After the golf has finished, Pinehurst wants you to stay awhile

mquillin@newsobserver.comJune 7, 2014 

— Part of the charm of the U.S. Open is that it’s open to all competitors. Theoretically, an amateur could qualify and win the championship against some of the greatest players in golf.

This year, that come-one, come-all attitude will extend beyond the ropes of the storied Course No. 2, as this longtime playground for the captains of American commerce, finance and industry opens its arms to swarms of spectators.

When the men’s U.S. Open first came to Pinehurst Resort and Country Club in 1999, it was dreaded by some area residents who saw it as a traveling carnival. They worried an invasion of the masses would create gridlock on roads and in restaurants and turn their picturesque, tree-lined village of fewer than 10,000 full-time residents into a tacky tourist trap.

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By the second go-round, in 2005, locals viewed the Open more as a giant, weeklong party next door: a relatively minor and infrequent inconvenience.

Now, as the historic back-to-back men’s and women’s Opens begin their two-week run, the Village of Pinehurst, neighboring Southern Pines and greater Moore County see in the event a golden opportunity.

Not only do merchants, hotels and restaurants hope to earn a share of the $169 million that Open crowds are expected to spend from June 9-22. They want to reap long-term benefits by showcasing their region as a great place to vacation, start a new business or retire.

“It’s been an interesting evolution,” said Pat Corso, executive director of Partners in Progress, a public-private economic development group in the county. Before taking his current position, Corso served 17 years as president of Pinehurst Resort, including during the first two times it hosted the men’s Open.

“In ’99,” he recalled, “the village was concerned about the crowds. They put up those wooden sawhorses – barricades – to make sure that people didn’t come into the village and park all over the place.

“By ’05, they realized they didn’t need to do any of that. They could just have a normal day in the village. And in 2014, it’s a very proactive attitude, celebrating the event.”

It’s generating a sense of excitement throughout the county and creating a different vibe, especially in the village of Pinehurst, started in 1895 by the Tufts family of Boston as a health retreat. Golf, now so deeply ingrained in Pinehurst’s identity, was added after James Walker Tufts reportedly saw his guests whacking balls into the fields where his cattle grazed. There are now dozens of golf courses in Pinehurst and the surrounding area.

In past Opens at Pinehurst, up to 55,000 people were delivered each day by shuttle to the entrance of No. 2. When play finished in the evening, they got back on their buses and disappeared into hotels as far away as Fayetteville, Raleigh, Greensboro or Charlotte.

This time, they’ll be invited to stay a few hours more to attend concerts, outdoor movie screenings and other nightly events as part of the “U.S Open Experience” in Pinehurst’s new Tufts Memorial Park. A few miles away, in its downtown park, Southern Pines will offer several nights of live music at its apres-golf event called “Wide Open.” The restored Sunrise Theater in Southern Pines will show the golf-themed films “Tin Cup” and “The Greatest Game Ever Played.”

Restaurants have added staff and ordered extra food, beer and wine. Shops in both towns will stay open past their customary 5 p.m. closing time.

With so many guests coming to visit, “It should feel like a party,” said Sundi McLaughlin, who opened her gift shop, Mockingbird, on Broad Street in Southern Pines five years ago. “This is our chance to show people what we have to offer, to say, ‘This is the kind of place we are.’”

Sprucing up the village

This vision of the 2014 Opens as a shared marketing opportunity reflects some subtle demographic changes since the ’99 and ’05 events. Pinehurst now has about 15,100 people. While it’s still attractive to retirees – almost 38 percent of the population is 65 or older – over the past decade, more young people have moved into the village than older ones. They, in turn, want more growth, with more jobs and more activities.

“We used to just assume the sale,” said Corso, recalling the days when word of mouth brought as many new people to Pinehurst and Moore County as the community seemed to want. “We can’t just assume it anymore. If you want to keep growing, you gotta work at it.”

People here began planning for the 2014 Opens almost as soon as the U.S. Golf Association announced they would be played at Pinehurst.

Village Manager Andy Wilkison said that in the past three years, Pinehurst has spent more than $1 million to add parking, improve the brick sidewalks in the village center, build new traffic islands, install street lamps, and create Tufts Memorial Park on the village green.

