Pinehurst, N.C. — For more than six decades, Willie McRae has worked the loop at Pinehurst No. 2. He's carried the clubs for course designer Donald Ross, walked the fairways with Michael Jordan and heard galleries roar while caddying during the U.S. Open.
"You can feel all the pros that came through here," said the 74-year-old McRae. "I've been around a lot of different golf courses, but I'll tell you what - with the history and everything, this is one of the greatest golf courses in the world. This is a golf course that you wouldn't mind playing every day."
For 100 years, No. 2 has been a track that has both frustrated the world's best golfers in tournament play and tested the toughness of amateurs out for an afternoon round. To celebrate, the caretakers of the course where Ben Hogan won his first professional tournament and Payne Stewart his last are throwing a yearlong birthday party that pays particular tribute to its rich history.
Ross could have stood on the porch of his house - a chip shot from the third green - and watched with pride as his beloved layout tested those who teed it up. A young Hogan defeated Sam Snead in the 1940 North and South Open to begin his legendary career.
"There is a spirit to Pinehurst that is embodied in the entire experience there," Pinehurst chief executive Robert Dedman Jr. said. "The history and tradition, every one of the great golfers of the last hundred years has played there and played there numerous times.
"You really are walking in footsteps in the sands of time, and I think that's certainly very appealing to people who appreciate it and see a great championship golf course that players of all abilities can still enjoy."
Of course, with the way its famous turtleback greens are set up, one wonders how many golfers actually enjoy their round. John Daly grew so frustrated during the 1999 U.S. Open watching his uphill putts from the fringe of the eighth green roll back down that he smacked one while it was still moving. He took a two-stroke penalty, carded an 11 and swore off future Opens.
"When Ross designed it, he talked about hard pars and easy bogeys, and that's the way the course still plays today," Dedman said.
Retief Goosen fell victim to No. 2 during the '05 Open when he suffered one of the more memorable collapses in major championship history. He entered the final round with a three-shot lead, but had four straight bogeys on the back nine to close with an 81.
"I liked (No. 2) until the last day," Goosen said with a laugh. "It's a tough, tough track, the greens especially. It's a great course. It's different. ... It doesn't have the great views, but it has the great holes."
Ross wanted No. 2 to test a player's ability to make accurate approach shots, place the ball on the greens and keep it there. When it opened in 1907, the course covered 5,860 yards. The course is longer now, playing at 7,335 yards from the back tees. But the greens, even though they were converted from sand to grass in the mid-1930s and have been tweaked several times since, remain true to Ross' design.
"The greens at Pinehurst No. 2 are what keeps it at the top of the list," said Michael J. Fay, executive director of the Donald Ross Society. "The difficulty in the greens and the surrounding of the greens is ingenious. It's not a terribly long course for championship play, and there isn't a lot of quirkiness to it, but the greens manage to test par regardless. That's what keeps it on top."
The challenge brought the Ryder Cup to Pinehurst in 1951, the Tour Championship in 1991 and 1992, the U.S. Senior Open in 1994 and the U.S. Women's Amateur in 1989. It hosted the U.S. Amateur in 1962 and will do so again next year. After the successes of the 1999 and 2005 U.S. Opens, the course is likely to again host the USGA's signature event.
Michael Campbell answered Tiger Woods' challenges at the '05 Open, all but sealing his first major championship with a 20-foot birdie putt on the 17th hole. The more memorable victory belongs to Stewart, known for his tam-o'-shanters and plus-fours, who claimed his third major title at the 1999 Open.
No. 2's place as the centerpiece of the Pinehurst resort separates it from many of the other historic courses that host major tournaments. Anyone can sign up for a tee time, and the opening drives of many intimidated duffers end up dribbling just a few yards down the fairway.
"They've heard so much about the history, they get nervous," McRae said. "After you play it once or twice, you'll play a whole lot better."