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Perfectly Imperfect: The Sandscapes of Pinehurst No. 2 August 9, 2019 | LIBERTY CORNER, N.J. By George Waters, USGA

The sandy native areas play a key role in the strategic challenge of Pinehurst No. 2, and also require careful maintenance. (USGA/John Mummert)    

Today, the sandy native areas of Pinehurst No. 2 are one of the course’s most distinctive and memorable features. However, it wasn’t all that long ago that those same areas were covered by acres of green grass.

Making the transition from bermudagrass rough to a mosaic of sandy soil, pinestraw, and native vegetation was one of the key components of the golf course restoration that occurred in 2010-11. The restored native areas helped to recapture the original design intent and rugged aesthetics that had been lost over the years. They also yielded significant savings in water, fuel and other critical resources.

However, thinking of the sandy native areas as “no-maintenance areas” couldn’t be further from the truth. A significant amount of staff time is required to implement a highly selective management program that focuses on individual plant species and a wide range of playability issues. To find a balance between design intent, golfer satisfaction and reasonable use of staff time, the team at Pinehurst had to accept an important fact – the sandy native areas were never going to be “perfect.”

“It sounds simple enough,” said Bob Farren, Pinehurst’s longtime director of grounds and golf course maintenance, “but not obsessing over our native areas being perfectly clean and tidy was a total shift in the mindset, expectations and culture that we’d been working with for so long.”

Many golf facilities wrestle with this same issue when establishing native or naturalized areas. The process can be messy, especially in the early stages as an effective management program is developed and refined. Unexpected issues inevitably arise, and the maintenance challenges are constantly evolving. Finding an acceptable level of imperfection is a key part of the equation.

Shortly after the native areas were reestablished at Pinehurst No. 2, researchers from North Carolina State University catalogued more than 75 varieties of native vegetation emerging from the sandy soil. Figuring out which of those plants were going to fit in the context of a busy golf course proved to be a mixture of science and art.

“The classic definition of a weed is a plant that’s not wanted in a particular setting,” said Farren. “It’s very much in the eye of the beholder. The same plant can go from being desirable to a weed within a given season, or it may be desirable in one part of the course and a weed in another. We’re having to constantly evaluate our sandy native areas and make adjustments based on playability, management considerations and ecological factors.”

The team at Pinehurst uses a multifaceted approach to manage vegetation in the native areas, with the requirements changing from year to year and even month to month.

“In the years shortly after the restoration, we had issues with bermudagrass wanting to come back,” said Pinehurst No. 2 superintendent John Jeffreys. “Today, that’s not so much of a problem, but now we’ve got pineweed, which used to only be found in a few spots and now it’s everywhere. Our management techniques are always having to adapt.”

“For weed control, we’ll use everything from a handful of staff members applying herbicide with backpack sprayers to large groups pulling weeds by hand,” said Jeffreys. “We’re also continually experimenting with various products that can help us control certain plants before they become an issue that requires a significant amount of staff time.”

In addition to managing weeds, there is also the challenge of washouts. “The fact that our soils are sandy and drain well is what allows us to have these large areas of exposed ground in the first place,” said Jeffreys. “Otherwise the native areas would be a muddy mess after a rainstorm. The downside of sandy soil is that it likes to move around.”

After heavy rain events, it is not uncommon for washouts to form in the sandy native areas the same way they do in bunkers. Just like bunker washouts, the ones in the sandy native areas can be time-consuming and expensive to repair.

“Sometimes all that’s required is some quick work with a rake and shovel,” said Jeffreys, “but there are times when larger equipment and multiple staff members are needed. If an area becomes a repeat erosion problem, we’ll try to stabilize it with some additional planting or find a way to divert the water elsewhere.”

Even with all the challenges involved in managing the sandy native areas of Pinehurst No. 2, the benefits have made it more than worthwhile.

“We didn’t undertake the restoration of our native areas with the specific purpose of saving resources,” said Farren. “The goal was bringing back the playing characteristics and aesthetics that the golf course was intended to have. However, the native areas also allowed us to greatly reduce our consumption of resources like water and fuel, and bring back some of the sandy wiregrass habitat that is unique to this part of North Carolina. For us, it’s been a win all the way around.”    

Without question, the team at Pinehurst has advantages that most golf facilities don’t when it comes to managing their native areas. The available resources, sandy soils and historical context are just a few key factors working in their favor. However, Chris Hartwiger, director of the USGA Course Consulting Service, noted that lessons from the experiences at Pinehurst No. 2 can be applied to courses almost anywhere.

“Native or naturalized areas can be used to highlight the unique topography, vegetation and other environmental features of a golf course,” said Hartwiger. “They also allow superintendents to use resources more efficiently and offer an aesthetically appealing contrast to the more intensively maintained turf on the rest of the course. If golfers and staff understand the role that native areas play and can accept a reasonable level of imperfection, the benefits can be significant.” 

George Waters is the manager of Green Section Education at the USGA. Email him at   

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