Pinehurst's magnificent clubhouse
You know that you're in a golf-loving town when the principal watering hole is called Mulligans. And it was here, after a memorable round on Pinehurst's magical No. 8 course that one of my playing partners uttered the immortal phrase, of which the eponymous Irishman would have been proud.
Looking at me with a seriousness that belied the half-dozen Michelob beers he'd just consumed, he proclaimed: “The number one course, of course, is the No. 2 course.”
Although Pinehurst No. 2 is the best known of the eight at this magnificent resort, having staged the US Open in 1999 and 2005, there are seven other glorious challenges. Though seemingly lacking the imagination to have given them names rather numbers, Pinehurst has proved strangely unique in golf legend.
And if eight at Pinehurst ain't enough, there are dozens of others in what is known as the Sandhills area of the Piedmont. Many, like Mid Pines and Pine Needles (venue of last year's US Women's Open), are equally world class.
Indeed, anything with 'Pines' in the title is worth a visit and Whispering Pines, with two fabulous courses, belongs right on the top shelf.
Pinehurst claims to be the spiritual home of golf in the USA and sees itself as their equivalent of St Andrews. Pop into the sumptuous Carolinas Hotel and there's even a clock hanging behind the reception desk telling you the time in St Andrews!
Frankly I found that a tad tacky but the rest of the place from the bellhops in plus fours to the piano accompaniment at breakfast, reeks of class. But cheap it isn't.
With gently rolling hills, fast-draining sandy soil and towering pine trees, this is perfect golfing country. No wonder Donald Ross, arguably the greatest course architect of all time, fell in love with the area after leaving his native Scotland. Other great names in course creation - Robert Trent Jones, Tom Fazio, Rees Jones, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus - have all contributed to the rich repertoire of outstanding courses in the area.
Being somewhat illogical, I've started in the middle of North Carolina. But either side of the Piedmont are two contrasting areas, both of which boast great golf. Further inland you'll find massive mountains, craggy bluffs, deep gorges, tumbling streams, breathtaking views and probably as many elevated tees as there are in Scotland. One of the loftiest courses in the Blue Ridge Mountains is Highlands Cove which, at its highest, is only a well-struck lob wedge short of 5,000 feet.
Having established his reputation in the Sandhills, Ross recognised the enormous potential that existed in the mountains and, although no longer a young man, was persuaded to go west and build more majestic courses. Two near Asheville bear the unmistakable imprint of the master - Buncombe County municipal and Grove Park Inn Resort. Travel the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway and stunning courses present themselves in quick succession.
However, if you've no head for heights or simply love the sea, there's a great stretch of attractive coastline from the splintered chain of islands known as the Outer Banks in the north, where you'll find authentic links courses, through the Cape Fear area and the historic town of Wilmington, right down to the border with South Carolina where there are marshes, rivers and beautiful beaches.
Tom Fazio once observed: “You can get a taste of the entire country in this one state.”
With over 600 courses, North Carolina pretty well has everything you could possibly want in the way of golf but, rather than attempting to see it all at once, I suggest you choose between the coast, the Piedmont and the mountains.
Me? I'd start with the Sandhills area of the Piedmont and soak up the magic of Pinehurst.
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Clive's Five Top Courses
Pinehurst (Nos. 1 to 8) All eight at Pinehurst are brilliant but, since you’ve come so far, you might as well play the course that staged recent US Opens won by Payne Stewart and Michazel Campbell , which is No 2. It costs about $150 more than the others but what the hell!
Talamore Golf Resort Apart from its beauty and serenity, it’s worth a visit to Talamore just to have your clubs carried by a llama. But it’s more than just a gimmick. This Arnold Palmer design set in 545 acres is simply glorious. What’s more, two nights’ accommodation and three rounds will only set you back $355, plus a tip for the llama.
Sea Scape Golf Links Located one block from the ocean in beautiful Kitty Hawk, Sea Scape Golf Links is genuinely reminiscent of some of the great Scottish coastal courses with authentic dunes and raw beauty. Depending on the time of year, it can cost as little as $50 a round.
Grassy Creek Set in the famous Blue Ridge mountains, Grassy Creek Country Club is one of the most picturesque golf courses in North Carolina. Although it’s way up high, the green fees are way down low. The $36 green fee includes the buggy!
Porters Neck Plantation and Country Club
Designed by Tom Fazio, it is easy to see why Porters Neck Plantation has been voted North Carolina’s top coastal course and selected as a venue for the US qualifying school. Its generous fairways encourage you to open the shoulders, but there are plenty of hazards and waste bunkers to catch the wayward shot.
Clive’s Five Top Holes
17th at Black Mountain It’s as much a test of stamina and endurance as it is golf. There aren’t many holes where a seven is very respectable but this is one of them. It’s 747 yards off the back tee (perhaps they should have called it ‘A Boeing Jumbo’) and so it’s driver, 3-wood, 3-wood, 3-wood, mid-iron and then hope you don’t need more than two putts.
5th at Seatrail Looks alarmingly like the 17th at Sawgrass. No modern course, it seems, is complete without a bowel-loosening, nowhere-to-bale-out par-3 over water to an island green. But they are fun, keep frogmen busy, cut down on fairway maintenance and boost ball sales. This is one of the best.
18th at Pinehurst No. 2 Who could ever forget that 'one moment in time' when the irrepressible Payne Stewart holed that putt to edge out Phil Mickelson and take the US Open title in 1999? Behind the upturned saucer of the green stands a brass statue of Stewart with arm raised and fist clenched in triumph.
10th at Pine Needles A par-5 dogleg left with a spectacular bunker hugging the inside of the bend. The course planner says ‘Think birdie” but you'll be thrilled with a par. It’s one of the loveliest holes on this beautiful Donald Ross designed course.
First at Mid Pines A common topic among golfers is their favourite finishing hole. But what about great opening holes? This one at Mid Pines simply says, ‘Welcome. Enjoy your round.’ Only 380 yards, but what an appealing sight. From the elevated tee, the golfer sees a broad fairway handsomely framed by mature pines that are well back from play. The green, one of the deepest on the course, is on the far hillock with four bunkers cut into the hillside.
Clive’s Five things to do after golf
Clive Agran is one of the UK's most prodigious golf travel writers spending more than 100 days a year visiting new resorts and destinations for leading magazines and websites. He lives in East Sussex.
- Visit the Biltmore Estate – America’s largest private home, built by the Vanderbuilt family in 1890.
- Drive the Blue Ridge Parkway – the most impressive stretch is from Asheville to Boone. It’s stunning in the US autumn (Fall).
- Explore the quirky, bohemian town of Asheville - named as "New Freak Capital of the US" by Rolling Stone, no less.
- Visit America’s best beach in Ocracoke – as good as any in Florida, California or Hawaii.
- Learn about the first colonies and pirate history - including the infamous Blackbeard at the North Carolina Maritime Museum.
* Images courtesy of North Carolina Travel
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