Home, home on The Cradle range

Pinehurst Resort and Country Club's young, but fabled, par-3 course has been turned into a practice range for this year’s U.S. Open. But don't fret, the course will return

PINEHURST, North Carolina — Tom Pashley, the omnipresent president of the Pinehurst Resort and Country Club, was visiting The Cradle in early March, watching as a stream of smiling golfers prepared to tackle the popular par-3 course that sits adjacent to the clubhouse.

But this visit was far from a regular stop to experience folks enjoying a short-game crusade. Pashley wanted to make sure that possibly the largest transformation for the Pinehurst property entering the U.S. Open three months away was going to be seamless.

“We’ve got to take down a couple trees up close,” Pashley pointed out after he met briefly with course maintenance supervisors near the starter’s hut. “Give the U.S. Open players a clear view of the area, cover up a few bunkers so we can get to balls out there. It will be a neat place for spectators to visit.”

So, the moving began.

A view from the back end of Pinehurst Resort and Country Club's makeshift practice range for the U.S. Open.

For the upcoming U.S. Open at fabled Course No. 2, the practice area has shifted from its long-standing and iconic range location to The Cradle, built in 2017, and its surrounding putting and short-game areas south of the clubhouse. The normal range, situated just a couple hundred yards away, was used for the 1999 U.S. Open, with corporate tents situated on adjacent Course No. 4. For the 2005 and 2014 U.S. Opens, in deference to corporate chalet buildouts, a temporary practice facility was created on the land that became The Cradle in 2017.

This year, The Cradle, which was closed for public play June 3 and will reopen June 29, is being renovated, so to speak, to accommodate the playing field’s practice needs.

The main practice facility at Pinehurst is steeped in history. Located between Course No. 2, the U.S. Open course, and Course No. 4, it was one of the first dedicated ranges in golf. The facility earned the name “Maniac Hill” because of its widespread usage by professionals during the North and South Open in the 1940s. The concept was devised by course architect Donald Ross in 1913, taking pieces of course No. 1 to create an open field. That move also largely birthed the practice of giving lessons at a dedicated site. Ross liked the set-aside spot so much that he began incorporating ranges at all his course designs in 1914 and that enacted a change throughout the golf architecture world.

Practicing at a golf course was entirely different just more than a century ago. Few players, no matter their skill level, bothered with hitting golf balls on an area dedicated to just practice. Usually, the old Scottish custom of a professional taking a golfer onto the course to pass along a lesson or using a vacant fairway was more practical. Today, practice facilities and short-game areas are being added to courses as a standard to develop youth programs and attract players who wish to improve their games aside from standard 18-hole rounds. Or just to have fun.

“The Cradle has been such a success that the footprint of that course is a lot more valuable now,” says Bob Farren, Pineshurst’s director of golf course maintenance. “So, we had to schedule this transformation and allow for The Cradle to still be in use as close to the U.S. Open as possible.

“The Cradle is in such high demand, it’s almost as critical a spot for our year-round golfers as Course No. 2. It’s been insanely successful, but it will be back.”

Pinehurst's par-3 course, The Cradle, is closed for nearly four weeks so that it could be transformed into the U.S. Open practice range.

When fans gather for the U.S. Open, they will find the reconfigured practice area to be stellar —a good thing since a high volume of spectators enjoy watching players practice their handiwork. The teeing area adjacent to the clubhouse was expanded to allow for more players to hit shots onto the 10-acre Cradle landscape. Some of the wiregrass was taken out, some bunkers were filled and a few trees were removed so that balls can be retrieved, either by standard manned range picking machines, autonomous pickers or Pinehurst Resort employees armed with old-school hand pickers to find balls in hard-to-reach locations.

“There won’t be any range balls or Top-Flites to pick up since we will have five different, brand-new brands of balls (for the U.S. Open),” Farren says. “We explored the idea of putting liners in the bunkers on The Cradle, sort of like Augusta National does in the summer when they’re closed. But we didn’t like that appearance. We wanted this to be a gold-standard practice area.”

Next door to The Cradle is the 17,000 square foot Thistle Dhu putting course, of which the top section will serve as the putting green for U.S. Open players. A short-game area has been established closer to No. 4 and will utilize the course’s 18th green for chipping work. Players can access the practice facility from player hospitality set up on the croquet course near the clubhouse entrance and climb over the gallery on a constructed footbridge. Another elevated footbridge will allow players to access the clubhouse on their way from putting to the new underground entryway that leads to No. 2’s first tee.

Perhaps, The Cradle transformed into a driving range will become iconic for more than just the hundreds of hole-in-ones scored or the tradition of playing the course barefooted.

“Maniac Hill” had such a moment 25 years ago when Payne Stewart and caddie Mike Hicks visited the Pinehurst Golf Academy clubhouse adjacent to the practice tee. They had to get Stewart’s short-sleeve rain jacket just right for the final round. Staffers gave Stewart a pair of scissors and watched as he cut off the sleeves since the fit was too tight. Stewart went on to win later that day and the abandoned sleeves were saved from the trash can by staffers.

“I will never forget Payne coming in that morning asking for some scissors,” says Patty Thompson, who was on duty at the Teaching Academy that Sunday morning in 1999 and is now the golf shop manager at nearby Hyland Golf Club. “I am kind of a smarty. I asked if he needed a haircut. He just scoffed at me and said the sleeves were too tight. He took the scissors, cut off the sleeves and left them with us there in a bag under the counter. We kept them with permission from all.

“Remembering that is fun. Of course, we had no idea what would happen that day. But I guess we made a small impact.”

It just goes to show that practice goes a long way to making perfect, especially at Pinehurst.