Golf in North Carolina's Triad Region
|Tot Hill Farm winds through and around the ancient Uwharrie Mountains. Robert A. Wooten|
So what does all this historical minutiae mean to the traveling golfer? All that and a bowl of Brunswick stew, but first a quick lesson in Tar Heel geography. The "Triad" is so named because of the three urban areas that define its parameters: Greensboro, High Point, and Winston-Salem. Many geographers also include the textile capital of Burlington. And if it means more daily fee golf courses fit for public consumption, what's the harm?
Scattered among these larger burgs is a collection of small towns where golf, religion, barbecue, tobacco and basketball reign supreme, and not necessarily in that order. "No mountains, no beach, no problem," could easily be the area's mantra when it comes to peddling its golf wares. The Triad's modus operandi is its gently rolling hills, Carolina hardwoods, and reverence for the game's traditions. Its niche in the great golfing pantheon of the Carolinas is both pragmatic and egalitarian: The Triad is home to more accessible, affordable daily fee courses than most other loosely defined urban areas in the U.S. In fact, the only way to spend more than $50 on a round of golf here -- even on a weekend -- is to rack up one heck of a bar bill at the 19th hole.
"I don't think people realize how amazing this place really is," says Chris LeClerc, head golf professional at Bryan Park and Golf Club in Greensboro. "This is golf the way it was meant to be. You don't have to spend a fortune to play, and you can walk almost any course you want."
The modern era of public golf in the Triad began in 1959 when Forsyth County officials pulled a major coup in convincing Robert Trent Jones Sr. to design a golf course on land donated to the public by the Reynolds family. The bequeathed land came to be known as Tanglewood Park, and Jones's gem was clairvoyantly anointed the Championship Course. The course was so popular with locals that Jones was brought back in 1964 to design the first nine holes of the Reynolds Course; he returned in 1970 to complete that layout. In the years that followed, the Championship Course hosted a number of PGA sectional events, as well as the aforementioned 1974 PGA Championship. It was also the long-time home of the Champion Tour's Vantange/RJR Championship (formerly Vantage Golf Tournament).
During preparations for hosting the PGA Championship, the Championship Course underwent a major renovation at the hands of Jones himself. The course was lengthened from 6,500 to 7,050 yards (a beast by 1970s standards); 45 bunkers were added, and 65 were enlarged; and the greens were shrunk from 10,000 to 8,000 square feet on average. With an enviable setting amid groves of ancient hardwoods, languid lakes, and rolling hills, it's little wonder that the Championship Course is consistently recognized as one of the state's best public layouts. The Reynolds Course is shorter (6,537 yards from the tips) but tighter off the tee, and it has far less bunkering than its higher-profile sibling.
If Tanglewood is a charming reminder of the Triad's rich golf history, then the monolithic Grandover Resort in Greensboro, with its two modern championship courses, is a clear glimpse into the area's future. While Tanglewood came about as a result of a powerful family's generosity, Grandover was born of one extremely wealthy man's ambition. Joseph Koury, a Greensboro developer, envisioned a 1,400-acre master-planned community replete with resort hotel, conference center, 36 holes, custom homes, shopping, and office space. Koury plucked Gary Panks and David Graham out of Arizona to design Grandover's two layouts after a bit of a falling out with Tom Fazio, according to Panks.
|Bryan Park offers 36 holes of scenic golf. Bryan Park|
"David had a friend in Greensboro, Blake Clark, who was a good friend of Joe's and he turned Joe onto us," says Panks. "Joe talked to Tom [Fazio] and they didn't hit it off very well. We came out and talked to Joe, and I guess he liked us. The next thing I knew I was in North Carolina working on the first course, which was a challenge because there were something like seven different soils to deal."
Panks did the majority of the design work on both courses. He encountered elevation changes, wetlands, and thick strands of trees, and. The East Course opened in 1996 to rave reviews, and Koury had some serious discussions with the Greensboro Jaycees about usurping Greensboro's PGA Tour event from Forest Oaks Country Club. The West Course, opened a year later, is a shorter, tighter, and hillier version of the East; it carves a 136 slope from the back tees at 6,800 yards.
