Golf / Sports

For one family, Pinehurst's revival is bittersweet

PINEHURST, N.C. -- To most in the '60s, Pinehurst's No. 2 course was one of the cornerstones of American golf, in many ways still the same course Donald Ross sketched across the Sandhills in 1907.

To Rick Tufts, it was just another place to play as a boy, a block from the house where he grew up.

"We lived across from the second green of No. 2 when I was a kid, so No. 2 was inherently my playground," he said. "I was out playing in the sand traps, getting run off by errant golf balls or an upset father or grandfather once they found out I was playing on the masterpiece."

The Tufts family once owned it all – the No. 2 course, the resort and the entire village, from the fire department to the laundry. Rick Tufts grew up there, the great-great-grandson of founder James Walker Tufts and the grandson of Richard Tufts, who ruled over the resort and town for four decades, an influential figure in the history of American golf.

Now 55, Rick Tufts lives just outside the village, one of only a few family members left in the area. In 1970, the Tufts family sold to developers who changed Pinehurst forever, leaving it bankrupt and in dire shape before Robert Dedman's ClubCorp bought it in 1984 and nursed it back to health.

As the U.S. Open returns to Pinehurst Resort and Country Club for the third time, the Tufts have largely dispersed. Only Rick, a captain with the Pinehurst Fire Department, remains. Otherwise, their whereabouts are a mystery to those now associated with the resort.

"One of them works for the fire department," said Pat Corso, who served as president of Pinehurst under ClubCorp and is now a business-development executive in the Sandhills. "That's the only one I know is around. But no, the rest of them are gone. There may be some kids left, but I don't know who they are."

Don Padgett has been president of Pinehurst since 2004. He has overseen the restoration of the No. 2 course under Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore. His father worked at Pinehurst. And yet he has no contact with anyone from the Tufts family.

"I talked to (Richard's great-grandson) Bob when I first got here but that's been almost 10 years ago," Padgett said. "Particularly Richard, when they sold, Richard went into a two- or three-year almost-like depression over it all. So I think it's still probably all a little bit bittersweet."

Bittersweet is a good word, particularly as Crenshaw and Coore have reversed years of ill-advised modernization, tearing out acres of grass to return No. 2 to the natural, sandy character that Ross and James Walker Tufts intended. It once again looks like it did under the ownership of the Tufts family, and yet the Tufts family has never been less connected to it.

"People ask me all the time, 'What was it like?', 'Don't you wish?' or whatever," Rick Tufts said. "You can second-guess that question day in and day out. Yes, I would have liked to see the town survive with the family ownership, but there were too many question marks."

A legacy constructed

Pinehurst, like any legendary figure, has its own creation myth. James Walker Tufts, a silversmith, came to the Sandhills from Boston in 1895, where he had built an empire of drug stores and soda fountains, and fell in love. He promptly bought the land that would become Pinehurst from a local farmer, who apocryphal history claims later apologized for overcharging the silly Yankee the princely sum of $5,000.

What began as a health resort became a golf resort when a few visitors picked up clubs to knock balls around the pastures, and in 1899 Tufts hired the Scottish golf architect Ross to build four courses that became among the most popular on the East Coast, with No. 2 the jewel.

Overnight trains would drop off strings of sleeper cars in Southern Pines filled with wealthy visitors from the northeast in the morning, then pick them up in the evening full of rested vacationers heading back home. For many in the upper classes of New York and Boston and Philadelphia, summers in Maine and New Hampshire would give way to winters in Pinehurst.

And through it all, for more than 75 years, the Tufts family reigned over the resort and the village, the latter designed by Frederick Law Olmstead at James Walker Tufts' behest. James Walker Tufts was succeeded by his son Leonard and, later, his grandson Richard, who would become president of the USGA and a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame. Old proprieties were observed: Each guest was individually welcomed by a member of the family.

James Harrington grew up in Southern Pines, where his parents owned a hotel. He married Richard's daughter Sara, then joined the family business when he got out of the Army in 1952. He would become the only non-Tufts to serve as president. He took Bing Crosby bird-hunting, escorted Dwight Eisenhower around the resort and served the family for almost 20 years.

"I remember Richard Hellman, a little tiny gray-haired fellow who invented mayonnaise," said Harrington, 87. "That was the kind of thing Pinehurst was in those days, where you found the Rockefellers and that kind of people, mingling with the locals and being greeted by the Tufts as hosts on their arrival for the season."

And yet the resort struggled to keep up with the times. The Tufts family insisted on maintaining the air of noble gentility that seemed a throwback by the '60s, if not outright dowdy. The quiet lanes and breezy verandas of Pinehurst did not have the same appeal to the automobile generation. Richard's insistence on amateur golf – he loathed professional golf and the men who played it – kept away high-profile professional tournaments.

The days when the Rockefellers and their peers would arrive with steamer trunks, pay $10 a day for room and board and spend the winter going from cocktail party to cocktail party were over. People wanted swimming pools, motels, miniature golf. And new golf destinations were popping up everywhere, from Myrtle Beach to Florida. Pinehurst scrambled to add pools and convention space in an attempt to capture more package business. It also started opening year-round, previously anathema. (For decades, Pinehurst employees would spend their summers working at a sister resort in Maine.)

"My father and grandfather were totally old school, completely against any kind of commercialization, industrialization, exploit for financial gains kind of thing," Rick Tufts said. "They were really against any of that."

