Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill triumvirate of North Carolina has long been a caldron of competitive fire -- whether the combatants are basketball coaches at the area's three major universities competing for schoolboy talent or drug concerns in Research Triangle Park probing for cancer cures. Today it's equally intense in the Triangle in the battle for the golfer's pocketbook at daily-fee golf courses.

For many years, golf in this region of high-tech and higher education consisted of private country clubs and heavy-traffic, low-maintenance public-access facilities.

Tom Fazio and Jack Nicklaus designed new courses -- Treyburn in Durham and Governors Club in Chapel Hill, respectively -- in the late 1980s, fitting the gated community, upper-end real-estate profile so popular at the time.

Now daily-fee golfers are getting their day in the sun -- and more than likely, they've got an interesting, well-designed, and well-conditioned course on which to enjoy themselves. Over the last five years, architects ranging from Fazio to Rees Jones, from Dan Maples to Mike Strantz and beyond, have wielded their blueprints and bulldozers over the landscape.

"For a long time there was a void of what I would term the 'architecturally enhanced' golf course in this area," says Stuart Frantz, a partner in the golf development firm which created one of the area's better public-access courses, The Neuse Golf Club in Clayton. "The consumer was looking for private club experience on a daily-fee basis -- in terms of the quality of the course and the service level."

Frantz's company, Carolinas Golf Group, hired architect John LaFoy to design The Neuse in the early 1990s. The Neuse, named for the river which meanders along the course's outskirts, is one of the area's most popular daily-fee courses in addition to serving a membership based around a surrounding residential community.

Ed Peplinski was on his way to Myrtle Beach from his home in Saginaw, Mich., in 1996, when he first played golf at the Neuse, which is situated less than 10 miles from Interstate 95, a major north-south artery. Within two years, he'd moved south and now lives within the back nine of the course.

"I've lived on seven golf courses in seven states, and this is my favorite," he says. "I love the beauty of the course, I love the challenge. But there are so many golf courses to play around here. You never get bored playing golf."

Most of the daily-fee golf development in the last decade has come on the periphery of the metro area, where land is less expensive and hefty club dues aren't part of the bottom line.

Two of the area's premier public-access facilities, the University of North Carolina's Finley Golf Course and the Duke University Golf Course, were originally built four to five decades ago on land that today would be so expensive that a daily-fee course would be financial unfeasible.

Director of Golf Ed Ibarguen looks at the site within Duke Forest occupied by his course and notes that it's only in the dead of winter, when the trees bordering several back nine holes are bare, that a golfer can spot the outline of a house in the distance.

"Think about how many courses in the United States do not have one house anywhere on the golf course," Ibarguen, a GOLF Magazine Top 100 Teacher says. "There aren't many. It's just you and the woods and the birds chirping out there."

Duke is the oldest of the Triangle's top daily-fee facilities, opening in 1957 under the shingle of the greatest architect of the day, Robert Trent Jones. It took only five years for Duke to host its first significant event, the 1962 Men's NCAA Championships. Among the competitors was Jones's son, Yale golfer Rees Jones.

Thirty years later, Rees returned to renovate his father's design. He rebuilt every green and tee, and reshaped a number of fairways which his dad couldn't properly address because of a limited construction budget. The Duke experience today challenges the golfer with plenty of length -- "We could go as long as 7,350 yards, easily," Ibarguen says -- as well as numerous canted fairway lies, water hazards on five holes and tightly bunkered greens.

After Jones returned in the late-1990s to lengthen several holes, Duke landed the NCAA Championships in 2001. Because the course is completely surrounded by woods, there is ample room to stretch the length of most holes.

"We had three or four blind tee shots before, and now you can see where you're hitting the ball," Ibarguen says. "Rees has given you more room off the tee. But the premium at Duke is hitting into the green. That's where the challenge lies."

The Washington-Duke Inn, a 171-room, Mobile Four-Star, AAA Four-Diamond facility on the site of the course, actually houses the golf pro shop and locker rooms. The inn and course are, however, separate entities.

"One misconception is that you have to stay at the inn to play the golf course," Ibarguen says. "Another is that we are a private club. Neither one is true."

Finley Golf Course was designed by George Cobb and opened in 1949. Set on wooded ground one mile from the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Finley was the site of Michael Jordan's maiden forays into golf during his student days at UNC.

It was also where a young Davis Love III amazed onlookers in the early 1980s with his prodigious power. But with 50,000 rounds a year and no irrigation system, maintenance of the course was a challenge.

Finally, major surgery corrected the problems when Fazio completely redesigned and rebuilt the course, with the new version opening in late 1999.

The new Finley is playable for the short hitter from the forward tees but capable of hosting a college tournament from the back tees. There's a minimum of commercial or residential development around the course, with much of it bordered by the UNC Botanical Gardens. Like Duke, UNC Finley offers a serene, natural environment for a top-notch modern design.