Both courses get plenty of ink, and the Grandover, with 247 rooms, is as fine a hotel as you'll find in the area. But glitzy resorts and high-end courses aren't the bread-and-butter of the Triad. This is a region of hard-working folks who like to stretch their dollars as well as their tee shots, and they tend to gravitate toward moderately priced daily fee courses, such as Bryan Park in Browns Summit. Bryan Park's original 18-hole track, the Players Course, opened in 1974 and was designed by George Cobb. The newer Champions Course, a Rees Jones creation, opened in 1990.
If there were one recurring theme in the story of Triad golf, it might be that the Jones family not only builds courses here but returns to make them better. The Champions Course was highly decorated in the years after its opening, but the severe contours in the greens made maintaining the bentgrass a challenge. Making matters worse, 80 percent of the greens' square footage had been overtaken by Poa annua, an invasive grass that is the bane of many superintendents. In 1999, Jones was brought back to Bryan Park to reduce the slopes of all the greens, including a complete redesign of the putting surfaces on the fifth, 12th, and 16th holes.
|Extremely large greens are the hallmarks of Oak Valley. |
Course officials also swapped the finicky Pencross bentgrass for the heat tolerant L93 variety, cleared out some surly woods, and relocated some bunkers. When the dust had settled, the Champions Course was back on track as one of the Triad's best public layouts.
Jones also touched up the Players Course while he was in town, and many locals actually prefer its less crowded fairways and airplane hangar-size greens. Both courses share one of the state's premier practice facilities, the Bryan Park Practice and Learning Center. Use of the word "range" is frowned upon, since the 12-acre plot once served as a bivouac area and firing range during World War II, when Greensboro was the staging area for hundreds of thousands of American troops.
"When it comes to public golf, the bar has been set pretty high around here," says LeClerc. "You can't stand pat with what you have. And there are new courses that have come on line over the past couple years that have increased the competition for the golfing dollar."
Greensboro native and great American author William Sidney Porter (a.k.a. O. Henry) was adored by the reading public for his surprise endings, but lambasted by literary critics for his obsession with irony and coincidence. Controversial golf course designer Mike Strantz, who is both revered and reviled by the golfing public and his peers, can relate to this range of emotions.
Strantz was the design force behind Caledonia Golf and Fish Club in Pawleys Island, South Carolina, an easy-like-Sunday-morning plantation course that has been climbing GOLF MAGAZINE's Top 100 You Can Play list since it opened in 1996 (it's currently ranked 32nd). But he's the same chap who crafted True Blue and Tobacco Road in Sanford -- two of the more diabolical layouts in the Carolinas.
His Triad-area effort -- Tot Hill Farm -- blends a little bit of the gentler Strantz with touches of his dark side. The course is located at the edge of the Sandhills in Asheboro, and meanders through the ancient Uwharrie Mountains. Ubiquitous stone walls, dynamited boulders, and severely contoured fairways make it one of the most visually stunning layouts in the state. Proponents of minimalist course design will undoubtedly cry foul, but Tot Hill Farm is worth the infraction. After all, where else can you actually drive your cart under a green? That opportunity comes at the 10th and 12th greens, where a tunnel actually goes underneath the shared putting surface.
It was Strantz's connection to Caledonia that netted him the Tot Hill Farm job. The "farm" portion of Tot Hill had been in Ogburn Yates's family since 1943. Yates and a Navy buddy were sitting on the front steps of the 200-year-old farmhouse one day when his friend suggested he build a golf course on the property. Yates envisioned a golf, housing, and equestrian development, and hired a friend from Pawleys Island to survey the farm and assess the project's feasibility. Doc Lachicotte, a partner in Caledonia, brought Strantz along for the ride. The story goes that Strantz embarked on an hour-long vision quest, and upon returning simply said, "You have to build a golf course here."
