Travelin' Joe's Guide to North Carolina Golf Courses

Travelin’ Joe’s Guide to North Carolina Golf Courses

Pinehurst, North Carolina.

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 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 "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 as well as several coastal gems near Wilmington and Sunset Beach. There are also worthy tests in and around Greensboro/Winston-Salem and Charlotte. Still, 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 me.

What's New in Town
North Carolina is hardly immune to the slowdown experienced elsewhere. Nonetheless, the state has coped better than most. A bevy of new private club communities have nosed to the finish line, while progress on others has continued, among them the Cliffs at High Carolina, in Asheville, Tiger Woods' first course design in the U.S., slated for a 2011 debut.

The biggest news on the public/resort side is the significant restoration of Pinehurst No. 2 by architecture purists Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw. Fabled No. 2, perhaps the greatest creation by Donald Ross, is slated to host both the 2014 Men's and Women's U.S. Opens in back-to-back weeks. When it does, it will more closely resemble the course that hosted the 1936 PGA Championship and 1951 Ryder Cup than the one that hosted U.S. Opens in 1999 and 2005. The intent is to restore the Ross-infused strategies that made No. 2 so revered among the game's greats. Work has already begun to widen fairways, remove rough so as to restore sandy waste areas, and return native wiregrass and natural bunker edges. Call it Sand Hills meets the Sandhills.

"It's not our intent to radically change this golf course," said Coore. "In short, we'll bring the strategy back and reinstate its character." Adds Crenshaw, "This piece of ground was special to (Ross). To contribute our ideas here is a high, high honor."

Play on No. 2 will continue unabated until a winter shutdown from November 15 until March 2, 2011.

In the Triangle, the buzz isn't solely limited to ACC Hoops. In the summer of 2009, Arnold Palmer scored with the Lonnie Poole Golf Course in Raleigh. Palmer may have gone to college down the road at Wake Forest, but his newest classroom 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 heroic Pine Valley-ish closing par-4.

Out west beyond the Blue Ridge Mountains, at the edge of the Smokies, is another member of the class of 2009, Sequoyah National Golf Club 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 disasater. Mature oaks and firs will knock a few wayward efforts back in play, but course management skills — and an extra chip for your camera — are keys to enjoyment at Sequoyah National.

The Trophy Collection
Without question, the Tar Heel State's sole "must-play" is Pinehurst No. 2. One of the few public-access courses in North American golf that has hosted multiple major championships, this Donald Ross-designed masterpiece is considered the fiercest test of chipping anywhere, which places a premium on thoughtful ball placement. 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 (built-up, to a crest in the middle) 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. Is it worth the freight? Witness the passion from the Silver Scot, Tommy Armour, who won three majors from 1927-1931.

"The man who doesn't feel emotionally stirred when he golfs at Pinehurst beneath these clear blue skies and with the pine fragrance in his nostrils is one who should be ruled out of golf for life."

I guess Armour would answer in the affirmative.

It's an absolute toss-up as to which Pinehurst course ranks next-best: Tom Fazio's re-do of No. 4 and his original design of No. 8 run neck-and-neck. No. 8 is the more dramatic of the two, with some exciting risk/reward drives over wetlands and a man-made dune ridge. No. 4 is Fazio's modern take/homage to No. 2, so expect a workout — and a modicum of frustration — with the chipping clubs.

Three pleasant miles down the road from the Village of Pinehurst is Pine Needles Lodge and Golf Club in Southern Pines. Owned and operated by Peggy Kirk Bell, one of the game's most popular teachers and personalities, Pine Needles is a celebrated Donald Ross course in its own right, having 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 Rossian crowned greens have beguiled the game's best. Pine Needles 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.

Love it or hate it, you will never forget Tobacco Road. Located in Sanford, 20 or so miles northeast of Pinehurst, Tobacco Road is the one-of-a-kind, 1998 creation from the late Mike Strantz whose proponents claim is second-to-none in the region. The short yardage (6,554 yards from the tips) and skyscraper Slope from those same tees (150) should tell you what 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.

Most of the great courses in the Western Carolina mountains are strictly private, but there's one stunning spread that you can play as a resort guest, Linville Golf Club. Accessible to guests of the small, charming Eseeola Lodge, Linville-surprise-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 3rd, 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.

Best of the Rest
A classic 1921 Donald Ross design, Mid Pines is a well-preserved treat, a joy to play. 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. There are several odd, quirky holes here and there and some abrupt elevation changes, but all in all this is a soothing course for the ego.

The Carolina is a 12-year-old Arnold Palmer design in Whispering Pines, near Pinehurst that sports huge greens, wide, grass-dotted waste areas and numerous wildflowers. Preserved natural wetlands and several grand changes in elevation spice the play.

The Pinehurst Resort rolls out eight courses in all and the toughest of the lot is No. 7, a 1986 Rees Jones product that hammers golfers who play from the 7,216-yard tips with a 149 Slope. As opposed to "gently rolling," 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.

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.

Not to take a backseat, 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 7,349-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 it was here he taught fellow student Michael Jordan the finer points of the game.

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 golf course. 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.