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Must-play golf courses in North Carolina

Pinehurst No. 2
Courtesy of Pinehurst Resort
Pinehurst No. 2 will host the U.S. Open and U.S. Women's Open in back-to-back weeks in 2014.

Located an hour's drive south from the Raleigh-Durham area and two hours east of Charlotte, no resort destination in America is as rich in golf history and lore as Pinehurst.

Despite the understandable increase in crowds and traffic, in many ways the mood and setting in Pinehurst proper is unchanged from 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.

Pinehurst and its surrounding communities, collectively known as "the Sandhills," can rightly tout their pedigree as the "Home of Golf" in the U.S. However, the Tar Heel State offers dozens of other terrific tracks to sample, including a fistful in the Triangle region of Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill and several coastal gems near Wilmington and Sunset Beach.

There are also worthy tests in and around Greensboro/Winston-Salem and Charlotte.

And there's one final major Carolina golf destination that sizzles with great layouts, especially during the cool summer months. We'll label it Asheville, which is the epicenter of all activity in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Western North Carolina.

Situated an hour-and-a-half west of Charlotte, Asheville, and the surrounding communities of Cashiers/Hendersonville and Boone/Linville can certainly boast that it's the Summertime Golf Capital of the Southeast.

At least it was for Bobby Jones, who vacationed in Highlands, just south of Cashiers, for many years. That's good enough for us.

Must Play Courses
Pinehurst No. 2 (pinehurst.com, 855-235-8507, $339-$420)
One of the few public-access courses in North American golf that has hosted multiple major championships (and will do so again next year during back-to-back weeks: the U.S. Open is set for June 12th through June 15th, and the U.S. Women's Open will be played the following week), this Donald Ross-designed masterpiece is considered the fiercest test of chipping anywhere, which places a premium on thoughtful ball placement.

Ranked 15th in Golf Magazine's Top 100 Courses in the World, the famed layout underwent a magnificent restoration in 2011 led by Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore. The pair widened fairways, replaced rough with sandy waste areas, and returned native wiregrass and natural bunker edges.

As with the Old Course at St. Andrews, the virtues of No. 2 aren't always apparent at first glance. Most holes are framed by tall longleaf pines, which yield pine cones as big as footballs, and conclude in crowned greens that shed imperfectly struck approaches into tightly mown swales.

There are no island greens or 15-foot-deep bunkers, just a succession of strong, playable holes. You must stay at the Pinehurst Resort to play No. 2, but if you're desperate to climb aboard, call the day you'd like to play, as the resort allows limited, last minute walk-ons, based on availability.

Pine Needles Lodge and Golf Club (pineneedles-midpines.com, 910-692-7111, $85-$230)
Located in Southern Pines, just three miles down the road from the Village of Pinehurst, this celebrated Donald Ross course is owned and operated by Peggy Kirk Bell, one of the game's most popular personalities and a Golf Magazine Top 100 Teacher.

Although it hosted the 1996, 2001 and 2007 U.S. Women's Opens, it's not as relentless a test as No. 2, but its pine-lined fairways and crowned greens have beguiled the game's best.

Pine Needles, ranked second on Golf Magazine's Best Public Courses in North Carolina, dishes out some tough par 4s, but its most memorable hole is perhaps the region's sweetest, the tiny, par-3 3rd, which asks for a precise short-iron over a pond to a back-to-front sloping green - one that's backdropped by massive pines and colorful shrubs.

Linville Golf Club (eseeola.com, 800-742-6717, $120)
Most of the great courses in the Western Carolina mountains are strictly private, but you can play this stunning spread (ranked third on Golf Magazine's Best Public Courses in North Carolina) if you are a guest at the small, charming Eseeola Lodge.

The course is a sublime Donald Ross configuration from 1924 that personifies classic mountain golf. The fairways roll, slope and cling so closely to the natural contours of the property you'd think they had been there forever. Grandmother Creek, filled with trout, flows throughout the course and comes into play on 14 of the 18 holes. Linville's signature hole is the third, a 449-yard, par 4 that requires a tee shot over the crest of a hill to a valley, followed by an uphill approach over a stream to a small, inverted-saucer green.

Tobacco Road (tobaccoroadgolf.com, 877-284, 3762, $49-$134)
Love it or hate it, you will never forget Tobacco Road in Sanford, 20 or so miles northeast of Pinehurst. This 1998 creation from the late Mike Strantz is one-of-a-kind. The short yardage (6,554 yards from the tips) and skyscraper Slope from those same tees (150) should tell you all you need to know.

Critics carp on the many blind shots and some freakish greens, but the majority warms to the towering sandhills, remarkable variety in landscape shaping and bunker design and plenty of alternative routes to get from tee to green.

At the very least, good players appreciate the distinctiveness and artistry of the architect's efforts.

Pinehurst No. 4 (pinehurst.com, 855-235-8507, $139-$219)
Tom Fazio's 2000 redo of this original Donald Ross design is his modern take/homage to No. 2, so expect a workout - and a modicum of frustration - with the chipping clubs.

Pinehurst No. 8 (pinehurst.com, 855-235-8507, $139-$219)
A Fazio original work, No. 8 is more dramatic than his effort at No. 4, with some exciting risk/reward drives over wetlands and a man-made dune ridge.

Best of the Rest
Leopard's Chase (big-cats.com, 910-579-5577, $86-$147)
Part of the four-course Ocean Ridge Plantation in Sunset Beach, just north of Myrtle Beach, this Tim Cate design opened in 2007. You won't see many holes like the par-4 fifth, with its island green surrounded by sand rather than water. Package deals are also available here, including one free round if you play all four courses.

