Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Pinehurst Resort - The Cradle of American Golf

There are only two courses at Pinehurst Resort currently on Golf Magazine's top 100 lists. Pinehurst #2 is rated among the top in the world and is on all three lists I am trying to complete. Pinehurst #8 appears on the Top 100 Public Courses in the U.S. at #96. Even though it is not on one of Golf Magazine's top 100 lists, Pinehurst #4 does appear on Golf Digest's list as the #44 public course in the U.S.

However, there are nine courses at Pinehurst and they all are a fantastic experience in their own way. The hotels, restaurants, spa, and other facilities, as well as the historic town of Pinehurst, are all special as well.

The totality of all of the above is why I reserved a special section of my blog (on the left side under the top 100 lists) to highlight all nine courses individually, as well as the Pinehurst experience outside of golf. I will likely not add anything new that hasn't already been said about Pinehurst, but it is a truly special place and still my favorite golf memory and second favorite golf resort on the planet.

Occasionally, I will reserve a special section outside of my normal blog entries, to cover a full golfing experience, such as Pinehurst Resort (and quite possibly the Robert Trent Jones Trail in Alabama). Each course will receive it's own blog and link. The facilities will receive a separate blog and link.

Pinehurst is exactly what it has been dubbed - The Cradle of American Golf - and is why I write about all of my experiences there, not just the top 100 golf courses found at the resort.

#50 (U.S.) Plainfield Country Club

September 18, 2015

My New York and New Jersey golf trip concluded in Edison, NJ, at Plainfield Country Club.  Truth be told, I hadn't heard of Plainfield Country Club until I started this quest.  When I first started, I had done a little research on each course on each list and found that this was a Donald Ross design.

Plainfield Country Club was originally founded in 1890 as the Hillside Tennis Club. The golf course was designed in 1916 by Donald Ross. Since then, Plainfield Country Club has been home to the 1978 U.S. Amateur, the 1987 U.S. Women's Open,  several state and regional championships, and has been ranked among the best in the country. In 2011, it was home to The Barclays golf tournament, the first PGA Tour FedEx Cup playoff event. The Barclays will be returning in 2015 and 2019.

Ross courses have always given me fits because the greens are tough. When I say tough, I mean like eating a mouth full of gravel tough.  Pinehurst #2 is his most famous work, but after playing several Ross courses, I can assure you that most of the greens he designed are just as tough as the famous ones in North Carolina.

Even with the tough greens, Plainfield Country Club was a an absolute treat to play and a fitting way to end an awesome golf week.

On the morning of our tee time, I arrived an hour early so I  could take in the clubhouse and warm up on the range. This day's round was scheduled as a foursome with Kelly (my host for the week at every club except Maidstone), Andy (the member), and another guy from the Philadelphia area whose name I am going to butcher with the spelling - Schemp.  All three were fantastic playing partners and we had an enjoyable round together.  My caddie was a retired New Jersey cop who had put 30 years in on the police force, and as a former police detective myself, it made for additional interesting conversation.

The entrance sign to Plainfield C.C.
The plaque dedicated to Donald Ross.
A look at the back of the clubhouse from the 9th fairway.
The gentlemen's locker room at PCC.
After strolling the grounds for a bit, , changing in the locker room, and purchasing a logo shirt and golf ball, I headed to the range to warm-up.  Kelly and Andy met me on the range, and after we were ready, we headed up to the first tee. We were the first group out on a perfect golf day! The golf course was in immaculate shape and I was ready to tee off.

Plainfield Country Club appears in The World's 500 Greatest Golf Holes and receives quite a few accolades. Among them are:
  • Holes 2 and 12 are listed as two of the top 500 holes in the world.
  • Hole 12 is listed as one of the best 18 greensites in the world.
  • Hole 12 is listed as one of the top 18 holes designed by Donald Ross.

The flag used for all 18 holes at Plainfield Country Club

Over the past 10 years, Plainfield Country Club has undergone an extensive restoration and renovation program under the direction of architect Gil Hanse, involving the removal of over 1,200 trees, the rediscovery of a number of lost bunkers covered in prior years, expansion of 16 greens, and the lengthening of 12 tees to reflect modern equipment and skills. 

There are five sets of tees at Plainfield Country Club. From back to front, they are the Championship, Plainfield, Ross, Hillside, and Calkins tees. The Championship tees play to 7,091 yards with a 75.3/146 rating and slope.  On this day, we opted to play from the blue, or Plainfield, tees that are 6,616 yard with a 73/139. All distances below are referencing those tees. Most of the hole descriptions will be used from Plainfield' website since it does a fantastic of of explaining each hole, especially making note of some changes during renovation that I didn't experience first hand. I will add a note here and there from my personal experience on various holes.

