The ultimate golfer's guide to North Carolina: Best places to play, stay and eat

Thursday May 4th, 2017
The 403 yard par 4, 1st hole on The Pinehurst No 2 Course.
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North Carolina has few peers when it comes to the history, diversity and quality of its golf courses. Naturally, it all starts with the Pinehurst/Southern Pines/Aberdeen region, a.k.a. the Home of American golf. Golfers have been spending vacations there since the 1890s, and it became the laboratory for architect Donald Ross, who crafted more than 40 courses in the Sandhills and elsewhere in the Tar Heel State. Charlotte, Greensboro, Asheville, Raleigh-Durham and the Grand Strand border towns north of Myrtle Beach form a remarkable buffet of tasty golf options. Off to the feast!

Pinehurst/Southern Pines/Aberdeen   

Pinehurst. To serious traveling golfers, the very name conjures up images of reverence and awe. Located an hour’s drive south from Raleigh-Durham, no resort destination is as rich in golf history and lore. Despite the understandable increase in crowds and traffic, in many ways, the mood and setting in Pinehurst proper has remained unchanged over the last 100 years. Thus, it’s easy to imagine golf’s heroes, from Ben Hogan to Jack Nicklaus to Payne Stewart, striding about the town’s dogwood- and azalea-lined paths, breathing in the scent of longleaf pines on a breezy spring evening. Toss in the myriad dining, lodging, golf and cultural options in the surrounding towns of Southern Pines, Aberdeen and beyond, and you’ve got an ideal stay for your group, no matter who’s in your foursome.

The green on the par 4 7th hole of the Pinehurst No 2 Course.
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WHERE TO PLAY

Pinehurst No. 2, Pinehurst
Donald Ross’ 109-year-old chef d’oeuvre rolls gently and spaciously through tall longleaf pines in the Carolina Sandhills, with holes culminating in the legendary “inverted saucer” greens that have confounded the game’s very best since they were first grassed in 1935. For the 2014 U.S. Open, a Coore-Crenshaw restoration brought back the tawny-edged fairways and native roughs last seen in the 1940s. ($370-$480) 

Tobacco Road, Sanford
Towering sandhills, remarkable variety in landscape shaping and plenty of alternate routes to get from tee to green characterize this Pinehurst-area, 1998 Mike Strantz design. Or, put another way, Tobacco Road at times resembles a Dali painting, so warped are some of the landforms and putting surfaces. Blind shots, mounds in incomprehensible places and greens that list like a ship in a storm explain how a 6,500-yard course can boast a slope of 150. ($100-$130)

Mid Pines Club, Southern Pines
This brilliantly restored 1921 Donald Ross creation in the North Carolina Sandhills features the 2013 handiwork of architect Kyle Franz, who aided Coore-Crenshaw with their restoration of nearby Pinehurst Number 2.  Franz put back hardpan sand dotted with wiregrass that frames the re-grassed fairways and greens, yanked out 400 trees and reinstituted Ross’ width, angles and strategies. ($85-$205)

Dormie Club, West End
This 2010 Bill Coore/Ben Crenshaw creation hews closely to the duo’s winning design formula. This means extra-wide, pine-framed fairways, festooned with spectacular, sprawling bunkers, as well massive, artfully contoured greens and their surrounds, which demand touch and ingenuity—and perhaps multiple plays—to figure out. Forced carries over wetlands and 150 feet of elevation change are further highlights. ($80-$215)

Pine Needles Lodge and Golf Club, Southern Pines
Long owned and operated by LPGA Founder Peggy Kirk Bell until her passing in 2016, Pine Needles is situated just three miles from Pinehurst, but is a celebrated tournament venue in its own right, having hosted the 1996, 2001 and 2007 U.S. Women’s Opens, won by Annika Sorenstam, Karrie Webb and Christie Kerr, respectively. Not as relentlessly tough as Number 2, yet its crowned greens will reject any timid approach. ($85-$235)

Talamore Golf Resort, Southern Pines
Originally known for its unforgettable llamas-as-caddies gimmick, today this heavily mounded, tranquil and spacious Rees Jones test relies on its stout challenge and outstanding value to entice golfers to make the trek. These days, its sporting the moniker, “the New Course at Talamore,” thanks to a renovation that eliminated many bunkers, softened others and added sod-wall bunkers for that Old World feel .  As a bonus, the club installed superior Champion Bermuda greens that roll as pure as any in the region. Of course, the 623-yard, par-5 first hole remains in place, as perhaps the areas toughest opener. ($76-$108)

