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North Carolina's Sandhills

In June, the U.S. Open will return to Pinehurst No. 2. The pros love this course, traveling golfers worldwide love it and its designer, the legendary Donald Ross, loved it enough to live along the third hole. One problem: the $345 greens fee. Locals know that kind of cash can get you three rounds and a two-night stay at other worthy places right in the neighborhood.

After a little digging, it becomes clear that experiencing the Carolina Sandhills--marked by the feathery longleaf pines and peaceful hills around Pinehurst, Southern Pines and Aberdeen--is possible on the cheap. Local stay-and-play operators offer packages at up to 75 percent less than major-resort prices. And you can still stroll the quaint villages that haven't changed, give or take a couple of sports bars, since the days of Mr. Ross.

Home to eight courses, Pinehurst resort remains the area's benchmark. Well known for the last-putt victory by Payne Stewart in the 1999 U.S. Open, Pinehurst continues to invest in its golf operation and has become the place to visit for golf purists. Nearby Pine Needles and Mid Pines, both designed by Ross, are also bona fide stars.

A spring weekend at Pinehurst with accommodations and three rounds, including one on No. 2, will run you about $1,200. Pine Needles/Mid Pines weekend packages start at $328--not bad, but you're limited to playing their courses. Here, then, are six courses that make the grade using our proprietary Bang for the Buck value rating.

Tobacco Road Golf Club, 20 miles north of Southern Pines, feels like a Scottish links without the sea views. There's no whipping wind or sod-faced bunkers, but the vast, wide-open design is reminiscent of golf's homeland.

Course designer Mike Strantz built fairways 45 yards across in spots, then surrounded them with heaving hillocks covered with tall, wispy love grass. Numerous carries over sandy waste areas and scrub vegetation, a handful of blind shots and roller-coaster greens contribute to the 150 slope from the 6,554-yard back tees. You may need to recharge your batteries after a loop around Tobacco Road, so kick back on the wraparound porch overlooking the 18th green and put away a tasty barbecued pork sandwich. Styled after an old farmhouse, the club's main building, with its large, open fireplace and rustic antiques, is a great spot to replay your round.

Pinehurst native Dan Maples built The Pit Golf Links, two miles west of Aberdeen, on a former sand quarry, altering the dramatic natural terrain as little as possible. Don't expect to see long, sandy stretches, however; the only quarry remnants on this lush, green layout are the mounds in and around some fairways and three lakes once used for washing sand.

One huge lake comes into play on three holes, including the 167-yard 12th, which boasts an island green, and the 370-yard 13th, where you need a poke of 185 yards from the tips to clear the lake. But length is not the key issue at The Pit, which measures just 6,600 yards from the back. Its 139 slope proves there's plenty of challenge along the way.

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