Pinehurst No. 3

In America’s Greatest Golf
Community, Good Isn’t Good Enough

Pinehurst No. 3
Pinehurst, N.C.
Date: August 25, 2019

Pinehurst Resort’s lineup has to be the deepest of any golf resort in America — a whopping nine golf courses. Ten, if you count the Cradle (which you should). And that doesn’t even take into account the insane number of top-tier local courses near the resort (which you also should be making time for). The result is that cobbling together a three- or four-day itinerary can feel overwhelming. On the one hand, you want to hit up the big boys — No. 2, No. 4, maybe Pine Needles. On the other hand, a little variety would be nice too. The temptation is to sprinkle in a couple of rounds from courses that fly under the radar.

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Pinehurst No. 3 seems like an easy way to add variety without overthinking the question too much. No. 3 is an early Donald Ross design with shorter length (5,155 yards from the tips) and smaller greens than No. 2 (averaging about 4,500 square feet apiece, versus about 5,500 on No. 2). But it was birthed during the same stage of Ross’ career as No. 2 and, like Frank Stallone, does a lot of the same things as its more famous older brother. The course reopened in 2017 after a renovation to restore the trademark Sandhills aesthetics — wire grass and exposed sand — while also making room for the Cradle (which is built, in part, on land that once belonged to No. 3). A year later, Sugarloaf Social Club called No. 3 “[e]asily one of the most fun courses in Moore County, and a paradigm shifter in terms of how to achieve big architectural value in a diminutive package.” What’s not to like about shifting paradigms?

Early in the round, one paradigm certainly seemed to have shifted: the difficulty of the greens. Their wild contouring and the occasional false front left no doubt that they were Ross’ brainchildren, but for the first several holes, the contours were much friendlier than on No. 2. On the 283-yard opening hole, relatively straightforward green led to a comfortable two-putt. At the short par-3 second hole (119 yards), a pitching wedge too far to the left bounced off a pronounced hump flanking a greenside bunker, kicking the ball helpfully toward the hole.

But that tone doesn’t last. By the 10th hole — a short but tricky par-4 (327 yards) with a rolling, devilish sand hazard in the middle of the fairway that forces a strategic decision — No. 3’s demeanor had changed. The greens’ false edges were sharper; the shaping in the greens was more subtle and repulsive than the obvious, accommodating slopes on the early holes. Mediocre shots and putts were no longer accommodated, they were punished. To be clear, this isn’t the mark of a bad golf course — but in the shadow of No. 2, it is the mark of unoriginality.

A caddie on another course later explained his belief that No. 3 is not merely a “miniature No. 2,” but actually is harder than No. 2, because No. 3’s greens are equally contoured but smaller. My rounds on the two courses bore out his theory: my scores were nearly identical. And missing a green on No. 3 carries the same consequences that it does on No. 2: getting up and down is difficult, and bogey is a good score. No. 3’s shorter overall length might seem a counterbalance to the difficulty around the greens, but I found it had the opposite effect: the shorter holes create the impression of vulnerability, which lures the player into unnecessarily long tee shots and awkward yardages for approach shots.

Those intellectual crossroads set No. 3 apart from No. 2, but otherwise, No. 3 is simply not in the same league as No. 2 and No. 4. Those courses create a sense of place, a feeling of being somewhere epic and important. There is none of that at No. 3; the land is rollicking, but at the end of the day, this is a residential course — a good residential course, but a residential course nonetheless. The revamped hazards are rugged and beautiful, but with only a couple of exceptions (the aforementioned 10th, for example), those native areas never really come into play — certainly not to the degree they do at No. 2. They’re not a strategic element, they’re window-dressing.

To be clear, not measuring up to the resort’s best tracks isn’t the fault of No. 3’s recent rehabilitators. No. 2 and No. 4 are rare even by the standards set by the best golf courses in the country, much less Moore County. But No. 3’s shortcomings reveal a bigger problem for Pinehurst: deep roster or not, there is a pronounced drop-off in the enjoyability of the resort’s courses after No. 2 and No. 4 (not counting the Cradle). If No. 3 were located down the street from my house, then I’d play it all the time. But in a community with a half-dozen or more legitimately great golf courses within a half-hour of one another, the overwhelming majority of Pinehurst Resort’s courses do not belong in that conversation. When I visited No. 3, the routing played ahead of the scorecard by two holes (i.e., the first hole was No. 3 on the scorecard, and the eighth hole was No. 10 on the scorecard, and so on). Whether this reconfiguration is permanent wasn’t clear to me, but either way, you don’t see the resort monkeying with hole numbers on its No. 2 course. What does this say about how highly the resort prioritizes No. 3?

Perhaps at some point Pinehurst will renew its efforts to elevating No. 2’s brethren; No. 3 is not alone among the resort’s so-so courses, but given the recency of its renovation, it seems a poor candidate for new work anytime soon (although, to be fair, one questions the commitment of a “renovation” that begins by taking land away from a course). Until something dramatic changes, though, no persuasive reason exists to build a visit to Pinehurst Resort around anything but No. 2, No. 4, and the Cradle (or No. 8, if that’s your thing; it’s not mine). A morning spent on No. 3 is a morning that is spent somewhere other than No. 2 or No. 4, and that’s not a worthwhile trade.

Obviously, the North Carolina Sandhills region is an embarrassment of riches for golf; no one should visit for any length of time to play only No. 2 and No. 4. Diversity of experience is important. But in this region, there are too many tremendous golf courses nearby to justify playing anything but a great golf course. And No. 3 isn’t one of them.