The Sandhills – high-class designs outside Pinehurst
I have been very fortunate to play a great deal of golf in Great Britain and Ireland. In fact by last count I have played 38 of the top 50 courses in GB&I including 18 of the top 20. However, access to the top courses in the USA is an entirely different matter. Most of the top courses are member only and extremely exclusive. The top public access courses are usually associated with expensive resorts and can be out of price range for many golfers. However, the Pinehurst area in the Sandhills of North Carolina offers golfers an opportunity to play a number of high-class golf courses at a very reasonable price.
Pinehurst is about 350 miles from my home in Knoxville, Tennessee, so it made sense to travel to this fascinating area and try out some of the great courses here. I had visited the wonderful Pinehurst Resort two years ago and played the justifiably famous #2 course, but this time my wife joined me for a tour of several great golf courses outside the resort. We arranged to play Mid Pines, Pine Needles, Southern Pines, Dormie Club and Tobacco Road over the course of five days.
First up was Southern Pines, a 1906 Donald Ross design that’s set in beautiful rolling terrain. Ross originally designed nine holes then added the second nine later and like all of the other courses we played on this trip the nines do not return to the clubhouse, which is a fun variation of the ubiquitous nine-hole loops seen in the vast majority of courses in the USA. The greens are pure Donald Ross – subtle yet challenging contours with slopes and run offs in every conceivable direction are the order of the day. The course is very pretty and tree-lined with gentile doglegs on almost every hole.
The straightforward downhill opening par four is followed by the lovely short par five 2nd. The tee shot rolls downhill and a well-struck shot offers the opportunity to go for the green in two. However the second shot is uphill off a downhill lie to a green with a significant false front. I really enjoyed the stretch of 10 through 13, a collection of four unique par fours. 10 and 11 are short holes demanding precision but the par four 12th is slightly uphill and at 419 yards is quite a challenge. The 13th returns downhill at 400 yards and the approach is played to a sloping green with a dangerous drop off behind the putting surface. All these are really solid par fours. My wife is a relative beginner, playing to a 36 handicap, but she enjoyed the course. As is the case with most Ross designs the front of the greens were open and welcomed a run up shot versus the forced carries of many modern designs.
Unfortunately, as great as the design is, Southern Pines is currently in a significant state of disrepair. The course is poorly maintained and the staff less than welcoming. I played from the back tees and many were unmowed and covered with weeds. In addition the pace of play was atrocious. It took our two ball over five hours to cover the entire 18, and we noticed several beer sodden foursomes in front of us holding up the entire course. Rumors abound that several groups are interested in purchasing the course, and if someone could come in and put some tender care into it (and an infusion of cash, obviously) then I believe Southern Pines could be a US Top 100 contender.
Pine Needles and Mid Pines are two more classic Ross designs that lie across the road from one another near the town of Southern Pines. They were originally built to accommodate the overflow of visitors which the original courses at Pinehurst were unable to handle. The land is significantly hillier than the relatively flat land that Pinehurst #2 sits on, so the courses have a distinct flavor of their own. If anything these courses reminded me of some of the great heathland courses around London, perhaps most closely resembling the three “W’s” of Woking, West Hill and Worplesdon. Both these courses flow through beautiful pine forests that influence play but also allow recovery shots.
Both courses have undergone renovations in the past few years. Mid Pines has been worked over by Kyle Franz who restored many of the putting surfaces. It has magnificent greens with an incredible variety of run offs, mounds and slopes – each green complex is unique and challenging. In addition, the course has restored the scruffy sand-like waste areas instead of thick Bermuda rough, much like the Coore-Crenshaw restoration of Pinehurst #2. The overall result is a wonderful course. The flow and curves of the holes demand very precise ball striking.
The short par four 4th is a good example of the challenges that Mid Pines presents. The hole is only 330 yards, with lovely bunkering on the left. However, a huge single pine tree will block a shot played too carefully to the right. The green is small and angled away from the player with a steep slope off the right. The precision required here is entirely appropriate for a hole of this length.
In addition, the par threes are in my opinion all excellent. The 2nd plays from one elevation to another, while the downhill 8th, bunkered 11th and long (230-yard) 13th are all solid challenges. Mid Pines is approximately 6,700 yards from the back tees and is a genuine test for any level of golfer.
Pine Needles has hosted several U.S. Women’s Opens and is on schedule to host the championship again in 2022 for the fourth time. Although Mid Pines and Pine Needles are similar in design characteristics they differ sufficiently to be enjoyed on their own account. Pine Needles has undergone several renovations and Kyle Franz is continuing work on Pine Needles as he did at Mid Pines. The routing is unique as the course runs in a long almost continuous loop so that each hole seems to be in isolation from the other. There is essentially no rough on this course, only fairway and pine needles. The fairways are wider than Mid Pines but the course still demands strategy and precision to negotiate the best approach into the greens. The green complexes here are more pronounced than at Mid Pines and are closer to the style of greens at Pinehurst #2 than any other Ross course I have played.