Another quality university facility in the Triangle area is Keith Hills Golf Club, which is owned and operated by Campbell University in Buies Creek, about a 30-minute drive south of Raleigh. Ellis Maples, who learned his craft working under the great Donald Ross, designed 18 holes at Keith Hills in the early 1970s. Maples's son Dan, fresh out of design school at the University of Georgia, helped his dad design and shape the course.

The traditional Keith Hills layout has long been one of the state's hidden gems, tucked midway between Raleigh and Pinehurst.

Now it's getting a companion course, with nine new holes designed by Dan having opened in the fall of 2001 and nine more still under construction with a fall 2002 opening in sight.

Hillandale Golf Course in Durham has been in existence in some form since 1911, with architects like Ross and Perry Maxwell having hands in its early designs.

A new course on a different site was built in 1960 and designed by George Cobb, and that's the course that some 50,000 golfers tour each year.

The land for the course and its design were the gifts of philanthropist George Sprunt Hill, and the course remains today in a trust with its only permitted use being a golf course open to the public.

Golfers can expect to find the putting surfaces a bit slow given their heavy traffic, but otherwise Hillandale offers good conditions. The course in the last decade or so has even built alternate greens on three holes to help alleviate traffic problems on the grass.

Hillandale, located a block from Interstate 85, is perhaps best-known for its retail operation. Longtime pro Luke Veasey set the standard of selling hard goods in an on-course retail site through his retirement in 1989, then turned the operation over to Zack Veasey (no relation).

Both have earned PGA Merchandiser of the Year awards, and the shop is recognized annually in the industry for both volume and variety.

Golfers in the Chapel Hill and Durham corners of the Triangle have not only these daily-fee choices, but can drive 20 to 30 minutes to the west and find two offerings in Alamance County.

Mill Creek Golf and Country Club in Mebane was originally planned in the early 1990s as an inducement to a proposed new Mercedes automobile plant.

When Mercedes instead opted for an Alabama site, developers astutely noticed that the growing population to the west (Greensboro and Winston-Salem) and the Triangle to the east could still support a quality daily-fee facility.

Architect Rick Robbins, a North Carolina native who started his design career by working for Robert von Hagge, Willard Byrd, and Jack Nicklaus, teamed with former tour pro Gary Koch in laying out the course, which winds its way through 35 acres of wetlands and skirts a stream on several holes.

Over in nearby Graham, the Waggoner family operated a farm on 350 acres since the 1950s until Larry Waggoner decided in the mid-1990s to build a golf course on the site.

Using architect Barry Brantley of Columbia, S.C., and golf construction specialists Shapemasters, Waggoner fashioned a playable and interesting layout named the Challenge at Hideaway Farm.

With the one exception of hitting tee shots on the par-three fourth within wedge distance of whizzing traffic on Interstate 40, the course offers an aesthetically pleasing environment of woods, rolling pastureland and the Haw River.

South of the Triangle, about 30 minutes from Chapel Hill and Raleigh, is architect Mike Strantz's cutting-edge design at the Tobacco Road Golf Club.

Strantz essentially lived on the site, formerly a sand quarry, for about a year, drawing out each hole by hand and personally overseeing the placement of each grain of sand, lump of dirt and blade of grass.

The course is relatively short by modern standards, stretching only 6,524 yards from the back tees, but demands precision in working from one target to the next.

The trappings of Tobacco Road make for a memorable experience -- from the clubhouse designed in rustic farmhouse style, to tee markers conceived around the tools of the tobacco trade. The course has its share of blind shots, to be sure, ergo the smattering of bells at strategic points to signal the group behind that it's clear to hit.

And the 13th and 15th holes have king-sized flagsticks so that golfers can locate them from the fairway around huge berms.

Tobacco Road tends to bring out extreme emotions from golfers -- either you're exhilarated by the experience or you're willing to buy the dynamite yourself. It's definitely worth a visit to form your own opinion.

On the opposite side of Raleigh, about a half hour's drive north, is the Triangle's newest offering to the daily-fee scene. The Heritage Golf Club opened in the town of Wake Forest in the fall of 2001.

The Heritage is semi-private and sits within a 1,065-acre mixed-use development. Course owners were careful not to open the course prior to a full grow-in, and at less than a year old, the Heritage offers excellent playing surfaces.

Bob Moore, whose JMP.Golf Design Group has designed courses worldwide, imported a touch of the British Isles with his bunkering style -- most are of the pot variety with deep bottoms that collect balls like a catcher's mitt.

Three of the club's members are young golfers on various professional tours -- Carl Pettersson, Mark Slawter and Chris Mundorf. All three were All-America golfers at nearby N.C. State and make the Heritage their home base.

There's more quality golf on the way in the Triangle and surrounding counties. Expected to open in August of 2002 is a Davis Love III design in Chatham County.

The Preserve will be semi-private and part of a residential community located along the 14,000-acre Jordan Lake. All the more reason to keep area golf professionals on their toes.

"It's a great situation for the golfer," says Duke's Ibarguen. "There's never been a better time to play golf in the Triangle."

Lee Pace is a writer based in Chapel Hill.

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