Pinehurst (No. 8), Pinehurst
This 1996 Tom Fazio creation is set apart from the main resort’s country club, so it lacks some of the traditional Pinehurst ambience. That’s about all it lacks, however. It’s certainly a more dramatic course than legendary Number 2, with some exciting risk/reward drives over wetlands and a man-made dune ridge. It also features huge, firm greens surrounded by slick swales and hollows that reward only the most precise approach shots. ($155-$245)

Pinehurst (No. 4), Pinehurst
Number 4 has enjoyed multiple past identities, with designs by Donald Ross, Peter Tufts, Robert Trent Jones Sr., Rees Jones, and most recently, Tom Fazio in 2000. Scrap all that—Gil Hanse has been retained to perform yet another extreme makeover. Look for more exposed sand and a walker-friendly layout. Work is expected to commence in the fall of 2017.

 

WHERE TO STAY

Pinehurst Resort, Pinehurst ($150-$1,500)
At first glance, Pinehurst seems on the quiet side, at least looking at life from the perspective of the front porch rockers at the 116-year-old Carolina Hotel. Make no mistake, however. Pinehurst oozes from every pore. Aside from the historic Number 2 course, it offers eight other layouts, ranging from ancient to modern, including the recent acquisition of a top Jack Nicklaus private design that was rechristened Pinehurst No. 9. Equally prized are the recently reconstructed Thistle Dhu putting course, the top-rated Pinehurst Golf Academy, two of the game’s greatest 19th holes, the new Deuce at the country club and the Ryder Cup Lounge back at the Carolina hotel. The Carolina is the prize accommodation at Pinehurst, but for variety and value, don’t overlook the Holly Inn, the Manor Inn, the

Carolina Villas, adjacent to the Carolina Hotel and the Condos at Pinehurst, 2- and 3-bedroom options along Pinehurst No. 6 round out the offerings. A state-of-the-art spa and fitness center, tennis, a lake and beach club and nearby shopping are further enticements. And yes, cheat on your diet at least once with the biscuits and gravy at the Carolina Dining Room.

Pine Needles Lodge/Mid Pines Inn, Southern Pines ($120-$220)
A Gold Medal winner in our 2016-’17 Premier Resorts Awards, Pine Needles/Mid Pines (two sibling resorts across the street from each other) serve up two Golden Age Donald Ross championship 18s that delights at every turn. Cozy, yet refined lodging, innovative golf schools and superb dining (yes, treat yourself to Mid Pines’ legendary Country Fried Chicken) are additional highlights.

Pine Crest Inn, Pinehurst ($120-$210)
This lovely inn was owned by Donald Ross for 27 years, until his death in 1948. Located in the heart of the Village of Pinehurst, the Pine Crest provides easy access to the Village’s antique and specialty shops, restaurants and golf courses. One of the most popular traditions in town takes place here: lobby chipping, a nightly ritual where contestants hit off the lobby carpet to a carpet-covered platform near the fireplace.    

The Pine Crest Inn.
Courtesy photo

WHERE TO DINE

The Deuce, Pinehurst
Brand new in 2016 is the Pinehurst Resort’s 19th hole that overlooks the 18th green of fabled Pinehurst Number 2, hence the name. With a bar area that opens onto a veranda, you can raise your glass and practically touch the statue of Payne Stewart, frozen in bronze forever, celebrating his 1999 U.S. Open win. The 5,000-square-foot restaurant serves lunch daily and a selection of appetizers including my favorite, the Crab Hushpuppy Beignets with Fiery Lemon Aioli. Wash it down with a variety of specialty cocktails and regional craft beers, and take some time to drink in the dazzling array of memorabilia that adorns the walls.

Ironwood, Southern Pines
Located among the tall Longleaf pines along historic Midland Road on the border of Pinehurst and Southern Pines, this is the Sandhills’ most atmospheric restaurant. The New American cuisine is replete with modern accents on old favorites while the décor and service are second-to-none. The outdoor, under-cover patio, amid mature Magnolia trees and a fire-enhanced water feature is memorable. 

Southern Prime Steakhouse, Southern Pines
We can’t deny that the classic resorts of the region serve up terrific food and ambience, but we also can’t deny that once in awhile, after a big-time day on the links, buddies just want a fabulous, humongous steak, with a wine list to match, in an environment that would be suitable for any big city slicker. Southern Prime is that place.

Asheville and the Western Mountains

Western North Carolina, approximately an hour and a half drive west of Charlotte, is home to the Blue Ridge Mountains and some of the most scenic golf in the South, especially at Fall Foliage time. To escape summer’s high heat, humidity and bugs, golfers have sought refuge here since the 1920s, when Bobby Jones himself made the private Highlands Club his personal getaway. 

