The Finley golf course at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, is a Tom Fazio remodel which is not only a monster from the Tar Heel tees but also one of the country’s better campus layouts. Opened in its current configuration in 1999, UNC Finley was the architect’s 11th design project in his home state of North Carolina.
Home to the North Carolina Tar Heels men’s and women’s collegiate golf teams, the course was originally constructed thanks to the financial donations of Raleigh businessman Albert Earle Finley in 1949, with George Cobb designing the layout.
Previously, there had been a 9-hole layout built by the US Army Air Corps Pre-Flight Training School which was located at UNC Chapel Hill. Further modifications were made to the Cobb course during the 1980s before a decision was made to have Tom Fazio refashion the layout.
“It was not a renovation or a restoration,” says Tom Fazio. “It was one of those cases where you essentially blow-up what was there and build a completely new golf courses on top of it.”
Some of the new holes do share the old playing corridors, but there’s hardly anything on the new Finley that you’d recognize from before. Additional land was acquired and forty-five acres of trees were cleared, along with moving around 345,000 cubic yards of dirt to create contours that didn’t previously exist.
The resulting course is eight hundred yards longer and the new practice area about four times as big as the old one. Fairway bunkers are large and deep, and some of the greenside bunkers have grass noses protruding into them, which could result in an awkward stance. Greens are open in front, allowing players the option of a run up shot.
According to head professional Mike Wilkinson, highlight holes include the short par four second, described as “a short hole, only 343 from the back tees, but the green is elevated and it’s hard to see the bottom of the flag and hard to get it close.”
“Once you start the back nine, the test intensifies,” according to Mike.
“The 10th is a long dogleg right par four that turns sharply at the bend of the fairway. Driver is a difficult play off the tee, as it is easy to hit through the fairway but hitting anything less than driver will leave you with a second shot of over 200 yards to an elevated green.
On some early drawings, Fazio had the 17th with two greens. As the construction process continued, it was decided to have the greens together – but with a 5-foot drop between them.
If the flag is on the upper left side of the green, you play over and left of the deep fairway bunkers in the middle of the landing areas.
If the flag is located on the lower right side of the green, you play down the right side, which is narrower and guarded by the dense forest on the right and the deep fairway bunkers on the left.”
Played the old Finley several times. The new routing and layout by Fazio is amazing! This IS the best college golf course in NC open to the public!
In many of my other Top100 reviews, I have made it clear that I generally prefer courses from the classic era over the “dark ages.” Additionally, I have described some North Carolina Tom Fazio designs as “middling.” To top this all off, it feels necessary to mention that I spent a decade of my academic and professional life as a Duke University Blue Devil.
For those reasons, you may have guessed where this review is heading…and you would be wrong! Even before I joined the ranks of the Tar Heels for graduate school, I was a BIG fan of the Tom Fazio designed UNC Finley Golf Club. In fact, I consider the course to be among the most enjoyable in the Triangle region of North Carolina, far more playable on a day-to-day basis than many of its university course peers. It only seems fitting to publish this review, then, during rivalry week!
The land at Finley does not present the most compelling topography, especially on holes 1-11. Despite this, I believe Tom Fazio captures the player’s interest with variety in the diverse routing, generally large greens, and a plethora of shot options available. In my opinion, the inherent greatness to Finley is that it favors no one type of player. An examination of standout holes illustrates this quality:
• #1: The first hole at Finley introduces course features that the player will encounter frequently throughout their round. With a plateaued fairway, players have the option of hitting a metal straight while contending with bunkers, or playing more aggressively with a driver which requires shot shaping to avoid wetlands. In essence, both routes face risks and rewards. The green is gargantuan, and while generally easy to hit in two, any player on the wrong portion will likely walk away with a three putt.
• #2: The second at Finley is an excellent short par four – one of the best holes on the property. The fairway ends about 75-100 yards from the very steep volcano green complex that is shallow and split into left and right tiers. While a big hitter may think going for the green in one is smart, any slightly errant shot will face severe rough and a difficult up-and-down. With that said, even the player who lays up to find a perfect yardage must play to the proper side of the fairway for a great angle. One again, no player has an outright advantage.
• #4: The theme continues on at the long par four 4th hole. The conservative player who hits a metal may have a wider landing zone, but also will hold a mid-iron into one of the most difficult greens on the course where they cannot go long, left, or right without facing an almost guaranteed bogey. Play more aggressively off the tee, and you contend with fescue left, or a downhill lie in the fairway. For an amateur like me, the question really is “pick your poison.”
