Charming and quaint, there’s nothing like the Pine Crest Inn, right in the heart of Pinehurst

June 19, 2014

PINEHURST, N.C. – As the men made their march through Pinehurst No. 2, I stayed in a private home, with other writers, a few miles from the course, a one-week rental in a suburban neighborhood where the streets, some of them, are named for celebrated golf courses: Bob O’Link, Burning Tree, Pine Valley, just to limit it to men’s clubs.

For the second week, when the women took center stage on Donald Ross’s No. 2 course, I moved into town, into a third-floor room at the Pine Crest Inn in the Historic District, a hotel owned by Donald Ross his own self, way back when.

In town, a lot of the streets are named for Pinehurst families: Barrett and Shaw, and also McDonald, McKenzie, McCaskill and McLean. The PCI is owned today by the Barrett family, but there are nods to the former owner most everywhere here. There’s even an itty-bitty bust of the man on the walkway into the inn.

Roger Maltbie is staying here, and I’ve seen Mike Cowan and Linn Strickler on the porch. (Fluff and Growler, if you’re still using the caddie-yard nicknames assigned to them years ago.) The place is tired at its seams, and you can only imagine how enthusiastically the North Carolina Clean Indoor Air Act was received at the hotel. The bar at the Pine Crest Inn became legendary because people actually drank there. They drank and they smoked and they went off to bed and got up the next morning for their golf games feeling no pain. The place is not sterile. It is deeply golfy. Ben Crenshaw used to wear out the chipping game in the hotel lobby, refreshments standing ready nearby.

Big Jack stayed in room 205 at the Pine Crest Inn when he won the North-South Amateur on the No. 2 course in ’59 and Jackie — Jack Nicklaus II — stayed in the same room when he won it in ’85. The previous year, Davis Love III stayed in that very same room when he won the ’84 North-South. Some room. Later this summer, and 30 years after pa’s victory, Davis IV will play in the North-South. That’s Davis’s son Dru, as in quadruple. He’ll be staying at the PCI, too.

What room is hard to say. The ladies at the front desk will size him up upon arrival, review their hand-written reservation sheet, hand him an actual brass key and send him on his way. (Hard to imagine credit-card keys at the PCI.) I’m sure Dru, with his good Southern manners (born and raised on Sea Island, enrolled at Alabama) will do just fine with front-desk ladies. All you have to is stand there nicely and let them do their thing. You’re in their home.

For Open I, the hotel was taken over by Golf Channel people and this week it is filled up with fans, caddies, kin of players, a couple writers, Rog (the Course Whisperer) and some teaching pros. Gale Peterson, the woman in the room next to mine, teaches at Sea Island. She used to babysit Davis and his kid brother, Mark, way back when. While discussing some of the finer points one day on our grubby hallway, she started making a phantom swing with the kind of rhythm you cannot teach. As I say, the place is golfy.

My room, by the way, is $145 per night, just the regular rack rate. These Barretts are not the kind of people who are going to raise their rates for a week just because they can. They want your business next time.

My room has black-and-white photos of LPGA stars from the 1950s and a window AC unit that I’ve been blasting all night in an all-out war against the heat of these Tarheel State nights. If Christine (my wife) were here she’d likely open the windows, but I have them stuffed with various odd things to keep out the morning light. Yes the windows open. How charming.

The PCI has a formal, bordering on fussy, dining room that reminds me of dozens of formal, fussy dining rooms I’ve seen at family-owned hotels throughout the British Isles. The menu is all tried-and-true. Oysters Rockefeller for your appetizer course. A 22-ounce pork chop for an entree. Not my kind of thing but I’m not you.

In the lobby, you can get the Fayetteville paper, the Charlotte paper and The Pilot, out of Southern Pines. If you want the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times you can get them at the Carolina Hotel, a short walk away. Rog was doing email one day in the lunch room but if there’s anybody here reading on a Kindle there I haven’t seen it.

As for entertainment at the Pine Crest Inn, in addition to chipping and drinking, there’s a man who comes in from time to time who people address as Mr. Ross. I haven’t seen the gent, but evidently he dresses as Donald Ross, speaks as Donald Ross, and has Ross’s mustache, accent, pocket watch and golfing insights.

There has also been, during these Opens, a piano man in the house, Randy Carmichael, son of Hoagy Carmichael. Randy is seventy-something and he has an unrushed sensibility. He plays some of his father’s hits from yesteryear, including “Georgia on My Mind” and “Heart and Soul.” He tired of “Summertime,” the George Gershwin anthem, a long time ago. He does play “Someone to Watch Over Me.” I called Christine when he did. Our song.

I’ve been seeing Randy a couple times every day. He does the crossword puzzle out of the Charlotte Observer with a breakfast cigarette on the hotel porch each morning and then plays golf or watches it during the day. As a kid growing up he was a member of Bel Air and Thunderbird, courtesy of his father and “The Nearness of You,” and for years he worked as a golf pro. He’s rooting for Lucy Li, the 11-year-old, to make the cut, and he speaks the same language as Fluff and Growler and Rog. He speaks golf.

Randy is still a good golfer and plays the piano like a dream, his fingers dancing on a small white piano with his name on it, a tip jar near sheet music he does not need. Randy was wrapping up the other night when I came through the lobby. He was wearing a black sport coat, very fine and well-tailored. His final notes of the night were all high keys, all right hand, and his forehead was hovering above it. So beautiful. He called it a night.

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