WHERE TO PLAY

Linville Golf Club, Linville
Public access at Linville is limited to guests of the Eseeola Lodge, but it’s well worth the splurge to check out the eye-candy afforded at this 1924 Donald Ross design, situated in the Blue Ridge Mountains an hour northeast of Asheville. Trout-filled Grandmother Creek affects play on 14 holes, including at the signature 472-yard, par-4 3rd, where it must be carried to find the green. ($125)

Omni Grove Park Inn, Asheville
Perched high above Asheville in the mountains of western North Carolina, the Donald Ross-designed Grove Park course has hosted a fistful of U.S. Presidents and the likes of Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan and Jack Nicklaus. Precision is paramount on this shortish, 6,720-yard, par-70 track, as well as an ability to cope with uphill, downhill and sidehill lies. ($75-$140)

Sequoyah National at Harrah’s Cherokee, Whittier
Narrow, but spectacular, defines this eight-year-old, Robert Trent Jones II/Notah Begay-designed Tribal track that plunges from breezy bluffs into tree-choked valleys in the steep foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains as an amenity for Harrah’s Cherokee Hotel & Casino, some 45 minutes west of Asheville; Management capably takes care of the bluegrass fairways and bentgrass greens, but you’ll have to take care of the multiple forced carries yourself, though après-golf relief is available on the outdoor clubhouse deck, which sports 180-degree mountain panoramas. ($69-$85)

Courses & Travel
Best Golf Courses You Can Play in North Carolina, 2016-17 Edition

WHERE TO STAY

Eseeola Lodge,Linville ($319-$499)
“Mayberry, with money,” is how some have described this rustic, elegant lakeside lodge that sits at 3,800 feet. The place simply oozes rural charm and authenticity, with rooms furnished with handmade quilts and locally hewn objets d’art. Yes, it’s worth a stay if only to access Linville Golf Club, one of Donald Ross’ most pristine layouts, but even if there were no golf, merely soaking in the mountain magic is good for what ails you.

Omni Grove Park Inn, Asheville ($179-$325)
Ten U.S. Presidents have rested their heads overnight at this legendary property. Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan and Jack Nicklaus are among those who have sampled the hilly Donald Ross-designed golf course, which vexes with a variety of lies and stances and entrances with forest-framed beauty, especially in autumn. Others take their shots at cocktail hour in the Great Hall Bar, cocooned by high ceilings, stone walls and twin 36-foot-wide fireplaces. The distinctive 43,000-square-foot spa boasts a subterranean setting defined by cavernous rock walls, arches and tunnels. Therapeutic waterfall pools, eucalyptus-infused steam rooms and a lap pool highlighted by underwater music and 6,500 fiber optic stars are among the offerings. Suite guests enjoy personal concierge service as well as complimentary breakfast, cocktails and hors d’oeuvres in the Club Floor Lounge.  

Harrah’s Cherokee Hotel and Casino, Cherokee ($119-$549)
This 21-story, 1,108-room hotel is owned by the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation. While its golf course is a star attraction, so is the blackjack, and the roulette and the craps, and so is the top-name entertainment that stops by in season from Chris Rock to Alice Cooper. No fewer than 10 dining spots await, from upscale Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse and BRIO Tuscan Grille to a Dunkin Donuts Express.

 

WHERE TO DINE

Biltmore Estate, Asheville
For special occasion dining without peer, book a table at The Dining Room at the Inn on Biltmore Estate. White linen tablecloths, fine crystal and classic china are among the accompaniments, together with stunning panoramas of the property that was built by the Vanderbilts in 1895 as America’s largest private home. Renowned for its field-to-table program with items locally sourced, including fruit, dairy and meats from the estate’s own farms, this is elegant dining at its best. The NC Heritage Pork Tenderloin is a standout. 

Chefs Stage Buffet at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort, Cherokee
Come hungry to this expansive dining experience on the second floor of the resort, in a space that overlooks the casino. Chefs prepare a round-the-world feast, from Italian to Asian, though the best of all might be the barbecue stations and the desserts. Solid comfort food, all-you-can eat.

12 Bones Smokehouse, Asheville
President Obama made multiple visits here, but there’s no political spin necessary to tout its incredible ribs. You won’t find a ton of ambience at the River Arts District location on Riverside Drive, just brisket, pulled pork and fall-off-the-bone ribs, accented by a variety of sauces.

Major Inland Cities and Universities  

North Carolina’s big commerce and culture hubs of Charlotte, Greensboro, Winston-Salem and Raleigh-Durham boasts surprisingly strong golf offerings as well. So do the Research Triangle colleges of Duke, North Carolina and North Carolina State, which all roll out recently revised championship tracks. So if you’re bringing a briefcase or backpack to any of these locales, don’t forget your clubs as well.

