Have you ever watched a movie and been totally blown away by a supporting actor’s or actress’ performance? I know I have on at least a few occasions.
Just as an outstanding supporting act can complete a movie, a great second course can make a golf destination a more complete experience. That most definitely was the case with Pinehurst No. 4, my favorite overall course played on WiscoGolfAddict’s trip to the Carolina Sandhills this past March.
Many large resorts or multi-layout clubs have a flagship course, potentially obscuring other great courses in their purview. These supporting acts would probably garner a lot more attention if they were standalone venues, but that makes it even more exciting to “find” them on a golf trip. With multi-course resorts exploding in popularity, having a second property that cracks the major course ranking publications is becoming table stakes in the industry.
Pinehurst has always boasted an impressive quantity of solid layouts on sand-based property. Its nine 18-hole courses, plus a par 3 layout and a putting course, offer guests an unrivaled number of holes to play without leaving the resort footprint. And that doesn’t even include the sterling lineup of offsite, publicly accessible venues in the nearby area including Mid Pines, Pine Needles, Southern Pines and Tobacco Road.
The No. 2 course has always been the star of the show at Pinehurst, boasting critical acclaim, U.S. Opens and historical significance. One could argue that the drop-off between No. 2 and Pinehurst’s eight other full-length layouts is steep. After a vaunted Coore/Crenshaw restoration in 2012 brought back a natural, rugged sandhills look that resembles the original Donald Ross design, Pinehurst No. 2 further elevated itself into the upper echelon of America’s greatest courses.
The adjacent Pinehurst No. 4 is widely considered the second-best property at the resort and has garnered considerable attention in most notable course rankings. It has a complex and extensive history, beginning with Donald Ross’ original routing that fully opened for play in 1919 to accompany the growing resort’s other three courses.
Over the years, the track underwent a series of large-scale redesigns, ultimately yielding a flatter and more manufactured property that little resembled Ross’ original layout. The most recent Fazio revamp in 1999 was well-received, but the property was lacking a natural look like its neighbor, No. 2.
It was high time to reimagine No. 4 into something that lived up to the aura of No. 2, and Pinehurst delivered several years ago with a home run redesign.
Gil Hanse, Jim Wagner and their team have earned a reputation as “restoration whisperers” after an impressive number of wildly successful restorations of some of the nation’s most revered classic courses. It came as no surprise, then, when they were chosen to overhaul Pinehurst No. 4, with the finished product re-opening in 2018.
This was a larger-scale effort than the typical restoration, to the point where I’d put it in the “redesign” category. The project initially focused on faithfully restoring a native pine barrens landscape similar to that of the original Donald Ross property, while removing artificial features like pot bunkers and pop-up greens that had accumulated from the numerous redesigns over the years.
On top of the restored landscape, Hanse, Wagner and their team installed an impressive variety of playing surfaces with design principles hearkening back to the golden age. While the routing was only lightly altered, its sandy waste areas, intimidating greenside bunkers and revamped greens complexes have produced a course that is a completely different experience from its previous versions and can now stand toe-to-toe with Course No. 2.
I found this reimagined version of the course to be highly engaging, challenging yet playable, and a beautiful showcase of the Carolina Sandhills environment. The routing sprouts outward from the main Pinehurst clubhouse to the main portion of the property, maximizing an interesting piece of land filled with tall pines, waste areas with wispy fescue and brush, and a large central water feature. The variety of hole designs and greens complexes provides a complete examination of all areas of the game.
On a chilly but beautiful morning, our visit to Pinehurst No. 4 kicked off an unforgettable Sunday spent exclusively on the Pinehurst resort property. This was the only round on the trip where we walked and hired caddies, and Pinehurst No. 4 was a delightful stroll over subtle, rolling terrain with expansive views of the property throughout the experience. Our caddies, Tyler and Walter, were some of the best I’ve seen, with great personalities and talents for tailoring their approach to each player’s tendencies. Tyler consistently gave me great reads on the greens, an essential boost to my game on a poor ball-striking day.
In our trip-long competition, after a tight battle waged on day one at Tobacco Road and Mid South Club, we played a skins format at Pinehurst No. 4 with unlimited carryovers. Ultimately, this led to a motherload of points on the line on the last hole, a crucial inflection point in the inaugural battle for the commemorative Red Jacket. Skins proved to be an excellent format on a course loaded with an impressive bevy of strategic options and risk-reward opportunities.
Pinehurst No. 4
Architects: Donald Ross (Original, 1919), Gil Hanse/Jim Wagner (Redesign, 2018)
Par 72, 7227/6961/6428/5864/5260 Yards
Hole 1 – Par 4, 450/420/404/382/319 Yards
Course No. 4 starts off with a sharp dogleg right around a large waste area guarding the corner. This flatter par 4 is a manageable start to the round, with a straightforward approach to one of the more subdued greens on the property.
After a hectic early-morning photography shoot, I arrived at the 1st tee for our 7:15 AM tee time totally cold, expecting an opening hole disaster. However, I was able to take advantage of the gentle handshake with a good tee shot (Breakfast Ball not even needed!) and a solid approach to set up what would be one of the few stress-free pars of the day.
