This is the second in a series, a back nine of thoughts cultivated from a recent fall golf trip to the Pinehurst and Southern Pines areas of North Carolina. What started as bullet points grew into substantial realizations. I hope you enjoy reading them.
When we first visited The Cradle at the Pinehurst resort in the summer of 2018, less than a year after it opened to the public, the green fee was a one-time, $50 greens fee to play all day, going around as many times as one wanted. The spectacular then-new facility, constructed on just 10 acres, threw open a welcome to all golfers, both resort guests and interlopers such as our group, alike.
Perhaps, in the beginning, the resort expected golfers would walk-on as an afterthought to a round elsewhere on property. That theory envisioned The Cradle as a vehicle to attract and retain families at the resort, rather than monolithic masses of quarter-zip covered men on a golf pilgrimage. The vision represented a place that grandfather, father, mother, and child could play golf together for an hour or so, for a reasonable fee, and keep people around the clubhouse.
All of these complimentary purposes proved satisfied at our initial visit, allowing our golf to make two loops around The Cradle in one of golf’s the most relaxed golf atmospheres. Our motley crew included guys in gym shorts and flip flops, who, in addition to being wowed by the course, made sure that they gave full attention to the former Pine Cone mobile bar after finishing both the third and eighth holes.
The joyful, golf-adjacent experience played out under the shadow-draped last hour or two of golden sunlight, and lingered into the twilight, well after the social scene at the Pinehurst patio had given way to crowds at Dugan’s Pub or the patio at The Holly Hill Inn. It set the tone for the rest of our trip, and left an indelible memory on all
When we revisited the scene in 2020, things had changed ever so slightly. Starting in at least 2020, The Cradle accepted tee times, and only resort guests could get a tee time more than 24 hours in advance. This, by the way, was the same policy employed to control tee time access to the venerable Pinehurst #2 and Pinehurst #4 courses, at least during the peak seasons.
Competition for those magic “Golden Hour” tee times each evening was serious, as it seemed that every competitor in town for the U.S. Kids national championship could be found on in queue for those The Cradle, along side all of the golf pilgrims who sought out a little extra golf after playing one of Pinehurst’s bucket-list courses. By that time, the word was out on The Cradle throughout the larger golfing public as a can’t-miss experience. Short courses writ large had progressed from exotic add-ons to sought out and valued amenities.
In preparing for our visit this fall, I discovered that access to The Cradle had once again evolved, a response to the reality that it was a draw to the clubhouse for not only resort guests but throngs of outside visitors, as well. The $50-price point, less than half of any other green fee at the Pinehurst resort, makes The Cradle the entry-level option for golfers seeking a little bit of the Pinehurst experience without committing hundreds of dollars or more than an hour or two of time.
For our November 2021, the $50 green fee entitled a player to one 9-hole round and one complimentary replay round at no additional charge during the peak seasons. Gone are the days of unlimited same day replays any time. It isn’t some sinister move by a callous resort management scheme, but simply a function of the market that Pinehurst has created for The Cradle. There is no official policy limiting players to one replay, according to Pinehurst Senior Media Relations Manager Alex Podlogar. “It is still $50 and free replays, based on availability.”
It doesn’t take a gigantic logical leap to see which way the trend line is moving. The Cradle is peaking right now, in 2021, in terms of popularity as a standalone course and as an amenity to the resort proper. It’s a known quantity, and people other than just hardcore golf addicts want to play it. The course is an avenue on which the resort can print additional money by encouraging people to carouse and drink until the sun goes down, as long as behavior remains within acceptable community standards.
Currently, only guests of the resort (and members) can access Pinehurst No. 2 and No. 4, and only confirmed guests can book tee times on The Cradle in advance of the next day. It’s not so far-fetched, given its popularity, to imagine that The Cradle becomes an amenity for resort guests only. As Pinehurst expands its lodging options as part of its long-term fusion with the USGA as a national championship anchor site, I can easily imagine that the public-access aspect disappears due to already overwhelming demand.
When presented with this notion, Mr. Podlogar responded, “While our resort guests do get priority when booking tee times, at this time we do not have plans to limit The Cradle to members and resort guests only.”
This is great for the present and near future, and frankly, what I would expected to learn from my inquiry. However, Gil Hanse and Pinehurst have created a benevolent monster at The Cradle, and the resort must decide what they want to do with it long-term. Do they want The Cradle to continue to be the front door to the resort, accessible to all visitors and community members as part of the Happiest Place in Golf? Or will it eventually make sense to make it a premium amenity, only accessible upon certain conditions, as has become the fate of No. 2 and No. 4?
In addition to the resort guest-only dimension, I could imagine Pinehurst adopting a Sweetens Cove-like model, where a limited number of all day or half day passes can be purchased to essentially rent out the course. Yes, it’s that much of a draw. Or maybe nothing changes, and the current status quo remains in perpetuity, which I would argue would certainly be the best thing for the greater golfing world.
As access to the The Cradle grows slightly more exclusive, either through natural competition for tee times or change in official policy, the golf simultaneously wins and loses. The runaway success of The Cradle proves a market exists for well designed, well executed short course alternatives to traditional 18-hole golf courses. Whether it would work as a stand alone enterprise, rather than attached to one of the world’s premier golf resorts, is an open question. Yet, it proves that “Golf should be fun” as a business model can work.
At the same time, the busier and more popular that The Cradle becomes, access to one of the best playgrounds in golf will necessarily become more scare (unless they add lights to illuminate the course, hint, hint.)
Nothing stays the same forever, and for good reasons. The memories of those first few rounds around The Cradle, in the golden, dying sunlight, unencumbered by crowds or formal etiquette were magical. I just worry that going forward, not everyone will be able to enjoy the same type of experiences there, which I so cherish, and that would be a shame.
Going forward, the easiest solution for fanatic golfers who want to experience The Cradle will be to stay on-property as a guest of the resort. For the rest of us, with a more itinerant spirit or a skinnier golf budget, play The Cradle while you can, which means sooner rather than later.