Road Trip: Cruising In Carolina

The Pinehurst Resort Clubhouse

– North Carolina Golf At Its Finest-

The Pinehurst Resort Clubhouse
The Pinehurst Resort Clubhouse

For the start I knew this could be a significant golf road trip for myself and Flagstick Publisher Jeff Bauder.  For one thing we were returning to one of the most noteworthy golf resorts in the world, Pinehurst.

The last time we visited this cathedral of North Carolina golf, it was but five days after the attacks of September 11, 2001.  That made it pretty tough to feel joyous as we travelled the fairways on courses #1 through #8.  It was an uncertain time and the subdued feeling carried through even at a place where people have come to enjoy themselves since 1895.  The “Home of American Golf” was having a hard time celebrating that fact in the late summer of 2001.

As much as we were exhilarated to spend time at Pinehurst in 2001, with eyes drawn to the news headlines rather than the task at hand, it made for a trying trip.

We knew we would eventually return to this part of North Carolina for a golf trip; it was just a matter of “when” rather than “if”. So when I brought up the possibility to Jeff earlier in the year, it took just seconds, punctuated with a quick smile, before he said, “Let’s do it!”

So with Pinehurst and the Sandhills Region as the opening stanza for this journey, we are off to re-acquaint ourselves with an old friend in the form of Mr. Tuft’s “little” resort and make a few more with the addition of an extended tour through Fayetteville and the Raleigh-Durham area.

October 14th – Travel

We had plenty of time today to consider what was ahead of us.  Eight years ago we fell in love with Pinehurst and returning brings both anticipation and even some doubt.  You begin to wonder if it really was as spectacular as you thought it was the first time.  You also have a hard time not acting like a giddy school kid – the golf version.  After all, with eight golf courses included one of the best in the world, #2, it is hard to argue that it is not the “Home of American Golf,” as advertised.

All that thinking kept us occupied while traversing 800 kilometres from Ottawa, Ontario in the gradually strengthening rain as we made our way to Northern Virginia, for the night.

We bunked in for the night at my cousin’s place in Fall’s Church.  As part of the stopover we jumped on the Metro train for quick evening tour of downtown D.C.  With Jeff being the world’s biggest Capitals fans a stop at the Verizon Center was a must.  Located just a few blocks off the Washington Mall, we skipped over as the rain subsided to be rewarded with a stunning evening view of the Capitol Building and the Peace Monument.

Bushed from the long day, we were a weary sight as we scurried back to Fall’s Church to catch some much needed sleep.

October 15th – #1

It’s finally here – the day we had been waiting for.  A tee time at Pinehurst #1 waited at 2:56 and we cruised through the rain to North Carolina’s Sandhills region with unbridled glee.  Rain or not we had golf to play on a course that originated in 1899.

Before we could tee it up though – we had another great reminder of why Pinehurst Resort is so cherished.  Your first sight as you approach the Carolina Hotel is the gleaming green fairways of the revered #2 course.  You then turn the corner on to Carolina Vista drive and there it is – the distinctive shape of the hotel that dates back to 1901.  The prompt was not the view though, it was the warm reception.  It seems like every employee at Pinehurst is excited that you have chosen to visit them and they greet you like a return guest, even if it your very first visit.  This exuberant customer service carried through check-in and culminated in having our room set-up,  shuttled over to the golf clubhouse, and being checked in and ready to play golf in a matter of a half hour.  These people really know what it takes to make things happen.

The first glance inside the clubhouse rewarded me with affectionate thoughts of my past visit.  If you have any appreciation for history the clubhouse hallways at Pinehurst will leave you in awe.  So many great events have been played there and they have the photos top prove it.  Knowing a tee time was imminent it took all I had to push myself down the corridor to the pro shop. (I knew I would return anyways)

Playing #1 is always a good idea for Pinehurst visitors.  There is a lot to digest visually and emotionally so the chance to play a shorter golf course that it is little more score-friendly makes for a suitable segue into your visit.

At just over 6,000 yards #1 is still not a pushover.  At least it wasn’t for us.  I can’t say the same for a guy named Joey Stephenson who played in front of us today.  On the fifth hole, as we watched from the adjoining 4th green, he made a memorable ace.  (We have video of him picking the ball out of the hole on our YouTube Channel).

