Pinehurst Holiday

Pinehurst Holiday

By Lee Pace

On December 25th, there was Santa Claus.

On the 27th, there was Donald Ross.

For scads of avid young golfers in the Carolinas and beyond, the Christmas season means not only toys under the tree but a trip to Pinehurst for the Donald Ross Memorial Junior Tournament.

Launched in December 1948 following the death of Ross, the designer of seven courses operating in the Sandhills at that time and nearly 400 nationwide, the Ross Memorial was a junior competition staged in various age categories on the 27th, with a father-son competition held the next day.

“It was a really big deal,” says Leonard Thompson, the winner in 1963 and ‘64 before launching careers at Wake Forest and on the PGA Tour and later the Senior Tour. “It kind of ended one year of competition and jump-started the next year. It was still Christmas — the club and town were still completely decorated. If I remember correctly, all five courses were used. There were kids everywhere.”

Lex Alexander was among a group of junior boys driven from Charlotte to Pinehurst during those same 1960s by the head of the junior golf committee at Charlotte Country Club.

“Going to Pinehurst as a kid was a big deal,” says Alexander, who later played on Wake Forest’s 1974 NCAA championship team. “I just remember the ground was frozen, the greens were fast, the wind was blowing and it was a fight just to break 100.”

“We see the parents covered in blankets and wearing gloves, but the kids don’t seem to mind the cold,” says Brian Fahey, the tournament director from 2010-21. “The kids are pretty resilient. They just go play. The cold doesn’t bother them.”

Remember, Pinehurst was conceived as a wintertime resort, its launch in 1895 and the cracking of the first golf ball three years later long before the advent of air conditioning. The official Pinehurst season was October through April until the 1960s, and the town closed down and the staff moved to jobs in the mountains.

So it’s no wonder the golf, recreational and social activities never slowed down in December and over the holidays.

The Pinehurst Outlook in early January 1919 celebrated the riches of the local golf experience, writing of the annual Mid-Winter Tournament and of a Tin Whistles competition. It previewed the upcoming St. Valentine’s Day Tournament, listed hundreds of arrivals at the Carolina Hotel and advertised an antiseptic powder for the feet used by troops in the great World War that just ended as perfect for golfers because it “takes the friction from the shoe and freshens the foot.”

The newspaper also espoused the appeal of the Sandhills: “As the winter golf center of the two hemispheres, Pinehurst is now thoroughly established, its unequaled equipment embracing three distinct 6,000-yard courses and an additional nine-hole course.”

The Mid-Winter tournament was first played in 1904 and contested every year through the mid-1900s; it was a four-round event held between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. The 1930 tournament featured in the championship match two megastars of the day’s amateur scene. William C. Fownes Jr. of  Pittsburgh beat George T. Dunlap Jr. of New York, 1-up. Fownes was the former president of the USGA and 1910 U.S. Amateur winner, and Dunlap was the son of the co-founder of the Grossett & Dunlap publishing house and won seven North and South Amateurs. Both were Pinehurst regulars during the winter season.

A century ago, the 1923 Christmas season was celebrated with the Harvard Polo Club visiting for two matches between Christmas and New Year’s against the Pinehurst Polo Club, 45 members of the Yale Glee Club performing on Christmas night at the Carolina Theatre, and the Jockey Club staging its Christmas Day extravaganza with harness and steeplechase races. A golf exhibition on Christmas Eve featured Arthur Havers, the British Open champion, and Jimmy Ockenden, the French Open champion, playing local crack golfers Alex Ross (brother of Donald) and Joe Capello.

Creative minds have fashioned novel golf events in recent years as well.

A group of Sandhills golf aficionados gathered on New Year’s Eve for three years beginning in 2006 to play a cross-country competition they pegged the Ross Cross Country Golf Quest. Four teams played a two-man, alternate-shot format on a single hole that ran nearly 4 miles and carried over five different courses. They started on the first tee of Pinehurst No. 2 and finished on the 18th green of Mid Pines. One of the participants, Kelly Miller of Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club, outfitted all the golfers in red-and-green Pine Needles caps.

“The idea here is to ring out the old year and welcome in the new, and in doing so, take the game but not ourselves too seriously,” said Tom Stewart, owner of Old Sport & Gallery in Pinehurst. “Donald Ross, it should be remembered, invented miniature golf and loved to put on wacky golf events like this. We’re simply playing in the spirit of Mr. Ross himself.”

In December 2017, Kelly Mitchum of the Pinehurst teaching staff was pitched on the idea of playing the resort’s new short course, The Cradle, on the shortest day of the year, the Winter Solstice of Dec. 21, from sun-up to sun-down, perhaps as a charity enterprise. Mitchum played 26 rounds from 7:20 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. on something of a lark and a test run for a more organized event in December 2018 to raise money for Young Life of the Sandhills and the Sandhills Food Bank. It has continued as an annual tradition.

“I was pretty sore at the end of it, but it was a lot of fun,” Mitchum said of the 2017 marathon. “It was 50 degrees or so, pretty comfortable. The thing about winter golf is the wind. If the wind blows, it’s tough. But even if it’s 45 degrees and there’s no wind, it’s pretty comfortable.”

The Pinehurst holiday season knows no better touch than playing golf on the world-renowned No. 2 course and having the sound of traditional carols like O Holy Night emanating from the Coe Memorial Carillon in the Village Chapel. During the U.S. Open in June 1999, a programming error prompted the carillon to play a holiday song when it was 85 degrees outside.

John Shannon, the director of music at the chapel at the time, smiled thinking about the mishap.

“The announcers on national TV remarked what a charming village this is — ‘They even celebrate Christmas in summertime,’” Shannon said.

Lee Pace is a freelance golf writer who has written about Sandhills area golf for four decades and is the author of club histories about Pinehurst Resort & Country Club, Mid Pines, Pine Needles and Forest Creek.

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