Forest Oaks Country Club in Greensboro, NC.
Courtesy Forest Oaks Country Club

WHERE TO PLAY

Forest Oaks Country Club, Greensboro 
Embrace PGA Tour history with 18 holes at Forest Oaks. Designed by Donald Ross protégé Ellis Maples in 1962, Forest Oaks tested the Tour’s best from 1977 through 2007, when champions included Hall-of-Famers Seve Ballesteros, Raymond Floyd and Lanny Wadkins. Major winners Sandy Lyle and Davis Love III both won twice here and Brandt Snedeker was the final winner. Tall pines, brilliant dogwoods in the spring, well-bunkered greens and 7,252 hilly yards are highlights of Forest Oaks, as well as green fees of $50 and under. ($39-$59)

Tanglewood Park (Championship), Clemmons
Less than 10 miles from Winston-Salem sits one of golf’s least heralded major championship venues, Tanglewood Park. Tanglewood was the site of the 1974 PGA Championship, when Lee Trevino slipped by Jack Nicklaus to win by one over a rolling, wooded, typical late 1950s Robert Trent Jones Sr. design that features elevated greens fortified by multiple bunkers and plenty of water hazards down the stretch. ($19-$49)

Duke University Golf Club, Durham
Connected to the splendid Washington Duke Inn and right across street from campus, Duke is a 1957 Robert Trent Jones Sr. design that was updated by Jones’ son Rees over the past 20 years. Tree trouble, elevated greens and two rugged par-4s to close define the course, though the highlight has to be the recently installed Champion Bermuda greens, which are among the most perfectly conditioned of any public course in the Carolinas. ($70-$120)

UNC Finley Golf Club, Chapel Hill
Duke’s primary rival isn’t only a nemesis in college hoops. The University of North Carolina’s golf course also challenges for the title of best university course in the state. Tom Fazio reworked the now 68-year-old layout in 1999 and it’s a beast from the tips. Finley’s scorecard wreckers are the back-to-back par-4 brutes at holes 15 and 16. Its 7,220-yard back tee length is best left to alums such as Davis Love III. ($53-$85)  

Lonnie Poole Golf Course at North Carolina State University, Raleigh
Arnold Palmer may have attended Wake Forest, but he left a course design legacy with a rival—the Lonnie Poole layout that benefits the Wolfpack of N.C. State. The King handed out a beautifully balanced test, complete with enormous greens, five memorable par-3s, views of the Raleigh skyline and a heroic Pine Valley-ish closing par-4.  ($50-$85)

The Don Rives Cloister Garden at the O.Henry Hotel in Greensboro.
Courtesy O.Henry Hotel

WHERE TO STAY

O.Henry, Greensboro ($219-$629)
Named for literary giant William Sydney Porter, who was born in Greensboro and used O. Henry as his pen name, this handsome, 4-Diamond hotel is close to downtown and to the airport. Afternoon tea in the social lobby, courtyard dining at the Green Valley Grill and live jazz are among the enticements.

Washington Duke Inn & Golf Club, Durham ($210-$535)
Conveniently situated on the Duke University campus, this AAA Four-Diamond recipient is 20 minutes from the Raleight-Durham airport and is a mere stroll down a hallway to reach the pro shop at the superb Duke University Golf Course. Gorgeous grounds and public spaces, hiking trails, indoor and outdoor pools and the award-winning Fairview Restaurant elevate this urban retreat. 

The Ballantyne Hotel, Charlotte ($227-$567)
 This urban oasis is best known for its superb championship layout, a wooded, mounded 1990 design that boasts a rugged finish, a 420-yard, par-4 dogleg left that calls for a drive over a creek, followed by an approach that flirts with a lake. It’s also home to the acclaimed Dana Rader Golf School, as well as to outstanding, spa, fitness and dining experiences.

WHERE TO DINE

Lucky 32 Southern Kitchen, Greensboro
Just a few blocks from the O.Henry, stick your fork into Lucky 32 Southern Kitchen, which features modern twists on Old South Classic. Start with the Buttermilk-Fried Green Tomatoes, then ease into the Pan-seared Carolina Mountain Trout with red-eye vinaigrette and crispy black-eyed peas. Add a side of cornbread and some Butterscotch Pudding Pie for dessert and call it a meal.

