Pinehurst passion

 In April 2016, Features

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By Lee Pace

Tom Pashley has cracked egg upon egg for the morning breakfast buffet at the Carolina Hotel in Pinehurst. He’s swept dew off the hotel’s front lawn at daybreak with a bamboo pole. He’s raked bunkers and repaired ball marks on the golf course greens. And not long ago, he found himself amid an assembly line plating meals for a banquet. “My job was to place two carrots across the top of the mashed potatoes,” he says. “I kept thinking how I don’t like carrots, so I was looking for the smallest carrots I could find.”

Rare are the days when the president and chief operating officer of Pinehurst Resort & Country Club doesn’t whip out his smartphone and snap an image of something slightly askew that needs attention. Bob Farren, the director of grounds and golf course maintenance, got a text message and photograph from Pashley showing worn-out turf along Carolina Vista Drive running from the country club to the hotel, and rooms director Matt Chriscoe has received photos showing a scuff on the bumper of a hotel shuttle or a wall that needed some paint touchups. “If I go for a week or two and don’t get one, I feel like he’s ignoring me,” Farren says.

Serving vegetables isn’t the glamour usually associated with heading a top-notch resort, though attention to detail is essential as “The St. Andrews of American golf” fends off flashier hospitality rivals amid a stagnant golf market. Big championships keep coming to Pinehurst, helping it retain an elite reputation. But the resort’s future rests on both attracting visitors and conventioneers for brief stays and pleasing its private country club’s 5,000 members, most of them local residents, including a lot of young families more interested in swimming lessons than low handicaps. While Pinehurst routinely shows up on rankings of the best U.S. resorts, little comes easy in a golf business still stumbling after the 2007-09 recession. “We’re just now getting back to levels of volume and revenue we were at 10 years ago,” says Robert Dedman Jr., whose Texas-based family has run the business since 1984 and owned it outright since 2006.

To outdistance the other 30-plus courses in Moore County, Dedman has invested $9 million over the last four years to update the members’ clubhouse and add a swimming pool complex. A new restaurant called The Deuce will open by summer, offering a view of the 18th green of No. 2. “Years ago, clubs were more of a male bastion. Now, they are more family-oriented,” Dedman says. “Clubs everywhere are going to more full-facility offerings. They aren’t just golf clubs or dining clubs.”

Pashley, the person responsible for building on Pinehurst’s heritage, first visited the area as a 17-year-old from Augusta, Ga., joining brother Steve on a graduation-present golf trip from his parents. Knowing little of the resort’s history, they showed up at dinner the first night having no clue that sport coats were required to be seated. “I was just amazed at how grand it was,” says Pashley, who played seven courses on the trip. “That’s when I fell in love with Pinehurst. I think it just planted that seed that Pinehurst is a special place.”

After graduating from the University of Georgia and working as an accountant in Atlanta for three years, Pashley enrolled at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. He moved to Pinehurst straight out of grad school, spending his first year moving between departments to learn each cranny and nuance of the operation. After selling sponsorship packages for the 1999 U.S. Open, he became the resort’s sales and marketing chief. Dedman says he was the right person to succeed Don Padgett II, who was president during the previous decade and had overseen the dramatic restoration in 2010-11 of its prized No. 2 course. The work of Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore sparked rave reviews from some of the world’s top pros.

“For three years, Tom was groomed for the job,” Padgett says. “He’s been here straight out of college, so he knew the culture and knew the ownership family. Our goal was to have little gnashing of teeth over what was going to happen, and we achieved that.”

Pinehurst Mayor Nancy Roy Fiorillo says the town has a close relationship with the resort, a sea change from the late ‘90s. That’s when heavy-handed management by the Dedmans’ ClubCorp caused a rift with local officials. ClubCorp, which had invested more than $100 million after taking control of the floundering business from a bank consortium in 1984, wasn’t happy with local businesses trading on the Pinehurst name. A majority of club members also helped pay lawyers to protest higher fees imposed by the resort, citing a 1980 consent decree limiting dues increases. A Sports Illustrated story about the Dedman family in 1999 cited a comment by ClubCorp lawyer Stephen Trattner that created a firestorm: “I don’t believe there is a Pinehurst, N.C. You may call it that, and the mail may get there that way, [but] you don’t live in Pinehurst. You live in the Village of Pinehurst.” Responding to the critics, Robert Dedman Sr. told Sports Illustrated, “You must look at the larger picture. These are temporary pimples on Elizabeth Taylor’s face, obscuring the beauty. What we have done in Pinehurst is a beautiful thing.”