Hole 3 – Par 4, 431/411/378/359/276 Yards
The third is a long par 4 sweeping slightly to the left around a couple of steep faced fairway bunkers. Bolder players may try to fly the traps up the left side to set up an optimal angle into the green. I went with a far more timid route to the right which lengthened the approach shot considerably, but my short game was strong in the early going and I still found a way to make a 4.
The square-shaped third green is one of several old-school complexes golfers will find at No. 4, and Hanse, Wagner and team did great work shaping these surfaces to resemble the greens of an original golden age design. This surface features several sections and swales, and my playing partners were flummoxed by a challenging back-right pin position perched atop a tier. Despite being well out of optimal position off the tee, I still walked away from the third with a 3-0 lead in skins.
Hole 5 – Par 4, 489/481/460/355/341 Yards
The fifth is a rollicking journey through tall pines which places great emphasis on positioning for the approach to a very elevated, contoured green. While tee shots placed up the left side are usually ideal, the left pin position we played to provided a decent uphill angle from the right side. That’s the route I took, and I hit a nice low cut that skirted around a large pine and onto the green. Playing conservatively away from the deep bunker just short and right of the green is an advisable move here to avoid a scorecard disaster.
Hole 7- Par 4, 439/421/404/380/356 Yards
The seventh is yet another example of Pinehurst No. 4’s brilliant use of topography and hazard placement to create strategic angles of attack. Off the tee, a ridge and fairway bunker to the right may lure players into aiming left, as I did on my way to a double bogey. Hitting directly over the trap down the right side is undeniably the more optimal play even though it feels visually awkward, which sets up a clear angle with all of the green to work with on the approach.
Hole 9 – Par 5, 527/517/484/464/436 Yards
In true homage to the famous seventh hole at Pine Valley, the ninth at Pinehurst No. 4 features a sea of sand that must be dealt with on the second shot. While moderate in length for a par 5, the ninth plays uphill, making the carry over the mass bunker in two shots no sure thing. In fact, a poor tee shot could result in a forced layup short of the sand to long iron distance into the green at best. After the challenges of the second shot, a tough approach awaits to a small, crowned green.
Hole 13 – Par 5, 529/521/504/474/455 Yards
The 13th is in the stratosphere of my favorite all-time risk-reward par 5’s. Bending to the left around a large lake, it’s short enough to be reached in two by taking a do-or-die route over the lake. The more sensible route to the right of the water is manageable, but it’s certainly not easy as the layup target narrows considerably with water and sand pinching the fairway at short wedge distance. If the impediments from tee-to-green can avoided, a reward awaits with one of the flattest greens on the property that will yield many birdies.
Hole 14 – Par 3, 216/207/179/161/115
Drama against the water continues at the demanding 14th, a par 3 featuring one of the most intimidating tee shots in the round. After developing a fade in recent seasons, I was jittery as I stood up to the tee knowing I’d need to start the ball over the water. There’s more room than it appears from the tee on the 13th, however, with plenty of bailout territory to the right of a large, receptive green.
Hole 16 – Par 4, 321/298/274/260/244 Yards
We came to the 16th having carried over the prior four skins, and there could be no better place to settle such a tie than a reachable, risk-reward short par 4. This is a superbly designed challenge, with runoff slopes all around the green. There is no other trouble in front of the green, supporting a run-up shot with a low driver. Missing laterally is a fatal error due to the narrow width of the green, with severe slopes in position to propel a recovery shot 20+ yards off the surface. The left bunkers are particularly hazardous at an awkward 30-to-40 yard distance from the hole, and are perfectly positioned to snag balls hit slightly offline that catch a nearby slope.
After Sam lipped out a four-footer on 18 that would’ve netted him seven skins (and eventually would have secured the Red Jacket), we were in the perfect place to settle the massive tie with the Thistle Dhu putting course just steps away.
Unlike several of the nine Pinehurst tracks that have disconnected properties, No. 4 can boast that it starts and ends at Pinehurst’s legendary home base, right next to the famous 18th green of the No. 2 course and the Payne Stewart statue. The amenities here couldn’t be better, and this bustling locale boasts a massive clubhouse clubhouse, the Thistle Dhu and the Cradle par 3 course, an epic venue filled with happy golfers.
On a trip that included Tobacco Road and Mid Pines, two other widely-praised layouts in the area, it speaks volumes that I have Pinehurst No. 4 ranked slightly ahead of them and nearly in the Top 10 of my course rankings. While I have yet to play Pinehurst No. 2, the bar will certainly be high when I do someday, thanks to the masterful redesign of No. 4 by Hanse and Wagner. Their take on this treasured property captured all of the elements that make the Carolina Sandhills region great for golf – great presentation and strategic use of sand, firm playing conditions, walkable topography and a serene natural setting in a pine forest.
If you’re visiting Pinehurst, Course No. 4 deserves to be in the lineup, and there’s a great chance it will be one of your favorite properties of the trip.