PINEHURST, N.C. - It's probably no coincidence that two of the toughest greens at Pinehurst's No. 2 course sit closest to architect Donald Ross' back porch.
He lived just off the third green. Ross often sat in the afternoon sunshine, drinking bourbon. Footsteps below No. 3, the fifth hole, a brawny par 4, ranks among golf's toughest pars.
"I witness maybe one par a week on the fifth, and I'm out all the time," caddie Sean Duggan said. "I've seen two birdies on the hole ever."
Highlighted by No. 5, the greens, universally considered some of the game's most complex, steal the show at Pinehurst No. 2.
Ross receives credit for the design of 400 and 600 golf courses, but he set foot on only about 20 percent of them, spending far more time on No. 2 than the rest. He constantly monitored and tweaked his prized greens - if only because he lived right here.
The 472-yard fifth hole most accurately represents this golf course. The drive isn't horribly intimidating, as a lot of room exists to safely land between the Carolina pines. But within this frame, hug the right side of the fairway, because from the lower left side or the rough, it's virtually impossible to hit the elevated green. Trouble awaits to the left and leaves a heroic up-and-down attempt.
The long approach shot demands perfection, just what Ross intended.
"It should call for long and accurate tee shots, accurate iron play (and I consider the ability to play the longer irons as the supreme test of a great golfer)," Ross once said, "precise handling of the short game and, finally, consistent putting."
Like many classic designs in contrast to modern bravado golf courses filled with hazards and out of bounds, Pinehurst No. 2 won't force a score well worse than your handicap - even on a bad day.
Pars and birdies are the hard part here.
Before playing No. 2, visit one of Pinehurst's several practice greens for a test of your bump-and-run skills and your putter off the green. The golf course presents links characteristics - at least as much as possible with bermuda fairways. They run as fast as a 7 on the Stimpmeter in the peak season.
Want to make yourself look silly? Try a delicate, lofty wedge shot at Pinehurst No. 2, especially with the aprons shaved nice and tight. Unless you've got supreme confidence in your wedge play, consider shots on the ground when near the green. You might not end up with a gimme putt, but there's less chance of getting "Rossed," the practice of hitting two straight shots from the exact same spot.
Although the golf course offers the ultimate test of a short game, Pinehurst No. 2 doesn't appear too penal from the tee. Aside from the out of bounds down the left side on the opening three holes and a pond in front of the 16th tee, virtually no way exists to lose a ball. The rough stays short during the spring, so let it rip off the tee and attack the center of greens with mid and short irons. Just beware of flier lies if you're in the rough.
Take a stab at birdies on the four par 5s. The eighth and 16th are shortened to par 4s during the U.S. Open, and only No. 10 plays severely long during daily resort play - 569 yards from the blue tees. The fourth features a wide, bowled fairway, short enough that longer hitters can easily attack the green on the second shot.
It's not visually spectacular like other major-championship resort venues at Pebble Beach or Whistling Straits, but the reputation of No. 2, from Bobby Jones to Tiger Woods, remained strong as ever.
Woods likened the golf course in 2007 to links golf.
"Fun golf is Pinehurst," he said. "Fun golf is playing links golf. Fun golf is learning how to maneuver the ball on the ground and give yourself options."
No. 2 is a players' golf course more than a resort golf course, so if you prefer elevated tee shots, spectacular bunkering and such, consider Pinehurst No. 4 or Pinehurst No. 8, showier Tom Fazio designs that also host tournaments. The new Pinehurst Perfecta package features a round on all three.
Caddies and forecaddies are available and encouraged at No. 2. They'll help navigate the greens, and most who've been here awhile offer good, historical tidbits.
The 2014 U.S. Open and U.S. Women's Open will arrive to a new look at Pinehurst No. 2, slated to go under the knife by the design team of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw. Plans call for the team to turn back time, so to speak, favoring more natural transition areas over the modern, manicured look. The golf course will fit into the Sandhills landscape and include less mowed rough and wider playing areas.
"We're trying to take what Ross left and perhaps bring it back to the character and definition of what was once here," Coore said. "In short, we'll bring the strategy back and reinstate its character."
The greens at No. 2, once described by Crenshaw as "symphonic," are expected stay untouched during the project. Coore and Crenshaw plan to add no significant length, with the exception of a new seventh tee box. It played 402 yards for the 2005 U.S. Open.
Work on the golf course is set to begin Nov. 15, 2010, and last into the first half of 2011.
Play No. 2 on a Sunday, and you'll find the 18th hole positioned as it sat for Payne Stewart's 1999 U.S. Open win, a new tradition at Pinehurst.
March 29, 2010