Those antagonistic days are over, says Fiorillo, a Pinehurst resident since 1997 who won a second term in November. There’s no doubt that the Dedmans love Moore County. When a private equity group, Denver-based KSL Capital Partners LLC, paid $1.5 billion for ClubCorp in 2006, it took over more than 170 golf courses and resorts. The Dedmans held on to one property: Pinehurst.

“We have a great relationship with the resort because Tom Pashley is very responsive and works very well with us,” Fiorillo says. “They are very generous and community-minded,” pointing to the resort’s financial support for a new village green. Town officials realized the importance of working with the Dedmans, she says. “It is just so foreign to me that we’d look at one of our best allies and try to alienate them.”

Even with community support, operating Pinehurst in 2016 may be more challenging than ever given increased competition from The Sanctuary at Kiawah Island, S.C., Omni Homestead Resort in Hot Springs, Va., and other elite clubs. U.S. golfers played fewer rounds in 2015 than any year since 1996, while more clubs closed than opened for eight straight years through 2014, Bloomberg reported. Less leisure time, financial struggles of the middle class and lukewarm interest from millennials are cited as factors for the sport’s malaise.

Earlier this year, Pinehurst changed its club membership offerings to attract more people living outside the Sandhills. Traditionally, membership was tied to owning property in the village, with a $12,500 fee assessed when a property is sold by a club member to someone who wants golf privileges. Annual membership fees range from $6,000 to $45,000, depending on one’s use of the club. Pinehurst is also employing innovative efforts to spur interest in golf and appeal to all demographics, Pashley says. But don’t look for the resort to go overboard.

“History is our differentiator,” he says. “We don’t want to be a time capsule, we want to be a living, breathing resort and be as relevant as it was when founded in 1895. … If we deviate, I think we find ourselves in no-man’s land.” It’s an advantage, he says, to know that Ben Hogan viewed the 11th hole of No. 2 as one of his favorite par-fours. “He probably would have liked [the newer top-echelon courses], but we’ll never know.”

Its ability to attract big tournaments remains a big part of Pinehurst’s allure: It will host the 2019 U.S. Amateur and the 2024 U.S. Open. In the meantime, Pashley’s mandate to his staff is that every day is “someone’s U.S. Open,” and that a father and son driving down from Raleigh should get the same vibe that a contestant did in the Opens of 1999, 2005 or 2014. The club also hosts the annual U.S. Kids World Championships, which attracted 1,400 youth golfers — and a lot of parents — to Moore County last year. “Pinehurst is becoming a special place to them,” Pashley says. “Regardless of whether they go to a college or pro career, they are going to have positive memories of times in Pinehurst and want to bring their kids or grandkids.”

Pinehurst’s other differentiator is its deep-pocketed owner and his commitment to the resort, which collects more than $600 a night for a room at the Carolina Inn and golf privileges during the peak spring season. Company officials decline to disclose average room rates, which vary widely based on the season and the type of package purchased.

While Robert Dedman Sr. built the largest U.S. private-club company during his 45-year career, “he had a special love for Pinehurst. It was important for me to keep it in the family,” his son says. “We decided to perpetuate the legacy of our involvement and keep our family connected to the game of golf. We’re certainly glad we did.”

The Dedmans also own about 1,000 undeveloped acres near Aberdeen, including land that once housed a now-defunct course called The Pit Golf Links. Designers Coore and Crenshaw laid out a potential new course there in 2011, though no date to develop the property is set. The project is “much more on our radar now than it was two years ago,” says Pashley, who turned 47 in March. It would be the resort’s first new course since 2014, when it bought the adjacent National Golf Club, a Jack Nicklaus-designed course renamed Pinehurst No. 9. The resort also owns a steam plant near the village’s town center that may be renovated for other purposes.

As an accountant with an MBA, Pashley brings different skills than his predecessors. Pat Corso, who led the company from 1987 to 2004, had run a Michigan ski resort acquired by ClubCorp in the ‘80s. Padgett, a former club pro who played the PGA Tour in the early 1970s, offered golf credentials. Not that Pashley can’t play himself: With a 1.7 index, he ranks among the top 5% of golfers participating in the U.S. Golf Association’s handicap system. But it’s his business skills that impress Dedman. “Tom has the knowledge, a lot of energy and a lot of vision about how we can do things differently and better.”

A month before the 2014 Opens, Pashley noticed the resolve of maintenance workers to replace each chipped brick and pull every stray weed from beds around the clubhouse. “Why do we have to have a special occasion to have this level of service?” he asked himself. “I feel so passionate and strong about how great Pinehurst is. When something we could have controlled is not perfect for a guest or a member, it’s my job to correct it.”

And in his pocket is an iPhone to help that process along.                                                                    

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