Pine Crest Inn

Rough Around the Edges,
in All the Right Ways

Pinehurst, N.C.
Date: August 26, 2019

Next to the sink in the Pine Crest Inn’s men’s room is a ball washer.

It’s a joke, I think. Either way, it’s not the sort of thing you’d ever seen at the Pinehurst Resort — the spirit of which is wonderful and easygoing, but also one that takes itself a little too seriously at times. And every now and then, even at Pinehurst, it’s good to do something different. Sometimes that means washing your hands next to a ball washer.

For a resort that drapes itself in history, lodging options, and all things Donald Ross, the Pinehurst Resort somehow does not own the Pine Crest Inn. The Inn opened more than 100 years ago (the Inn’s own authorities differ on when it opened, ranging from 1913 to 1917) and, for more than a quarter-century, was owned by Pinehurst’s most famous denizen, Ross. Today, it’s still family-owned, albeit not by Ross’ descendants.

And that’s a good thing. The resort is great, but it is occasionally a little too clean and a little too perfect (a perplexing reality, since No. 2 and No. 4 have achieved such recent renown by becoming less perfect). The Pine Crest Inn is neither clean nor perfect. It is something between a museum and a dive bar. That makes it just right.

The author, in his blameless chipping stance, in the lobby of the Pine Crest Inn in Pinehurst, N.C.

The Pine Crest Inn had been on my radar for a couple of years, ever since I read Michael Bamberger’s terrific 2014 ode to the place. It is famously known as that place where guests can chip balls into the lobby’s fireplace, nearly within arm’s reach of the bar. Anyplace where you can drink a beer, chip golf balls on the carpet, and not get scolded (justifiably) by your wife is my kind of place.

My eagerness to try out the chipping-at-the-fireplace thing was exceeded only by my horror at chipping indoors. At least on Pinehurst’s tightly mown fairways, a skulled chip disturbs no more than a waste area or a bed of pine straw on the other side of the green. Indoors, in full sight of God and everybody, in a hundred-year-old hotel that sags just enough to suggest that a blow to the correct supporting column might bring the whole place down? That’s pressure.

But first things first. My golf partner and I found ourselves a table in the corner, to which a tired waitress eventually came by — just quickly enough to convince us that we hadn’t been forgotten, but just slowly enough to remind us that we weren’t special. “What do you have on draft?” I asked. “Nothing,” she replied. I turned my head to the bar, and she was right: there were no beer taps — just a long, dusty row of longnecks evincing the bottled selections. In the spirit of the United Kingdom, I ordered a Newcastle and the fish and chips.

The food didn’t win any awards, but it had come with no promises, and it served its purpose, so I had no complaints. And the ale was better than I remembered it. I wiped the condensation off the bottle and took in the ambiance of the lounge: lots of carpet, lots of dark wood, not much light. Lots of old photos on the walls, with just enough dust on the glass to confirm that they weren’t hung after some focus group-driven interior-decoration initiative. The place had an audible hum to it, but it wasn’t loud. It was just right.

Eventually, the moment of truth arrived. The hotel’s fireplace-chipping game is a simple exercise in chipping to an opening in a padded green square beneath the lobby’s mantle (imagine a dog-sized air mattress with a hole in it). The game appears to be first come, first served: just walk up, grab a club, and start. There’s no starting whistle, and (remarkably) no waiver to sign. Just walk up and play. The object is simple: knock the ball in the hole. But like all short-game opportunities around Pinehurst, the variety of options injects complication into a seemingly straightforward task. A handful of clubs rest against the column that serves as the game’s “starting line” — ranging from a pitching wedge up to a 5-iron. Obviously, the wedge’s loft makes it easier to baby the chip into the hole, but showing off is half the fun of this game, and the 5-iron demands the spectators’ attention (if for no other reason than their odds of dying rise substantially). I managed two hole-outs with the wedge, and I didn’t manage even to imagine how hard you’d have to hit the 5-iron to get it high enough airborne to find the hole. Presumably, one’s willingness to smash the 5-iron increases proportionately to the volume of Newcastle consumed.

But on this night, we never drank the requisite amount of brown ale to work up the courage. With an early tee time the next morning, we called it quits on both the fireplace-chipping and the beverages. I walked back to the Holly Inn with my pride intact, and with a lesson: Pinehurst’s tremendous golf courses lure the visitor into 36-hole days, but the real fun around Pinehurst lies in the area’s small pleasures: an afternoon on the porch of the Deuce, a couple of rounds on the Cradle, a late night of crushing inadvisable 5-irons at Donald Ross’ 100-year-old fireplace. And the only way to make time for that is to make time for it — which means settling for a day or two of just one round of golf.

Of course, making time in an itinerary for less golf in an area so golf-rich as Pinehurst necessitates many more trips to the area — and, for me, more frequent nights slamming 5-irons at Donald Ross’ mantel.