Fairview Dining Room at the Washington Duke Inn, Durham
One of only two Forbes Four-Star, AAA Four-Diamond restaurants in North Carolina, the Fairview epitomizes classic fine dining, from ambience to décor to service, complete with grand piano. The waduke shrimp, bacon and corn chowder is a superior starter; follow with the shrimp and grits and you’ll have a meal to remember.

The Fig Tree, Charlotte
Housed in a 104-year-old Craftsman bungalow, the Fig Tree delivers an intimate ambience and a sophisticated menu. Continental-inspired dishes predominate, with emphasis on innovative preparations. The Grouper, Elk Chop and Ostrich entrees are particularly distinctive. Don’t miss the Dark Chocolate-Hazelnut French Silk Torte for dessert.

Wilmington, Myrtle Beach and the Carolina Coast  

All eyes are on Wilmington this week, as its private Eagle Point Golf Club serves as a one-year host to the Wells Fargo. Yet, old-timers might remember when Wilmington was a regular stop on the PGA Tour from 1946 through 1971. Arnold Palmer won the event at Cape Fear Country Club in 1957 and other Major winners who triumphed here were Lloyd Mangrum, Dave Marr, Jerry Barber and Art Wall Jr. The seacoast is home to a number of fine courses, hotels and restaurants.

Ocean Ridge Plantation in Ocean Isle Beach, NC.
Courtesy Ocean Plantation

WHERE TO PLAY

Wilmington Municipal Golf Course, Wilmington
Master architect Donald Ross crafted this subtle beauty in 1926 and its virtues hold fast today, thanks to a John Fought 2014 restoration that involved greens, approaches, fairway bunkers and new tee boxes. One of the more distinctive holes on the par-71, 6,784-yard layout is the 206-yard, par-3 fourth, which plays over a valley from an elevated tee to an elevated green. A new Fought-designed three-hole short course for Wilmington’s First Tee program debuted in early May. ($28-$42)

Bald Head Island Club, Bald Head Island
You have to jump through a few hoops to score a tee time here—starting with a ferry ride over from Wilmington—but it’s worth the effort to play this 1974 George Cobb design that was renovated with a major makeover in 2010 by Tim Cate. Exposed sand features and expansive water hazards predominate, notably at the layout’s most dramatic par-3s, the 173-yard eight and the 187-yard 16th. ($95-$150) 

The Currituck Club, Corolla
This bucolic 1996 Rees Jones design sits in the northernmost reaches of the Outer Banks. The par-72, 6,885-yard layout zigzags through coastal dunes, maritime forests and wetlands while providing memorable glimpses of the Currituck Sound. ($35-$165)

Leopard’s Chase at Ocean Ridge Plantation, Ocean Isle Beach
Created by architect Tim Cate in 2007, Leopard’s Chase quickly took hold as one of the most challenging, most scenic courses on the Myrtle Beach Grand Strand. Sugary sand in the large bunkers, enormous, fast, heavily undulating greens, and a stern, compelling, par-37 back nine are highlights. The 439-yard, par-4 18th, with ponds bracketing the fairway, a gigantic waste bunker up the right side, a waterfall left of the green and a prevailing left-to-right breeze make this an unforgettable closer. ($40-$140)

WHERE TO STAY

Sea Trail Resort, Sunset Beach ($123-$201)
This tranquil yet vibrant property boasts three superb courses, one by Dan Maples, another by Rees Jones and a third by Willard Byrd. On-site dining, a fitness center and easy access to Myrtle Beach’s myriad attractions are highlights. 

Blockade Runner Beach Resort, Wrightsville ($220-$570)
Since 1964, the Blockade Runner has been in the forefront of lodging experiences in Wrightsville Beach. Its oceanfront location provides easy beach access, swimming and boat slips. Gardens, a fitness center, a pool bar and oceanside dining are additional enticements.

Brunswick Plantation & Golf Resort ($399-$849 [weekly]), Calabash
This condo-resort features 1- and 2-bedroom units, and efficiencies as well, that dish out fairway views, fully equipped kitchens, indoor and outdoor pools, plus beach sands nearby. Golf packages include on-site play, plus deals with top-rated nearby courses.

WHERE TO DINE

The Fish House Grille, Wilmington
With an ideal location at the foot of the Wrightsville Beach Drawbridge, this is the perfect, very casual spot to indulge in watching the boats go by and on feasting on classic seafood favorites from the outdoor deck. The Fish Stew and the Bridge Tender Clam Chowder are long-time favorites.

Indochine, Wilmington
Yes, there’s a superb Thai-Vietnamese dining establishment in downtown Wilmington. Gardens, a lotus pond, Oriental artwork and authentic menu items such as Vietnamese pork balls, Ayudhya Eggplant and a variety of curries are the main attractions.  

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