Mid Pines (pineneedles-midpines.com, 910-692-2114, $75-$180)
This classic Donald Ross design was always a well-preserved treat and a joy to play. Now, thanks to a renovation project started late last year, it will also look much more like its debut in 1921. Changes include new grass on all greens, widening of fairways, returning bunkers to original shapes, removing rough and bringing back wire grass and sandy waste areas, a la the work done in 2011 at Pinehurst No 2. Slightly easier — shorter, though tighter — than its nearby sister course, Pine Needles, Mid Pines sports a couple of reachable par-5s, lively springtime blossoms, and a handsome par-4 finishing hole with the backdrop of the historic Mid Pines Inn. The course will be open for play with some temporary holes until this summer when work on the greens begins. Plans call for a reopening in August.

Duke University Golf Club (golf.duke.edu, 919-681-2288, $40-$75)
Duke University in Durham is best known for its basketball prowess, but its namesake Golf Club is national championship-worthy in its own right. A Robert Trent Jones Sr. design that was reworked by his son Rees, Duke doles out undulating terrain and mature pines that frame the experience.

Sequoyah National Golf Club (sequoyahnational.com, 828-497-3000, $35-$65)
Out west beyond the Blue Ridge Mountains, at the edge of the Smokies, is this four-year old course in Cherokee. With help from consultant Notah Begay, Robert Trent Jones II sculpted this short (6,602 yards), tight, rolling layout in the steep foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains as an amenity for Harrah's Cherokee Hotel & Casino, some 45 minutes west of Asheville.

Stunning vistas reign throughout, but with ridges and valleys and 300-foot elevation changes, stray shots will meet with disaster. Mature oaks and firs will knock a few wayward efforts back in play, but course management skills - and an extra memory card for your camera - are keys to enjoyment at Sequoyah National.

UNC Finley Golf Course (uncfinley.com, 919-962-2349, $40-$68)
Not to take a backseat to archrival Duke, either on the hardwood or the fairways, is the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, which serves up a Tom Fazio re-design near campus. Its 7,328-yard back tee length is best left to alums such as Davis Love III, whose claim to fame, other than his 20 PGA Tour wins, is that he taught fellow student Michael Jordan the finer points of the game here.

Grove Park (groveparkinn.com/golf, 800-438-5800, $85-$129)
Ten U.S. Presidents, including current First Golfer Barack Obama, have stayed overnight at Asheville's Grove Park Inn, but you'll need to channel the ingenuity of former guests Thomas Edison and Harry Houdini to solve the puzzles presented by the maddeningly contoured Donald Ross greens at the resort's course. Precision is paramount on this 6,720-yard, par-70 track, as well as an ability to cope with uphill, downhill and sidehill lies.

Lonnie Poole Golf Course (lonniepoolegolfcourse.com, 919-833-3338, $49-$75)
Arnold Palmer may have gone to college down the road at Wake Forest, but his 2009 layout in Raleigh benefits the Wolfpack of North Carolina State. The King has handed out a beautifully balanced test, complete with enormous greens, five par 3s, views of the Raleigh skyline and a Pine Valley-ish closing par 4.

Pinehurst No. 7 (pinehurst.com, 855-235-8507, $139-$219)
Pinehurst Resort rolls out eight courses in all and the toughest of the lot is this 1986 Rees Jones product that hammers golfers who play from the 7,216-yard tips with a 149 Slope. No. 7 is quite hilly, with a ravine, wetlands and a natural berm as components of the design. You name it, and No. 7 has got it: huge sand bunkers, multiple grass bunkers, tall pines, forced carries over water, abrupt elevation change, contoured greens, plus walls of containment mounds lining many fairways, which dispenses an aura of playing along the bottom of a cereal bowl.

Best Bargain
The Tar Heel State percolates with outstanding values -- but can it be possible to play a major championship course for under $50? Absolutely. Less than 10 miles from Winston-Salem sits one of golf's least heralded major venues, Tanglewood Park's Championship course ($28-$48; 336-703-6420, tanglewoodpark.org). Tanglewood was the site of the 1974 PGA Championship, when Lee Trevino edged Jack Nicklaus by a shot.

This wooded, typical late 1950s Robert Trent Jones Sr. design features elevated greens fortified by multiple bunkers and plenty of water hazards down the stretch. Tanglewood also saw action as host of the Senior Tour's Vantage Championship from 1987-2002, when winners included Hale Irwin, Gary Player and that man Trevino again.

At a peak fee of $38 during the week, Tanglewood is one of the best values in golf.

Worth the Money
In high season, an a la carte round on Pinehurst No. 2 will set you back $420. Can any course be worth that amount of money? If you're serious about the game, the answer is "yes." Maybe we should qualify our response to "Yes" - at least once in your life.

Payne Stewart and Michael Campbell captured U.S. Opens here, both times edging Tiger Woods, among others. Jack Nicklaus won the North and South Amateur here in 1959, while his son, Jack II, duplicated the feat in 1985. Ben Hogan led the U.S. squad to Ryder Cup victory in 1951.

We're talking incomparable golf history here and the aura is palpable. Teeing it up on the very walkable No. 2 with a caddie and trying to solve the greenside puzzles presented by master architect Donald Ross is one of golf's singular thrills.

Now that it's been expertly restored by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, No. 2 is definitely worth its hefty price tag.

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