Even among its limited yardage there are still a few enigma holes on #1.  Their 11th, a par three of some 221 yards and playing uphill might just be the toughest hole of that length among the eight Pinehurst layouts.  Throw in a back left pin and I bet there are no more than handful of pars scored there each day.

Accenting the background on #1 are two horse tracks – a good reminder of the other favourite activity in the Sandhills.

As the evening waned we made it back to the final two holes on #, just hoping to get the round done.  The finale par three, blessed by the backdrop of their wondrous clubhouse with evening lights twinkling, placed a perfect exclamation on the day’s golf.

With our initial golf foray wrapped up we took the time to wander around the massive clubhouse again, with some extra time spent looking at the large Payne Stewart exhibit.  The man is revered in Pinehurst and not just for his 1999 US Open win.  Stories about him playing locally run back to 1979 when he first visited to play some mini-tour events.  He is a missed man but no more than in this tiny Carolina village where many have a Payne story ready to tell at a moment’s notice.

October 16th – Embrace

To “get” Pinehurst you really have to immerse yourself in it.  To do that you need to wake up on-property and spend the entire day enveloping yourself in the place.  Today we did and because of that, we feel its full effect.

A day at Pinehurst is like no other.  The legendary buffet breakfast in the Carolina dining room is worthy of a trip to the resort all by itself.  Under the magnificent chandeliers every manner of breakfast item is laid out before you.  Part of the joy of breakfast here is knowing what waits for you on the other side of your meal – a game of golf on one of the famed layouts but just as pleasing is the soothing tones of live piano being played as you gulp down coffee from fine china.  You can imagine the heroes of golf doing the exact same thing in the same setting so many times.

Of course by the time you reach breakfast you are fully refreshed from a night in the spacious and newly renovated Carolina Hotel rooms.

9:40 P.M.

As I write this I am sitting in such a room, recovering from a meal at the 1895 restaurant.  The fine dining option is located in one of Pinehurst resort’s other properties, the Holly Inn.  We were joined there by Janeen Driscoll, Pinehurst Marketing guru and a sweetheart of a person who is passionate about her place of work.

I always take Janeen’s advice about her adopted Carolina home and tonight she suggested the Triple Chocolate soufflé as a must have item of the meal.  I thought that had already been taken care of with the Macaroni & Cheese with Lobster & Truffles but she proved correct in her analysis.  The desert was exquisite.

Of course we needed all the calories to replace those we used up today playing Pinehurst #4.  On the last visit the Tom Fazio course won my heart with its playability and features that pay tribute to the work of Donald Ross.  For many it tussles with #8 as the second best course on the property but when both courses are among the best publicly accessible layouts in America, you can’t lose playing either one.

We had some exciting news tonight that will add an extra twist to this trip but you will have to read on to find out how we turned the next two days into a dream sequence for a sports fan.  A sense of giddiness actually pervaded us as we enjoyed a nightcap just minutes ago, downstairs, in the historic Ryder Cup lounge.

 

Sunrise at Pinehurst #8

October 17th

Their accents were a dead giveaway.  As the sun was rising we met Aaron and Doug on the first tee at Pinehurst #8 and it took just a couple syllables to realize they were a couple lads from Boston.  Both huge golf fans they made excellent companions as we toured the Centennial Course, Rees Jones’ magnificent layout that is quickly becoming a guest favourite at Pinehurst.

#8 was very young when we first played it back in 2001 and now that it has grown into what it was meant to be I can truly say it is the best modern layout in the Carolina Sand Hills.  A short par four and par five start your journey and lull you into thinking that you are ready to master Pinehurst golf.  Not long after that the course brings you back to reality with a series of picturesque and trying holes that require skilled shots in abundance.

What I love about #8 is that it is stern but without being tricked up in any manner.  Each hole presents a new challenge yet each blends nicely with the one that follows.  Elevation, sand, defined driving areas, and greens that are imaginative yet fair create an attractive package.

The boys from Beantown proved to be solid players and no slouches in the pace department which worked out well.  It was especially important as I am now tapping this on my netbook on the way to Charlotte.  Yesterday we realized that there was a NASCAR night race going on tonight at Lowe’s Motor Speedway and thanks to Donna Carpenter and John Mills at the Cabbarus Convention and Visitors Bureau we managed to snag tickets.

The race might not be over until after midnight and we will have an early wake up call for our round tomorrow but how many times can you say that within 28 hours you get to play Pinehurst #8 and #2 and watch the full length of a NASCAR race?  It just had to be done.  Sleep be damned.