The village also added landscaping, researching the varieties of holly, azalea, magnolia, pine, and dogwood that Frederick Law Olmsted drew into the plan he designed – and Warren Manning executed – for the Tufts family in 1895.

The goal for the 2014 Opens, Wilkison said, was an early- to mid-1900s feel “with modern accoutrements.”

While Wilkison said not all village residents wanted to spend the money for the improvements, “I get emails every day now from people saying the village has never looked better.”

Beyond the winding streets of Pinehurst, the state Department of Transportation has helped widen a section of N.C. 211 to improve traffic flow coming into the village and added signs to help people find their way.

Once they get here, visitors will find a corps of 125 ambassadors answering questions and handing out promotional brochures. “Welcome” signs will greet people at shops and restaurants in Pinehurst and Southern Pines. One local garden club sponsored an art project involving hand-painted oversized golf balls perched on pedestals, installed along Broad Street in Southern Pines last week. Another garden club put together a booklet, “Open Doors,” featuring photos of historic Pinehurst houses and recipes for Scotch Eggs and Persimmon Pudding.

The Tiger effect

This is all in addition to the work the USGA has done to transform Donald Ross’ restored masterpiece course into a sports stadium, with bleacher seating, portable restrooms and more than 400,000 square feet of tent canvas, including a 300-foot-long air-conditioned vendor tent stocked with an array of candy-colored cotton clothing and 106,000 caps with U.S. Open logos.

“There are 350,000 to 400,000 people who are going to be here (during the back-to-back Opens),” said Linda Parsons, interim president of the Moore County Chamber of Commerce. “And 100 million people in 180 countries will be watching on TV. We’ve really tried hard to show them that we’re more than just golf. The golf is important, but we also have an arts center, a horticultural center, a farmers market. It’s really quality of life we’re offering.”

The Open championships are the nonprofit USGA’s primary source of revenue, and the organization relies on ticket receipts, corporate hospitality tent placements and merchandise sales at the tournaments to fund its work on behalf of the game throughout the year.

Reg Jones, a Pinehurst native and senior director of the U.S. Open Championships, wouldn’t cite ticket-sale figures as the tournament approached, but the USGA website shows tickets are sold out for the men’s championship rounds. Tickets were still available Friday for practice rounds of the men’s Open, and for the women’s championship rounds. Corporate tent space appeared to have sold out as well.

“We’ve been filled up for the event for over a year, for both the men’s and the women’s,” said Andrew Strickland, assistant general manager of Homewood Suites in Pinehurst. The hotel was renovated two years ago and has upgraded its landscaping and added some outdoor seating in time for the Opens.

While some visitors have taken advantage of discount pricing offered for booking local hotel rooms, private homes or condominiums for both Open weeks, Strickland said most of his reservations are for one tournament or the other.

Because it’s the first time the USGA has held both events back to back on the same course, merchants say they don’t know what to expect in terms of increased business. Attendance at the women’s Open usually runs about half that of the men’s.

It’s also unclear whether Tiger Woods’ announcement last month that he would not play in the Open as he recovers from back surgery will have any effect on attendance.

Boost for a restaurant

Vince Continenza is counting on a big couple of weeks. His popular Southern Pines restaurant Ironwood is having a good night any time he seats more than 300 people. Starting Wednesday, he has reservations for more than 400 each night, and more than 500 on the weekend nights.

He has streamlined his menu and added free soup or salad to every entree order to give diners something to eat while they wait. He hired 15 additional staff for the duration of the Open, and borrowed a refrigerated tractor-trailer to hold the extra food he’ll need.

Continenza said he hopes some of those here for the tournaments will see what he did when he came here eight years ago after closing a restaurant in Michigan in a struggling economy. He scoped out 15 small businesses for sale in four states before he and his family decided, “This was the best opportunity. And there is absolutely no regret. We love this town.”

It will be a while before it’s clear whether the 2014 Opens bring a payoff for Pinehurst, Southern Pines and the rest of Moore County. But Bill Wood, who grew up in Pinehurst and now helps his mother run The Potpourri gift shop in the village, doesn’t see how the community could lose.

The store will keep later hours during the tournaments to offer visitors more chances to buy souvenirs. Even if they don’t, he said, “It’s an exciting time. It’s like your team just won the World Series, and they played the game right in your own back yard.”

Quillin: 919-829-8989

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