While external pressures threatened Pinehurst's business, internal pressures were tearing the Tufts family apart. Leonard Tufts, James Walker Tufts' son, had four children. Each inherited a quarter of the business, and one sold her share to a resort employee, outside the family. The resort was not dramatically profitable and all feared paying inheritance tax on the 9,000 acres of undeveloped land the family owned.

By the late '60s, it was clear the Tufts had to develop that land – or sell to someone who would.

A BIRTHRIGHT SOLD

The only way to understand why the Tufts family ended up selling something so important, so treasured, is to understand what happened decades earlier during the Great Depression. The Tufts family had continually expanded its holdings in Pinehurst, building more courses on the resort property as well as two Ross courses and hotels not far away: Pine Needles and Mid-Pines.

When the depression hit, business dried up and loans were called. The family ran out of money. Pine Needles and Mid-Pines were turned over to pay off debts that weren't fully erased until the 1950s. The experience scarred Richard and his brothers forever.

"They went through the Depression and they never recovered, psychologically," Harrington said. "They were just unwilling to take what they perceived to be a risk, to borrow. I don't mean to be critical of them, because I've never been under that kind of financial pressure, but they really had to struggle. ... It was not their business. They were hotel managers and resort operators, and very good at it, but they weren't real-estate developers."

When it became clear in the 1960s that the undeveloped land would have to be developed, the brothers were reticent to take on the loans needed to fund the project. Harrington successfully developed one small tract of land near the No. 3 course as a test project, but it wasn't enough to persuade the brothers.

In the absence of development income, the next generation of the family – most of it with little connection to the resort – faced massive inheritance taxes and little prospect of significant income. The pressure to sell was intense. Richard wanted to keep the resort, but he was outnumbered.

"The root problem, the root cause of the sale was the inheritance tax burden," Harrington said. "And I'm sorry it was."

Seventy-five years after James Walker Tufts founded Pinehurst, the Tufts family sold the resort and village to real-estate developer Malcolm McLean and his company Diamondhead for $9.2 million in 1970.

Harrington went on to develop Bald Head Island (he also served as Gov. James Martin's transportation secretary; a stretch of Interstate 40 near Benson bears his name). Peter Tufts, Richard's son and Rick's father, designed Seven Lakes Country Club, not far from Pinehurst. And Richard still played a little golf into his 70s, but at Pine Needles, owned by his old friend Peggy Kirk Bell.

Richard Tufts, having lost the course he loved, ended up playing at another his family once owned.

"When they sold over there, Richard came over here and played all the time," Bell said. "He never went back to Pinehurst. Never went back to play. Isn't that strange? He didn't want to sell it."

He died at 84 in 1980, but not before he, like the rest of the family, had to watch Diamondhead systematically dismantle the gentility and charm they had nurtured for generations.

A RENAISSANCE DELIVERED

Diamondhead began rapid expansion, adding homes and condos on every available piece of land, turning Pinehurst into a California-style resort. New roads were cut through the town. Selling real estate was the only priority; golf became secondary at best. What was once a destination became an address, as part-time residents replaced visitors as Pinehurst's primary consumers.

In the style of the '70s, easily maintained grass swept over the sandy waste areas Ross had known, front lawns for the condos and homes that now lined the courses. Pinehurst, once so unique, began to look not very different. Only the trademark greens of the No. 2 course survived.

"I stayed one year after the sale, before it got to be too much for me," Harrington said. "At one point, they sent down a design for a subdivision development from New Jersey that they'd drawn on their maps up there, and the damn flags were out in the middle of the greens. It was pathetic. It didn't suit me at all."

Pinehurst became a very different place under Diamondhead, which collapsed under the weight of bad investments elsewhere in 1982. The resort was taken over by a consortium of banks, left dingy and in need of updating. Two years later, ClubCorp bought the resort and started cleaning it up, building well-regarded new courses by Rees Jones and Tom Fazio and renovating old hotels and facilities.

By 1999, the resort was once again thriving, and the No. 2 course was ready to host the U.S. Open. The Dedman family sold ClubCorp in 2006 but kept Pinehurst for itself, then proceeded to turn back the clock on No. 2 to a time when a different family owned it in preparation for these groundbreaking back-to-back opens.

"I'm appreciative of what the Dedman family has done with Pinehurst," Harrington said. "It respects and restores the tradition in a remarkably well done way. No. 2, I remember it just like that. I took my grandchildren over there last year. I took a picture next to Richard's statue. They're proud of it."

Rick Tufts still lives just outside Pinehurst, one of only 10 certified fire officers in North Carolina. His uncle Leonard lives nearby, in Eastwood. Others live in Raleigh, South Carolina, Connecticut, Maine and Washington, D.C. They have gone their own ways; the resort and village their family built no longer draws them home.

Their name lives on, though, in Tufts Park at the center of the village, in the family archives at the library, and in the memories of those who have known, loved and lived in Pinehurst. That includes resident Richard Mandell, a golf architect and historian who has written extensively about Pinehurst, including a new book, "The Legendary Evolution of Pinehurst, Home of American Golf."

"I think people here revere the Tufts family, no matter what the Dedmans have done, no matter what Diamondhead did," Mandell said. "We're all here because of the Tufts family. That's a legacy that will always be there."

For members of the Tufts family, there's another side to that legacy: something lost that can never be reclaimed.

"I didn't know real estate and I was too young and stupid to be concerned about it, but I also wanted the town to stay the same," said Rick Tufts, who was 12 when the resort was sold. "Living here as a kid, it was boring, but it was unique. I guess we didn't know how good we had it, growing up here."

(c)2014 The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)

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