North Carolina's Sandhills

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.

Seventeen miles southeast of Aberdeen, the Bayonet at Puppy Creek is as unusual as its name. (Owner Joe Poole attended The Citadel military academy, and Puppy Creek runs through the course.) What makes the layout unique? Instead of the evergreen forests ubiquitous in this region, clusters of oaks, red maples and other deciduous trees frame the holes. It’s a nice change of pace from punching out of the pines. The best hole on the Bayonet is the 422-yard fourth, where the second shot, from a downhill lie, must carry a lake to a peninsula green. Wise golfers lay up, wedge on in three and try to one-putt for par. As a rule, the fairways are wide and the rough fairly tame, but if your game needs help, the Bayonet’s 25-acre practice facility with short-game area is a good place to work out the kinks.

Heading back toward Pinehurst, about five miles from the resort, the rolling hillsides and sweeping vistas of Little River Farm are more reminiscent of the Kentucky countryside than the Sandhills. This is fitting, since the property used to be a horse farm and harness-racing track. After the course debuted in 1996, golfers complained about the difficulty of Maples’s 6,956-yard design, especially the 539-yard third hole, where a creek fronting the uphill green gathered approaches coming up short. Last year, the owners built a more forgiving putting surface on a lower spot, making the hole, and the course, a more pleasant experience.

Talamore Golf Club, on Midland Road in Southern Pines, opened in 1991 and attracted golfers with a novel idea: four llama caddies, led by a handler. The furry beasts proved more popular than Fluff Cowan in his heyday. Golfers and visitors snapped so many pictures that it slowed play, so the club retired the llamas to a pen near the 14th green.

Don’t be misled: This exquisitely maintained Rees Jones beauty didn’t need the four-legged gimmicks. Cascading bunkers and severely undulating fairways are Talamore’s trademarks. Down some Dramamine before reaching the 370-yard 10th, where a pod of five bunkers guards the right side of a roiling fairway. As on most holes at Talamore, distance with your driver is second to shot placement.

Hyland Hills Golf Club in Southern Pines owes its popularity to a lack of artificial features. What you see–a pretty, open and inviting parkland course with elevated tees and greens–is exactly what you get. The course looks in places like an Augusta National wannabe, with meticulously manicured fairways and greens framed by azaleas and dogwoods. But numbers don’t lie: The 128 slope and 69 course rating tacked to its 6,373 yards give away its forgiving nature. The real trouble lurks not on lightning fast, multitiered greens (here they’re gentle giants), but in the course’s 57 strategically placed bunkers. Keep it straight to avoid playing Houdini all day.

Nothing goes better with golf than a hearty dinner, so here are a few suggestions. Golfers love The Barn and The Lob Steer in Southern Pines. (Yes, the names say it all.) The 15-ounce rib eye at The Barn is a local favorite, and surf and turf at The Lob Steer is another sure bet. For a little more atmosphere, the Pine Crest Inn and Magnolia Inn, both in Pinehurst Village, offer fine Southern hospitality and cuisine–once you locate them. Frederick Law Olmsted designed the tiny village in 1895 in a wagon-wheel pattern, so you can find your way as easily as you lost it.

Built in 1913, the Pine Crest Inn embodies the soul of Pinehurst, with a big porch and a quiet, softly lit dining room. A 12-ounce grilled pork chop is served with spicy fruit relish and sweet-and-russet-potato pie, and the 14-ounce rib eye comes smothered in Jack Daniel’s sauce.

The Magnolia Inn has a fun little pub and offers a less traditional, trendier menu. Pair the duck spring roll appetizer with one of the oft-changing seafood specials. Portuguese-born Frank Fernandes owns Rosyln’s, at Midland Country Club, where you can get the best paella in North Carolina.

If you’re looking for a robust start before teeing off, try Mac’s Breakfast Anytime. With restaurants in Aberdeen, Pinehurst and Southern Pines, Mac’s has cornered the early-morning market. They won’t look at you funny if you order an egg-white omelet, but don’t count out the full breakfast, biscuits and all. It’ll get you ready to take on any course in town.

As for lodging, Little River in Carthage has modern condos priced well below the big resorts. Talamore villas offer quiet, wooded ambiance just off Midland Road. Condotels has units along Pinehurst Nos. 3, 5 and 6, and Hyland Hills has cheerful rooms in a parklike setting just off its course. For something cozier, try the Magnolia Inn, an 1896 Victorian bed-and-breakfast with claw-foot bathtubs in some rooms. The $290 golf package for two nights includes breakfast, dinner and two rounds on a choice of 25 courses.

Night falls peacefully on the Sandhills, although Brook’s, a comfy main-street hangout, has a pulse and isn’t too loud for conversation. The Red Room club features ’80s music on Fridays. The best place to catch the big game on TV is at the Broad Street Bar, which has 30 screens and typical pub grub.

Looking for advice on when to visit? If you haven’t played Pinehurst No. 2, there’s no better time than just before or after a U.S. Open. (Note: You have to book a room at the resort to get on.) And while you’re there, check out the area’s affordable tracks. They’re plenty good, and the value-for-dollar compares with some of the best deals in the country. As for the Southern hospitality, the price is right for that, too.

Carolina on the Cheap
Here’s how Pinehurst area deals compared on our Bang for the Buck value-rating system.

Courses and Contacts Peek Weekend Slope Wow! Factor (Scale 1-10) Condition (Scale 1-5) Pace (Scale 1-5) Service (Scale 1-5) BBQ
Bayonet at Puppy Creek
$50 134 7.0 4.5 4.5 4.6 87.0
Highland Hills Golf Club
$49 128 7.5 4.0 4.0 4.1 80.5
Little River Farm
$65 134 6.9 4.4 4.4 4.2 83.8
The Pit Golf Links
$54 133 7.9 3.7 4.1 3.7 80.5
Talamore Golf Club
$49 142 8.2 4.3 4.3 4.1 87.4
Tobacco Road Golf Club

$58 150 8.3 4.5 3.8 4.3 89.4