The starter warned me to approach the greens carefully, especially with longer clubs. I got the opportunity to appreciate his advice early in my round. On the beautiful long 438-yard par four 2nd I rifled my 5 iron second shot directly at the pin. My shot landed a few feet away from the hole only to roll off the back of the green onto a bank from where I was happy to make bogey. There are a number of supremely challenging holes. The par four 4th plays uphill and is guarded by a large bunker to the left with room available to the right off the tee. However, a large bunker to the left and two to the right protect the green so that the approach has to be played with the utmost precision. I also loved the par five 10th where the drive is challenged by a magnificent bunker in the corner of the dogleg. 17 is a great dog leg left par four where the tee shot is again dominated by a significant bunker in the corner of the dogleg.
Overall I preferred Pine Needles ever so slightly over Mid Pines. I thought the setting was more attractive, I found the tight driving lines a little much at Mid Pines. My wife enjoyed both courses as well, but probably liked Pine Needles a little better, especially since she came within 6 inches of a hole-in-one at the downhill par three 13th. Both courses had a nice set of forward tees at just less than 5,000 yards, which suited her game well. The management at both courses is outstanding and the conditioning second to none. The Pinehurst area could be considered Donald Ross heaven and these two courses are among his finest designs.
While the three Ross courses highlight the design features of the early 20th century, the other two courses we played, Dormie Club and Tobacco Road, showcase modern golf course architecture.
Dormie Club was originally an expensive private club, but fell upon hard times during the economic difficulties earlier this century and is now open for public play. The course is a Coore and Crenshaw design and many of their architectural features are readily apparent. There appears to have been minimal shaping of the land, instead using the significant contours of this hilly lakeside property to bring character to the holes. The course flows up and down, left and right, and any combination of those as well. Overall there is a calm minimalist feel to the course. The holes are very pleasing to the eye as they flow through the tree-lined property. You never feel cramped at Dormie Club but the holes don’t lack strategic interest.
I found the back nine much more absorbing than the front. There are several great holes on the inward half including the brutal 465-yard par four 13th hole, with a lone tree to the right of the fairway which really tightens up this already tough hole. The 14th is a short par four barely 300 yards long, but a huge bunker on the right dominates the well-contoured green. Fifteen is a beautiful par four with an oblique wetland hazard running down the right side of the fairway, offering the player endless options off the tee. The uphill par five 17th is probably my favorite hole on the course. The approach must contend with a huge cross bunker/waste area that demands a decision from the player to either lay up or go for it.
Tobacco Road is probably the most well known design of the late Mike Strantz. I have often played Caledonia and True Blue (his two courses in the Pawleys Island area near Myrtle Beach) and they have always been favorites of mine. I was looking forward to playing this highly regarded layout and it was a fascinating experience to say the least.
Tobacco Road is a somewhat bizarre combination of Pine Valley, Prestwick and Lahinch with a dose of modern Tom Fazio design thrown in for flavoring. This course is a 3D puzzle that is difficult to decipher on the first visit or with a course guide. In general I think the course is very fair, although it is very intimidating visually. There is usually much more room than initial appearances would suggest. The greens range from the sublime to the ridiculous (there must be a 20-foot elevation change from the lower to the upper tier of number seven). In general the course is fun to play but one that definitely demands a second go to really appreciate what is going on.
My favorite holes included the short par four 5th. A massive waste area runs from the tee almost 250 yards up the left side of the fairway. There is a generous amount of room right and the reasonable play is to go right and hit a wedge into the green. Long hitters, however, may be ever so tempted to aim for the small sliver of landing area just past the waste area in an attempt to drive the green. I thought this was a cleverly designed hole. Nine is a fantastic uphill par four where the approach is guarded by a massive deep bunker to the right of the green, but in reality there is quite a bit of room to the left to approach the hole. Strantz went for glory on this course, and I thought he missed on a few holes. Thirteen is an uphill, dogleg par five with a dell green that is ridiculously narrow and guarded not only by the hills but by high grass. I thought this hole was somewhat contrived.
I would certainly play both of these courses again. Rumor has it that Bill Coore is visiting Dormie Club for some updates, and I think some subtle bunkering and improvement of several of the green complexes, especially on the front nine, would really improve the course. Tobacco Road is certainly a wild ride. Surprisingly my wife much preferred Tobacco Road to Dormie Club. Tobacco Road has a forward set of tees around 4,300 yards that allowed her the challenge of the holes without pressing her to make forced carries either off the tee or approaching the green. At Dormie Club the forward tees were often only 10 or 15 yards in front of the men’s tees, and several holes were just too long for most female golfers. The par five 10th for example was 571 yards from the most forward tee! This was just a little much for her. In addition several of the tee shots had forced carries over wetlands that were just too difficult for her to negotiate. A few new tee boxes accommodating women and younger players would be a welcome addition to this fine course.
I really think there are few places in the USA that offer as much quality golf at an affordable price than the Pinehurst area. Between these five courses, the famous Pinehurst #2, and several of the other fine courses at the Pinehurst Resort a golfer can sample the best of classic golf design as well as the new. I plan to return in the future and would recommend this area to anyone interested in playing quality, memorable golf courses at a very reasonable cost.