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club Kelly Miller said of Pinehurst Resort. “We’re one of Pinehurst’s biggest cheerleaders as it relates to the championships they have and how well they do. This is a fantastic thing for our area and for the state of North Carolina. I can’t think of a much bigger thing that has happened since I’ve been here for 40 years – nothing bigger than this. We at Pine Needles have had discussions and we’re continuing the discussions in terms of putting dates to future USGA championships. We look forward to having an announcement in the not too distant future.”
Pinehurst Resort president Tom Pashley was quick to point out the USGA decision to set up shop in the Sandhills was a product of a lot of hard work by those inside the resort and those outside the “so-called” ropes.
“This opportunity has been earned by our community,” Pashley said. “With every championship that has been held in Moore County the community, the employees, the volunteers, everyone has earned this opportunity for us because this happens over time. This is not something that is just done by the stroke of a check; this is about trust and a long-term relationship. I’m just proud that our community has earned this right.”
Miller and Pashley both recall the doubt in many outsider’s minds when the USGA tapped Pinehurst Resort for the 1999 U.S. Open, which at the time was the first such championship staged in the South.
“Just because it is somewhat of a rural community people were skeptical, but what folks didn’t realize was the tremendous population and corporate support throughout North Carolina and areas that are close like Raleigh, Fayetteville, Greensboro and Charlotte,” Miller said. “So, while there is not as much corporate right here the state has embraced these events.”
“To echo some of what Kelly said, when major events are hosted in cities throughout North Carolina sometimes they become city events – you know, like a Charlotte event or a Raleigh event – but it seems like when golf is played in Moore County it’s a statewide event,” Pashley said, “So, the beauty is the entire state shows up, it’s not a city event. We felt that support since the 1999 U.S. Open. What was done in 1999 was over the top, and we viewed every spectator, every person who was affiliated with the U.S. Open as a future resort guest. We’re in the hospitality business, that’s what this community is all about so we went above the beyond with that first introduction of the 1999 U.S. Open. And those are the types of things that earn you the opportunities that we’re now starting to enjoy.”