And build they did. Tot Hill is unlike any other course in the Triad; in fact it's not technically in the Triad since it sits some 30 miles south of Greensboro. But it's more than worth the ride. Unlike the gently rolling hills of the Piedmont to the north, the Uwharrie wilderness here is marked by steep slopes, ancient rock outcroppings and rushing streams. More than 4,000 feet of elevation changes occur between golfers from the first tee to the 18th green at Tot Hill. For example, the 371-yard, par-four ninth hole climbs more than 40 feet to a triumphant ending at a dramatically sloped green.
About 50 miles north of otherworldly Tot Hill Farm sits the down-to-earth Greensboro National Golf Club. Terms like "playable" and "traditional" are often used to describe this Don and Mark Charles design. To paraphrase an old television network slogan, this is a golf course for guys who like golf courses. The fairways are wide; the greens are large; the hills are gently rolling; and conditioning is immaculate. There are no tricks, no gimmicks, and no greens you can drive under. And at 4,911 yards from the forward tees with nary a forced carry, women players often find the course to their liking as well. Any visit to Greensboro National without a taste of its famous hotdog would be incomplete, so plunk down the $4.25 and go Southern style with mustard and slaw.
|The East and West Courses at Grandover Resort are well-established favorites. Grandover Resort|
Wake Forest alumnus Bill Coore, now a successful designer in his own right along with partner Ben Crenshaw, cut his teeth helping Dye design Oak Hollow. The course includes a tee box in the middle of Oak Hollow Lake, on the 420-yard, par-four sixth hole, and a collection of diabolical green complexes that had to fly in the face of everything Coore was learning at WFU. Amid a sea of buttoned-up, traditional Triad tracks, Oak Hollow is a refreshingly different dog, and this is the same creative attitude Coore and Crenshaw bring to their projects today.
A golf mecca wouldn't be a golf mecca without the King and the Golden Bear going head-to-head. The Triad obliges with Oak Valley Golf Club and Salem Glen Country Club, both just a pitch shot from Tanglewood Park. Oak Valley, the Palmer layout, is marked by gently breaking greens, dramatic swales, and bunkering around the greens. Plenty of strategy off the tee defines this 7,058-yard layout that many locals consider one of the better buys in the Triad at less than $50 for 18 holes.
Jack Nicklaus's design firm built the course at Salem Glen, a 466-acre residential development set along the Yadkin River that opened in 1997. The frontman of the project's golf course was unassuming PGA Tour player Glen Day. Day turned professional in 1988 and has gone on to make a respectable living on Tour, including a victory at the 1999 MCI Classic. A mutual friend introduced him to local developers Scott Brown and Michael Amos when he was in town for the Greater Greensboro Open.
"At first I was like, 'Yeah, you think you know a lot about golf course architecture,' but it turned out he did," says Amos. "He is one of the few guys on Tour who I have met that has a real working knowledge about golf course architecture. Now, it was his first project, so he wasn't in the office drawing up the plans, but he did quite a bit of consulting."
Neither Amos nor Brown had any reservations about offering the gritty journeyman his first design gig, especially after Nicklaus Design assured them that Jack would back the design and construction of the course, and would assign his top gun -- the late Bruce Borland -- to assist. While the owners have considered making the course private, all signs point to it being available to the traveling golfer for years to come.
The layout is rife with elevation changes (more than 150 feet), and is hallmarked by a half-mile of creeks and nine lakes. The bulk of the up-and-down is on the back nine, highlighted by the 395-yard 13th, where tee shots must carry a 70-foot-deep ravine. The final three holes are by far the toughest stretch on the course, including Day's personal favorite, the par-three 17th, which is flanked by creeks in front and behind the green.
The Triad golf season is a year-round affair. Spring, in all its blooming dogwood and azalea glory, is the best time to visit. The warm, dry autumn featuring colors to rival any New England town, is a close second. Some killer deals can be had in the summer and winter, but so can 90-degree days or the occasional snowflake, so check the weather forecast before you go. Regardless of the time of year, the Triad is one of the most affordable golf stops in the U.S. -- period.
Shane Sharp, a senior editor at www.travelgolf.com, lives in Charlotte, North Carolina.