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Opens put No. 2 super on spot

PINEHURST — Kevin Robinson is being asked to do what no golf course superintendent has done before.

In 2014, the U.S. Open golf championship will be played on the famous Pinehurst No. 2 course. A week later, the U.S. Women’s Open will be held on No. 2 at Pinehurst Resort.

That’s unprecedented. That’s uncharted territory for the U.S. Golf Association and for Robinson, the course superintendent. He is charged with having No. 2 in pristine championship condition and a strong, fitting test for the world’s best men and women golfers.
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Talk about spiking the heart rate.

“Oh, man,” Robinson says, smiling. “It gets pretty high just thinking about it. It sure does.”

It’s not as if the Morganton native is new to Pinehurst. Robinson, a 1992 N.C. State University graduate, has been at the Sandhills resort for 18 years, the last 11 as superintendent for the No. 6 and No. 7 courses.

Paul Jett was the No. 2 superintendent for 15 years, preparing the Donald Ross design for the 1999 U.S. Open and the 2005 Open and earning raves for his work. But a few weeks ago, Jett left. Resort officials will say little about his departure, but it came with the back-to-back Opens looming and No. 2 undergoing renovation.

“We thought it was very important to pick someone we were comfortable with,” says Don Sweeting, the resort’s vice president of golf and club operations.

The choice was Robinson. On June 7, he was given a new title and what appears to be a herculean golf task.

“It’s a great responsibility for Kevin, but I think he’s up for the challenge,” Sweeting says. “It could have been a large learning curve for someone coming in from the outside, but Kevin has been with us a lot of years and knows all facets of the golf course.

“He’s very methodical, very steady. He’s very calm.”

The decision caused no concern among officials of the U.S. Golf Association, which announced a year ago that the back-to-back Opens would come to Pinehurst in June 2014.

“His reputation is wonderful,” Mike Davis, the USGA’s senior director of rules and competition, says of Robinson. “The work he has done there is very good, and I know all the Pinehurst people are very high on him. Our two agronomists who serve the area had very favorable comments about him.”

Robinson, 40, says he has reached this point in his career through basic hard work, starting at the ground level of his profession. While pursuing a degree in agronomy at NCSU, he worked at North Ridge Country Club, patching divots, mowing greens, repairing bunkers, doing all the sweaty grunt work.

“I always made sure these college boys earned their stripes,” says Butch Sheffield, the course superintendent at North Ridge. “I’d tell ’em, ‘You’re here to learn to be a professional, not to ride around on a golf cart.’ I wanted to see who could make it, and have them prepared to tackle anything.

“I knew Kevin would do well. He has a great work ethic. He’s paid his dues and he has done real well at Pinehurst, moving up through the ranks. This new job is not going to shake him up.”

Robinson didn’t grow up infatuated with golf. He says he played baseball and wrestled at Freedom High School in Morganton.

But Robinson’s father, Ervin, loved the game and piqued his son’s interest. They’d play at Mimosa Hills Country Club in Morganton, on another of the many courses designed by Ross.

“Maybe that foreshadowed me having the chance to come to Pinehurst and work,” Robinson said.

Robinson’s first chance came during the 1991 Tour Championship, the year-ending event on the PGA Tour. Then a student in NCSU’s turf management program, he served as a grounds volunteer on the course maintenance team on No. 2 during the tournament but also had the opportunity to see some golf.

“I remember Payne Stewart and John Daly were the first twosome to tee off,” Robinson says, again with a smile. “What a pair.”

Eight years later, Robinson watched as Stewart won the 1999 U.S. Open on No. 2. Stewart died a few months later in a plane crash.

In 2014, golf’s best again will be teeing off on No. 2. But first things first. In what Robinson calls a “restoration,” No. 2 is undergoing changes to bring back more of the original Donald Ross feel, the Donald Ross look.

Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore, a Wake Forest graduate, were hired to handle the redesign project. Old aerial photos of the course were studied and more sandy waste areas and wire grass are being added.

“It will be like putting a throwback jersey on the course,” Robinson says.

The Coore and Crenshaw crew will do their work on No. 2. The USGA will have its say on how No. 2 should look and play. But in the end, Robinson and his staff are responsible for having Pinehurst No. 2 ready for two consecutive weeks of championship competition.

“It’s never been done before and there will be a lot of traffic [on the course},” Robinson said. “But all I’m thinking about right now is what has to happen between now and then, and there’s a lot going on now.”

Robinson’s often sunrise-to-sunset work schedule doesn’t leave a lot of free time. But he and his wife, Laura, have three children, meaning there’s always a game or sporting event to try to get to. Or a little golf to play.

Ron Kelly, course superintendent at the Country Club of North Carolina in Pinehurst, first met Robinson at NCSU and has been a good friend. Kelly says he expects Robinson to thrive in his new position.

“He’s gone through the ranks and he knows the golf course,” Kelly says. “He has the talent to handle it. Sure, it’s a tough job. I mean, prepping the course for two U.S. Opens? That’s tough.”

Kelly laughs, adding, “That’s why us guys don’t live too long.”

chip.alexander@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8945

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