Umstead Pines Golf and Swim Club emerged rebranded during 2007 from the former Willowhaven Country Club. The good news, for the general public, is that the same George Cobb golf course would now be available for the general public.
Cobb may be best known for his work at Augusta National, both designing the famous par three course as well as his renovations to Alister MacKenzie’s famous design. These changes were made just a few years after his work at now-Umstead Pines, and some similarities can be seen. Those with a sharp eye may spot the resemblance between No. 8 and Umstead and No. 3 at Augusta. Although Cobb did not design the Augusta hole, he was responsible for the cluster of small bunkers at the corner of the dogleg, and it’s a strategy mirrored from this short par four at Umstead.
The following par three, featuring a long carry over a lake, will also harken to the annual par three contest. No. 18 is a standalone original, however, as Cobb levels up the challenge on the bunker at the corner of the dogleg by placing a tree right in the middle of the sand hazard.
Some good architecture but there are 25 better golf courses in RDU alone. Doesn’t belong on the NC list.
“[The course] doesn’t take long to play….it’s an unbelievable architectural experience at a price that any golfer can afford. It is a golf course that deserves the most praise…the type that fulfills you the most.” This was Fried Egg Founder Andy Johnson’s description of the Aiken Golf Club, a South Carolina municipal gem, in an April 2019 podcast. Over the last five years, praise for Aiken has spread rapidly around the golf architecture community, all thanks to a few players like Andy who saw the inherent greatness in this previously unheralded design.
At first glance, Umstead Pines might seem like your average suburban country club. However, after years of playing this course and studying golf architecture, I feel compelled to take a risk and bring attention to this gem hidden in plain sight. Umstead Pines might not currently sit on anyone’s North Carolina bucket list, but for the very same reasons Andy Johnson listed above, it is arguably the most enjoyable, thought-provoking design to play on a day-to-day basis in the entire Triangle region.
Friends, family, and acquaintances often ask me what I feel “makes a golf course great?” It is my opinion that the most encompassing answer is simply “variety.” Truly stimulating courses offer a variety of lengths, widths, options for aerial and ground shots, green sizes and undulations, terrain, and shot-shaping required to tackle the round. Even when the site lacks amazing vistas or exceptional topography, a course can still captivate by incorporating such variety.
The holistic diversity present throughout your round at Umstead Pines is remarkable. At 6,400 yards from its longest tees, one could easily write the property off as short by modern standards. Yet, in my dozens of rounds logged at Umstead Pines, I have always hit every single club in my bag, often more than once, curving left and right, and played high and low. Umstead Pines is not the type of place that bores even a scratch player. Risk-reward tee-shots, quirky doglegs, canted fairways with altering width, and a superb set of crowned green complexes banked in all four possible directions force one to meaningfully consider the options available on every shot.
Many holes at Umstead Pines are architecturally intriguing, including:
• #1: Anything but a ‘gentle-handshake,’ the first at Umstead Pines sets the tone for the round by testing clubs that might never emerge from your bag on other courses. Twisting to the left, players can hit anything from a mid-iron to a fairway metal to reach the bend. Properly shaped, aggressive shots might pick up extra yardage where the fairway begins to gently slope downwards; beware, though, as this added distance comes at the price of a downhill lie to an uphill green. A chipping area left of the putting surface may seem like an ideal bailout, but looks can be deceiving, as sharp knobs then block this undulating green, eliminating a preferable bump-and-run recovery.
• #2: The second hole at Coore and Crenshaw’s Talking Stick (O’odham) Course in Arizona receives praise in the architectural world for its use of out-of-bounds left as a hazard. In many ways, the second at Umstead Pines is nearly identical. While this mid-length par four may seem straightforward with endless bailout area right, it is essential to challenge the out-of-bounds left for an optimal angle. With a greenside bunker to the right, and a complex that also slopes right-to-left, holding this L-shaped putting surface from the right rough can be nearly impossible. Even by the second hole, Umstead Pines proves its inherent architectural stimulation on otherwise bland land.
• #3: To date, I have played 3,500 unique holes, yet only five (!) feature greens that slope from front-to-back. The third at Umstead Pines is one of those. This rare, compelling feature truly tests the nerves, even with a short-iron in hand. What’s more, the areas long and right seem like the perfect bailout, but thanks to the architect’s thoughtful inclusion of short grass, the ideal high shot back onto the green is made unsettling. This tightly mown dip is another fabulous example of how collection areas can make any course captivating and unique from its monotonous, rough-covered neighbors.
• #4: A fascinating par five, the tee shot at the fourth offers a multitude of options. Conservative players can play this hole in three shots, laying up to a wide, flat portion of the fairway with a metal. However, more aggressive players can shape a shot hard left-to-right to use the natural slope for extra yardage. Out-of-bounds left will quickly grab the slightest double cross, though, and the added distance from a successful bold play may lead to a side-hill lie. The fourth hole’s green is very receptive to a breadth of shots played on the ground, including the exciting possibility of throwing your ball safely to the right and watching it roll down closely to the pin.
• #5: The golfer once again faces the choice of extra yards with an awkward stance at the fifth. In this case, the risky play could pay off, as a conservative layup could be well over 225 yards from a tiny, terrifying green. This par four-and-a-half hole is unrelenting, and missing the three tiered green complex on any side will lead to a big number.
• #6: After such a brute, the very short sixth is a wonderful respite. The green complex is pitched strongly from left-to-right, and the ideal angle is almost always from the right side of the fairway. A thoughtful bunker must be challenged to end up there, though, and an extra thick patch of lush rough must also be avoided. From the tee, the corridor seems so open that it is difficult to not pull driver. However, when the pin is in the front, the prudent, yet incredibly hard-to-mentally-overcome choice is to actually lay back.