• #6: The star of the par five 6th is yet another top notch volcano green. While going for this green in two is generally an option with any decent drive, precision is demanded. The rough left of the hole is deep and thick, there is no room long, and getting a shot up-and-down from the tight collection area right requires an absolutely perfect chip. This diversity makes no two rounds alike.
• #7: The natural contour of the short par four 7th makes for a fascinating tee shot. From the tee, it is clear that the right-to-left slope of the land can be utilized to add distance and even bring long hitters close to reaching the green in one. However, that same slope can kick balls too far left leaving a totally blind shot over a deep pot bunker into this very shallow, complex green. For a hole under 350 yards, the options are limitless, and giving yourself a good angle with potential use for ground game is essential. I wish Finley would just convert this hole into a driveable par four permanently.
• #8: How many giant green, 130 yard par threes do you see these days? Not enough, in my opinion. Kudos to UNC for keeping the increasingly rare short hole in the mix today!
• #9: Among the most demanding holes on the course, the 9th at UNC Finley hides secrets that are not always apparent for newcomers, and even veterans. First, the fairway extends very far to the left for the conservative player, effectively creating a 50+ yard landing area that seems much smaller visually. What is also hidden, though, is the banked left hand portion of the fairway past the turn for the aggressive player which can be used as a backstop for a straight shot, or a speed slot for a right-to-left shot. As a lefty with a draw, I have used this to my advantage in many matches. Two players who hit solid drives may have as much as 100 yards difference into this severely sloping green guarded by a pond if they use or do not use the ground properly.
• #14: The 14th is an unheralded, yet charming par three. With a left and right tier, both sides face challenges – the left with a brook, and the right with a sloped chipping area.
• #15: Perhaps the most photographed hole on the course, the 15th at Finley receives so much attention for the water lined tee shot. However, I believe the green complex is the real star of the show here. While it is so easy to be visually intimidated by the water and large bunker left, they are almost entirely aesthetic. This large green with a wide short grass entrance is incredibly welcoming to shots played on the ground making it accessible to virtually any player. This may not be apparent for first-time players, again showcasing the depth of Finley’s variety, and Fazio’s ability to generate interest on flat ground.
• #16: Similar to the 15th, many may think the star of the 16th is the long carry tee shot over a swamp. However, I believe it is the strong use of the hilly approach and shallow green that really excites. A decent drive from the proper tees leaves only a wedge into this blind putting surface, yet it is so oblong and the player is so far below, hitting it can be a beguiling prospect.
• #17: If you think you have seen a severe slope between two tiers of a green before, I can assure you, there are not many wilder than the 17th at UNC Finley. If a Tobacco Road like contour on a putting surface was not exciting enough, the tiers actually slope away from the player, an unfathomable rarity in most modern architecture. Playing angle is of the utmost importance on this fabulous par five, as well as a bold mindset by any golfer.
If it is not clear from the above review, I very strongly admire the UNC Finley Golf Course. I think one reason Finley is [unfairly] not often rated more highly in publications is due to its Bentgrass greens, which run slow in summer. As a New Englander by birth, I find the Bentgrass greens at UNC to be incredibly refreshing. Eight months out of the year, they play truer than local Bermuda, and they always hold well hit shots. Furthermore, I do not think there are many courses with better fairways or rough in the Triangle than UNC Finley.
My only reservations at Finley are, in my opinion, a few holes/shots peppered throughout the course that are a tad wacky. These include:
• The tee shot on the 3rd which I have yet to ever conquer. Dogleg holes with more leg than dog (i.e. longer after the turn than before) have always been a personal pet peeve.
• The landing area on the 6th tee shot, which may be 10 yards wide with absolutely no options, reducing strategy.
• And the 10th, which is just impossible for any average golfer tee-to-green. I have been told it is a great “Par 4.5,” but honestly, it feels more like a miserable “Par 6.”
Despite this, I want to make it clear that overall, Finley’s strengths outweigh its weaknesses. Players of any ability can go out to UNC’s Finley Golf Course to be both challenged and have opportunities to score, regardless of whether or not they are having a great day or a less than stellar showing. The same is true for top tier collegiate and professional golfers! No one, whether they play aerially or on the ground, conservatively or aggressively, draws or fades, is favored throughout the round at Finley.
Day-in and day-out, UNC Finley provides a wonderfully diverse product for its patrons and students: golf architecture that makes the most of the topography, ranging options, and a superintendent who does an incredible job at providing some of the best conditions in the area. I may be a Blue Devil at heart, but boy do I love to play the Tar Heel’s golf course!