A look down the fairway from the 1st tee.
Hole #1 is a 421 yard par 4.  Ross wanted the ball to move along the ground. This is a good example of a fairway that had become too narrow, so the club widened it on the left side during renovations. The left side of the fairway is the best side for approach to the green. During renovations, the collar to the right of the green was also expanded. Before the renovations, if you missed the green to the right you were dead. 
A look into the 1st green from 150 yards out.
The club also put in chipping areas, which gives you the options of putting, chipping, pitching or hitting a high flop shot as opposed to just gouging the ball out of the rough. They also removed the trees behind the green, which is something that was done on several of the holes. They were not part of the original Ross design and they provided depth perception that ran counter to Ross's philosophy. They eliminated an element of strategy because it reduced a player's sense of doubt, which is what good architects try to instill. Removing trees is always controversial but it is an important part of renovating a Ross course.  I can add that the first green was one of my favorite on the course, and from reading the changes that occurred during the renovations, I am sure I like the current set up much more than I would have before the renovation.
A closer look at the 1st green.

Hole #2 is a par 4 that plays to 437 yards. This is a strong hole that plays downhill off the ridge top, and the ground falls away to the left. Fairway bunkers are in play on the left side 270-295 yards off the tee.
A look down the fairway from the 2nd tee box.
The green is turtle-backed with a false front. It has bunkering on both the left and right sides of the green, with pot bunkers on the left and larger bunkers on the right.This is a hole that was restored to the original Ross complex of bunkers. These are much more intricate and thoughtful than the evolved configuration that the club initially inherited. There's a chipping area to the left of the putting surface that sees a lot of play. This is another hole where the trees behind the green were removed, taking away the artificial backdrop and opening up views to the third hole.
A look towards the 2nd green from 120 yards out.
A look towards the 2nd green from 80 yards out.
Hole #3 is par 3 that plays to 164 yards over water.  During renovations, the tee complex was simplified by re-arranging the tees to give players a better view of the water. The hole is all about the green. Shots that land short or right of the green will roll back into the water because of closely mown grass, while any shot that is long will leave a player with a difficult recovery or a nasty putt due to a green that slopes from back to front.

A look into the green from the 3rd tee box.
Hole #4 is a short par 4, playing to 295 yards. This was the first hole where some big changes were made, and if they had been viewed as a failure, it may have been the end of the renovation project. Trees were removed down the left side of the hole and some pot bunkers on the top of the ridge were restored. These bunkers had been removed due to the introduction of the trees.

A look down the fairway from the 4th tee box.
The green is most accessible from the left side of the landing area, so the aggressive line down the left that flirts with the out of bounds, opens up the best angle. During renovations, a back tee was added to make the hole more interesting given the modern technology of today's players. This is a great example of the multi-dimensional nature of a Ross design. The strategic possibilities are almost endless, based on the decision the player makes on the tee.
A look towards the 4th green from 60 yards out.
Hole #5 is a 509 yard par 5. The tee shot is mostly blind and plays slightly uphill. It then continues the climb uphill through some interesting terrain, to the green for approach. The fairway slopes from left to right, but a line of cross bunkers about 50 yards from the green will force long hitters to think twice before electing to try and reach the putting surface in two.

A look down the fairway from the 5th tee box.
If you decide to lay up with your second shot, the best angle for your third shot is from the left, close to the out of bounds. The green slopes from back to right and there is a closely mown pitching area to the right of the green. Some trees were taken out on the left side to bring the out of bounds into play, and open up the best angle of approach. The original Ross green was a punchbowl design but because of drainage problems, the club brought in Geoffrey Cornish to rebuild the green . The other change made to this hole was to lower the tees and move them back to add 8-10 yards to the hole.
A look into the 5th green from 150 yards out.
A closer look at the 5th green.
Hole #6 is a par 3 that plays to 141 yards. As a shortish par 3, this is a neat hole. There had been two little bunkers that weren't really in play and had been removed. But Ross had originally designed them to serve as a visual trick to add a little doubt and confusion for the tee shot.
A look into the green from the 6th tee box.
The green is beautifully bunkered and if you miss it, recovering can be difficult. The green slopes from the front right towards the center, which makes front or right hole locations difficult to attack.
A look at one of the deep, green-side bunkers at #6.
A look at #6 green from the top of the hill behind it.