• #7: Set in a vast meadow, the crowned seventh putting surface almost feels like an island. This unique complex is four-pronged with ridges protruding towards the center. There are virtually no strong bailout options, further adding to the ‘do-or-die’ illusion of playing an island green.
• #8: An interesting dogleg, the fairway at the eighth cants slightly against the turn. The green complex is one-of-a-kind, with a wide area in the front and narrowing toward the back left. There is a steep drop off to a barren area of sandscape right, making up-and-down nearly impossible. However, while the chipping area left seems inviting, it also forces the golfer to get up-and-down to a green sloping away, often from a tight lie.
• #9: A truly phenomenal three shot hole, the diagonal tee shot at the ninth is beguiling. Players can easily aim right to a wide portion of the fairway, but almost eliminate the possibility of reaching the green in two. The more daring player may try to cut some corner, but to do so successfully must challenge one of the most fascinating hazards I have ever encountered – a donut bunker with a gorgeous tree in the middle. The approach, straight uphill, is also made more interesting by a visually deceptive bunker which appears greenside. In fact, there is room to run the ball up to this attractive green which slopes heavily from left-to-right. Once again, the shortgrass left may seem like the ideal miss, but chipping back onto this green will then require deft touch.
• #10: The three shot tenth is another deceptive par five. While not long, absolute precision is required to reach the green in two. On the tee shot, players must position themselves on the right half the fairway to successfully open a chute to the green. Most players will use a left-to-right shot to attack the hole, but a wise, less-aggressive golfer will know that laying up to the wide swath of fairway left actually leaves the best angle to this green with two tiers.
• #11: The left-to-right cant of the eleventh hole corridor at Umstead Pines is terrifying, especially with Sevenmile Creek bumbling all down the right side. Precise shot-making is required to hold your tee shot in the fairway.
• #12: This medium length par three features a scarily crowned green complex. While one’s eye immediately goes right, thanks to the creek and bunker left, up-and-downs from any side of the putting surface are challenging due to subtle slopes and uneven lies.
• #13: The thirteenth hole at Umstead Pines, as seen from a satellite view, looks about as straight and dull as one could imagine. However, when standing on the tee box, it will become immediately apparent why this is the highest rated handicap hole on the course. One might receive the misleading impression of a wide fairway, when in fact, any shot on the right half will be blocked out from the green. What’s more, because the hole plays straight uphill, most drives are immediately stunted. With a mid or long-iron in hand, players must then hit a perfectly precise shot to a green complex which is pitched both severely back-to-front, and also has separate left-and-right tiers. Once again, Umstead Pines showcases its architectural trickery by maximizing its terrain.
• #14: A brutal par four, the fairway at the fourteenth is tilted sharply right-to-left while the hole turns in the opposite direction. This combination, a hallmark of some of the most difficult holes in the world, stunts drives which must precisely wrap around the corner. The crowned green is shallow and raised, making a tough approach even more problematic.
• #15: Umstead Pines fifteenth hole is placed perfectly in the round, especially for match play. Turning hard to the right, players have the option of laying up safely to the left, or using the natural contour of the ground to run the ball far to the right. That aggressive shot must also avoid a nasty centerline bunker. In my years playing Umstead Pines, I have hit almost every club from 3 iron to gap wedge into this uphill green complex. If that is not the mark of a great risk-reward design, I am not sure what is!
• #16: While each of the previous par fives offer the (albeit difficult) possibility of bringing it home in two, the sixteenth at Umstead Pines is a refreshing, true three shot beast. Players can gain a distance advantage on their drive by challenging a perfectly placed fairway bunker on the right and catching a gentle slope. A deceptive, centerline bunker guards the ideal lay-up zone. A ridge divides this putting surface into a front tier and back tier, both which slope in the opposite direction. Ensuring that you have your favorite wedge in hand for the third shot is critical to hold this green.
• #17: Many of Umstead Pines dogleg holes offer daring opportunities to cut off significant yardage, and the frequently photographed seventeenth is among the finest. Off the tee, a conservative player can simply hit a driver or metal out to the right. The more aggressive player, however, can challenge a massive dip in the topography, peppered with five pot bunkers, to leave a short pitch into this multi-pocketed green complex, giving a tremendous advantage. In my opinion, it is the shortgrass around these bunkers – a feature too rarely seen in the United States – which gives the hole its teeth. These traps can suck up drives and make a potentially easy birdie or par into a big number, quickly.
• #18: Ending on a par three is admittedly not a personal favorite, especially when said par three requires a long-iron, over a lake, frequently into the wind. However, fitting with the spirit of the property, this one-shotter more than likely forces you to hit a shot you have not already been asked to play.
There is so much more than meets the eye at Umstead Pines. Even though it offers other country club amenities, I consider it the ultimate golf purist’s layout. I cannot fathom members ever growing tired of this timeless design, and no one type of golfer is favored on the property. This is perhaps best evidenced by the fact that Umstead Pines’ interclub team is frequently a top contender in the state finals. The players it produces have a consummate set of golf skills that can be translated to tackle any other course.
If ever visiting the Triangle, consider incorporating Umstead Pines into your trip, especially in the spring or fall when its bentgrass greens run fast. Never once in my dozens of outings has my round exceeded three and a half hours (walking or riding), and rarely does it cost more than $40 to play. To me, Umstead Pines is doing everything right when it comes to bringing our sport back to its roots. The breadth of skills tested and architectural variety throughout the property are compelling, easily placing Umstead Pines among my top Carolinas “gems.”