PINEHURST, N.C. -- I'm standing on the first hole of Donald Ross' masterpiece, the No. 2 course at Pinehurst, one of America's best and site of the 1999 U.S. Open. Judging by the bunker guarding the right side of the green, I can bring the shot home with a 4-iron, get down in two putts and walk away with a par.
The iron shot is up, on line -- and, I see when I reach the green's fringe -- about 10 yards short.
Touche, Mr. Ross.
The Scot, who designed No. 2 and tinkered with it over several decades, imparted a graceful challenge to the course. There are island greens, no double-doglegs, none of the other gimmicks used to hype modern courses.
Here, shot placement is crucial; no club is unimportant. And golfers must overcome Ross' subtle tricks -- for example, bunkers placed well in front of the greens pose a test of depth perception, and a wrong guess can kill a par.
Today, No. 2 is on almost every list of the nation's top 10 courses. Built near the beginning of the century, it has a natural grace, belonging to central North Carolina's sandy soil and its pines, which are pin-straight and thin.
The course also has a long list of heroes. Ben Hogan captured his first pro victory on No. 2, at the 1940 North and South Open. Francis Ouimet, Sam Snead, Babe Didrikson Zaharias, Jack Nicklaus, Curtis Strange and Davis Love III also have won here.
But, unlike most of the nation's top courses, No. 2 is open to the public. And this spring offers a good time to play the course -- at midyear, it will be closed so the greens can be rebuilt, and it isn't scheduled to reopen until early 1997.
North Carolina's Sandhills region is a golfer's paradise.
There are more than two dozen courses in the area, and several can lay claim to a Donald Ross design. In April, Pinewild Country Club will be host to the Pinewild Women's Championship, an LPGA event. And in May, the Pine Needles Resort will be the site of the U.S. Women's Open Championship, on its Ross-designed course.
Still, Pinehurst stands alone in the region. It boasts seven courses, with an eighth -- a Tom Fazio design billed as a modern-day No. 2 -- scheduled to open in mid-March.
The resort was begun just over a century ago, when Boston magnate James Walker Tufts bought 5,500 acres of timberland -- for about $1 an acre -- with plans for a winter resort. He sought referrals from doctors, but looked for those who wanted to relax, not recover; early advertisements noted that the resort would "receive no consumptives."
In 1896, the Holly Inn opened in the village, a quaint, walking-size area that still carries the look of times past. Guests could enjoy tennis, croquet and lawn bowling, but no golf. That came a year later, when a nine-hole course was laid out.
In the early years of the new century, Mr. Tufts made two moves that still define the resort.
He christened the Carolina Hotel, a white, wooden structure that boasted 250 rooms and 49 suites. The hotel, which today retains its graciousness and sports a bright copper roof, is the cornerstone of the resort, and the area.
And he lured Donald Ross to Pinehurst.
Ross, who grew up in Dornoch, Scotland, had studied the fundamentals of golf and course design at St. Andrews, under the legendary "Old" Tom Morris. Later, he worked at Royal Dornoch, whose features he would transport to Pinehurst.
He moved to the United States and was hired at a country club outside Boston, before making his way south.
No. 2 began in 1901 as a short, nine-hole layout -- just 1,275 yards. Ross lengthened those holes and added another nine, which opened in 1907.
But Ross -- not a bad golfer himself, having placed among the leaders at four U.S. Opens -- evidently was not satisfied with his design.
He tinkered with the course for years, discarding some holes and building new ones.
In 1935, he replaced the original putting surface, made of sand, with grass.
Throughout the changes, some constants remained.
Although the No. 2 course has wide fairways, Ross kept a premium on placement. Greens usually have one clear lane of approach, and a drive that strays will force a tougher second or third shot.
Ross also created a test for long irons. Around the greens are gentle dips and swales that play havoc with the pitch-and-run shot. And he left the course with his signature crowned greens.
In "Following Through," a collection of essays about golf, Herbert Warren Wind writes, "When he revised the Pinehurst No. 2 course, he took special pains to create Dornoch-style mounds, slopes and runoffs around the greens, and that course is generally acknowledged to offer the most exacting examination of chipping in the country."
Hitting and holding the crowned greens is likely to get even tougher.
To relieve a nagging problem of blight -- one that forced club officials to close the course for periods in recent summers -- the greens on No. 2 will be rebuilt with a new strain of bent grass.
The work, to be overseen by renowned course designer Rees Jones, should make the greens more tolerant of heat and traffic. It will also make them faster, says Lew Ferguson, Pinehurst's head golf pro.
But the work shouldn't affect the treasured Ross design. A computer will take topographic readings before any reconstruction is done, so the greens' slopes and hollows can be preserved.
The course is scheduled to close sometime in late June for the work; club officials expect it to reopen in March 1997.
The other touches that make No. 2 special also will remain.
Like the reaches of hard-pan sand and wire grass that line the edge of several fairways, sometimes extending hundreds of yards.
Or the stern test of the fifth hole, a 426-yard par four (from the white tees) that bends left and has a gently elevated, well-trapped green.
Or the 11th, where Hogan made a birdie from a green-side bunker -- a shot that helped him win the 1940 North and South.
Or the final hole, which follows a gentle slope uphill -- one of the few rises in the course's gentle terrain -- to the white-columned clubhouse.
Late in the day, during spring and fall, a setting sun makes the finishing hole even tougher, because tee shots must be hit directly into the sun, notes Mr. Ferguson, the club pro.
But to him, that's just one last challenge from master designer Donald Ross.
If you go
Getting there: Pinehurst is about 380 miles from Baltimore, with most of the drive along Interstate 95. Within a 90-minute drive are major regional airports in Greensboro and Raleigh/Durham; the Moore County airport area is served by the USAir Express commuter airline. Amtrak serves Southern Pines, a 15-minute drive from Pinehurst.
Lodging: The 310-room Pinehurst Hotel dominates the area, and the resort offers less expensive accommodations in the Manor Inn, a short walk away in the village. There also are many other options, from quaint village inns to the motels along U.S. 1.
Where to call: For information about the Pinehurst resort and its eight courses, call (800) 487-4653. For information about the Sandhills area and its many courses, call the regional convention bureau at (800) 346-5362.
A look at No. 2
Designer: Donald Ross
Opened as 18-hole layout: 1907
Par: 72 (Ladies', 74)
Distance: 7,020 yards (blue tees), 6,401 yards (white) and 5,966 yards (red)
Toughest hole: The fifth, a 426-yard par four
Toughest drive: The fourth, a downhill shot that slopes right toward hard sand and pines
L Most picturesque: The 17th, a green surrounded by tall pines
Past tournaments: North and South Open, Women's North and South Amateur, Ryder Cup, PGA Championship, U.S. Amateur
Last major tournament: 1994 U.S. Senior Open
5) Next major tournament: 1999 U.S. Open