Hole #7 is a 457 yard par 4. This hole was lengthened by 5-to-10 yards and restored a cross bunker located just short of the fairway. A tee shot that carries at least 265 yards rewards players with extra roll and a view of the green.
A look down the fairway from the 7th tee box.
The fairway bunkers along the ridge on the left side of the hole had devolved into a series of not very appealing bunkers in among a set of oak trees. During the renovation, the complex of 7-8 bunkers were restored to that which Donald Ross had originally built on the course. The green sits in a bowl and runs away towards the back left. There's bunkering 15-20 yards short and right of the green, which presents a visual challenge. The chipping area to the right side of the green was expanded and sees a lot of play.
A look into the 7th green from 150 yards out.
Hole #8 is a 495 yard par 5. The tee shot is uphill over the ridge, which gives an edge to longer hitters. Bunkers guard both sides of the landing area but an interesting aspect of the hole is a pin oak on the right side past the landing area which forces players coming into the green from that side of the fairway to fashion a shot around it. The fairway kicks to the right into a "half-pipe" green.
A look down the fairway from the 8th tee box.
The green has a small ridge that runs from front to back. It is like a snowboarding "half-pipe" and it will kick balls back into the center of the green. However, it is another of the varied green sites that Ross utilized on this course. The green nestles in a valley and some chipping and pitching areas were added during renovations to the sides and rear of the green to help accentuate this movement of shots.
A look into the 8th green from 100 yards out.
Hole #9 is a 356 yard par 4. This mid-length par 4, sits in a beautiful setting with the clubhouse as a backdrop behind the green. Most players hit 3-woods or hybrids from the tee so they can avoid the dramatic and deep fairway bunkers that were restored to the left side of the landing area during renovations.
A look down the fairway from the 9th tee box.
The green has two tiers so a precise approach is crucial. The other important change made to this hole was expanding chipping areas around the green, which again is very much a Ross design feature.
A look into the 9th green from 60 yards out.
Hole #10 is a 353 yard par 4. During renovations, the tee alongside the clubhouse was lengthened and it is very much like the first tee at Merion, where you walk out of the clubhouse and you're on the tee. As they used to say about Merion, the biggest difficulty on the first hole was overcoming the roar of silverware clinking on the china.

Most players hit a 3-wood or hybrid for this blind tee shot over the hill. The best play from the tee is down the left side, as it opens up the best angle into this small angled green. The biggest change made here was to restore a creek on the right side of the landing area about 310 yards from the tee. It had been made into a pond in the 1960's-70's but blind ponds are totally alien to a Ross design so the hole was restored it to its original form. The fairway on the right side towards the creek was also expanded.
A look down the fairway from the 10th tee box.
The green is exceptionally well-bunkered and the main design characteristic of the putting surface is an upslope towards the rear of the green which can act as a backstop.
A blind look towards the 10th green from 150 yards out.

A closer look at the 10th green.
Hole #11 is a 136 yard par 3.  Man was it a tough hole!  One of the trademarks of a Ross course is the variety of par 3s. This is the shortest hole at Plainfield and was my favorite.
A look into the green from the 11th tee box.
The tee was expanded slightly and placed so it melded into the collar on No. 10, which is an old-style design feature that you rarely see today. The green slopes dramatically from front to back and tee shots that are long or miss to the left will leave a very difficult recovery. The green has a dramatic false front and balls that fail to carry deeply enough onto the putting surface run the risk of rolling back into a penal bunker that guards the front of the green. Yes, I learned about the false front and the bunker first hand.
A closer look at the 11th green.
Hole #12 is a 555 yard par 5. This is widely considered to be one of Ross's best 18 holes and it has changed dramatically over the years. It was originally a long par 4 and a par 3 before the two holes were combined into the par 5 it is today. The hole is a textbook example of the strategic challenges Ross presents players.
A look down the fairway from the 12th tee box.
There is a downslope in the landing area and if players catch it, they can add a fair amount of distance to their drives. A seasonal creek runs through the fairway and forces players to decide whether to lay up either left or right of the creek, or to try and carry the hazard. The creek adds so much to the thinking that goes into the second shot, in part because the amount of water in the creek will play a large part in a player's decision. If it is dry, you can afford to take a risk but if it is wet, you must avoid it. But how do you know from day to day? It's that unpredictability that makes the hole so interesting and challenging.  A spine separates the back left and back right portions of the green, which again puts an emphasis on a well conceived and executed approach.

A look onto the 12th green from 130 yards out.
Hole #13 is a 411 yard par 4. This begins a three-hole stretch known as the "Tunnel."  An approach from the right side of the fairway will be influenced by trees and there is a bunker on the left side of the landing area.
A look down the fairway from the 13th tee box.
The pond guarding the front of the green adds an extra risk to the hole. This is the flattest green on the course but it can be deceptive because it is also the most subtle. Greens that appear to leave relatively flat putts can be difficult because players always search for a break-- no matter how small. The green is guarded by two bunkers and there are chipping areas in the back right and left.
A look towards the 13th green from 140 yards out.
Hole #14 is a par 3 that plays to 186 yards. There is nothing subtle about the green on this long par 3 that requires a full carry over a pond that guards the front-right of the putting surface. The large humps in the green are out of character for a Ross design but they make this hole particularly challenging. There are mounds to the left of the green as well as a chipping area behind the putting surface.
A look onto the green from the 14th tee box.
Hole #15 is a 357 yard par 4. This hole brings you out of the "Tunnel". Players face a semi-blind tee shot with either a hybrid or a fairway wood and a carry of some 240 yards is required to clear the cross bunker complex on the right side of the fairway. There is also a lot of mounding on the left side of the landing area which looks artificial but it is very effective and was an original part of these re-configured holes.
A look down the fairway from the 15th tee box.
The green slopes significantly from back to front and is guarded by five bunkers in front and a chipping area to the right. The green appears to be subtle like No. 13's, but it is actually more challenging and leaves a lot of players scratching their heads as they head for the next hole.
A look onto the 15th green from 100 yards out.
A closer look onto the 15th green.
Hole #16 is a 554 yard par 5. This is a hole where some of the most significant changes were made during renovations.  A cross bunkering complex was restored, forcing players to cope with a difficult second shot, particularly if they drive into the rough and must decide whether or not to lay up short of the bunkers, play out to the left, or risk a carry. Additinally, the second shot is blind which adds just the necessarily element of doubt.
A look down the fairway from the 16th tee box.

Middle of the 16th fairway approximately 250 yards out.
The green, which is severely sloped from front to back and has upper and lower tiers, probably ranks Nos. 1 and 11 as the most severe on the course and two-putting can be challenging--all of which makes the second shot so interesting. This is a great hole to play!
A look into the 16th green from 100 yards out.
Hole #17 is a 409 yard par 4. Along with No. 18, this hole probably suffered the most from advances in technology over the years. The hole is a dogleg right that plays blindly uphill, and in Ross's day, the cluster of bunkers and trees on the right side of the hole provided a great challenge for the tee shot. However, in today's game most players do not think about these hazards, instead focusing their attention on the out of bounds down the right side of the hole, and the rough on the left due to equipment that allows for longer driving distance.
A look down the fairway from the 17th tee box.
The second shot is challenging because you can't see the entire putting surface of this elevated green. It is my favorite hole because it is set along a ridge and is beautifully bunkered. The green offers plenty of challenges as it possesses many of the trademark Ross slopes and rolls.
A look into the 17th green from 150 yards out.
A look at the 17th green from the top of the hill on the left side.
Hole #18 is a par 4 that plays to 380 yards. This was originally the 16th hole and, since being restored, is one that allows a player to be as passive or aggressive as they choose to be. It is a dogleg left, with the second half of the hole climbing up to a perched green complex. The tee shot provides a multitude of options, since the trees have been cleared out of the corner of the dogleg. Players can take an aggressive line over the hillside bunkering, or play more safely our to the right and face a longer approach shot.
A look down the fairway from the 18th tee box.
Until recently, this hole was viewed as an awkward finishing hole to a great course. However, the quality of the green has always been accepted as a great finishing green. The beautifully contoured green is guarded by a false front and there are bunkers left and short right. It is one of the best greens on the course and very interesting and thought-provoking.
A look onto the 18th green from 130 yards out.
My caddie instructing me about the break on 18.
Of the six courses I played on my New York and New Jersey trip, Plainfield Country Club was my second favorite. Even though Ross courses aren't my favorite due to the sheer complexity of the greens, this is my favorite one thus far. The course presented thought-provoking challenges on 15 of the 18 holes and it was a treat to play. I hope to one day be able to get to experience this course again. I highly recommend it to anyone lucky enough to receive an invitation.