Of course I say that now.  My opinion may vary tomorrow when our golf swings have to face the layout that will host both the men’s and women’s United States Open Championship in 2014.

October 18th

2:30 A.M

It is 2:30 a.m. and we have finally made it back to Pinehurst.  As tired as we are it was well worth it to see one of the greatest spectacles in sport.  From a pre-race will pit tour through to the winning burnout by Jimmie Johnson it was quite a night.  It proves once again how many diverse things you can add to a golf itinerary when visiting North Carolina.

Now off to bed (for a few hours) in preparation for a Sunday on Pinehurst #2.

7:20 P.M.

“This the best place on earth at this time of the morning,” Jack, our caddy for the day, exclaimed as we looked out over the famed Pinehurst driving range, Maniac Hill, with the sun pushing up over the treetops.

It was hard to argue despite the weariness we felt from a combination of our golf/NASCAR marathon of yesterday.  Today was our last day at the Pinehurst Resort and we finished it in a fitting manner.  Just a week before the 10th anniversary of the death of Payne Stewart, we played #2.

Those circumstances made it slightly otherworldly but even if the timing had not been the same anytime you walk the fairways of Donald Ross’s masterpiece it is something to hold dear.

Not only did Jeff and I get to share the golf together we also witnessed the effect it had on our playing companions, Mark and David, a father and son combination.

As everyone had told me, a return to #2 made me appreciate the golf course even more.  You seem to understand and accept the nuances of the golf course so much more.  We replaced many of our usual lob shots with flowing bump and run efforts and hung on every read that Jack provided on the greens.

Sure, the temperature never reached more than 6 Celsius but we were warned by the thoughts of how privileged we were to be walking on the same fairways that so many greats of the game had revered.  If you are a fan of the game, it is hard not to be emotional when you see that special Payne Stewart flag on the 18th hole, in a location not far from where he made his historic putt to close out the 1999 U.S. Open.

The subtleties of Donald Ross’ design are not always apparent but after you hit your final putt on #2 you’re left with plenty to think about regarding what makes a golf course truly great.

It really does take a visit here to understand why Pinehurst Resort is known as the Home of American Golf; it is something that is hard to communicate, but must be felt.  Few material things can touch a soul in this world but this place shows you that it is possible.

We have made the move just up the road to the Little River Resort, another Pinehurst area option,  and although we look forward to what the rest of our journey offers, it’s hard not to want to hold on to the feeling that you get at Pinehurst Resort for as long as possible.

October 19th

7:20 A.M.

When most people think of Pinehurst, they immediately bring to mind the famous resort that is at its heart. Yes, it is the core in the region but it certainly does not represent the whole of the golf menu.  Often golfers are looking to enjoy the unique terrain and setting that the Carolina Sandhills offer but their budgets may dictate a slightly different agenda than those staying at one of the world’s most famous resorts.  To that end, this is exactly where the Little River Golf & Resort comes in.

We made our way up to the Carthage area here last night, a whopping 6 kilometre drive from the village of Pinehurst.  The understated resort is the first in America to be owned by Oceanico, who have multiple properties that are a well-established in Europe.  Little River is a new project for them but has amazing growth potential.

Once we checked into our room it became very obvious that this would be a great base for a foursome, or larger group, to take on a Pinehurst area golf adventure.  Their self-contained units have every you would need to enjoy pre-and post-round golf activity including a great breakfast in the central dining room of the main building and a sports bar with grand atmosphere.

With our bellies full of comfort food and service just as warm we’re off to check out the golf course.

1:15 P.M.

It did not take long to get around in here at Little River, but we certainly lingered for as long as we could.  After a few holes that we considered rather unremarkable we warmed up to the golf course just as the weather did the same.  Packages at the resort can include unlimited golf on-site and we would have been happy to pursue that, especially if the back nine was available over and over again.

The Dan Maples design is just over 15 years old but has seen a number of upgrades in recent years.  Most notable for us were the greens.  Covered in smooth Crenshaw Bentgass you know that any putt can be made if your stroke is pure.  It is nice not to fret when you miss greens because you know you have a chance to get up-and-down.

The golf course tumbles for over 7000 yards and winds its way through tall stands of forest.  There is enough variety in design to maintain your attention while making you want to play more to take advantage of what you learned the first time around.

I was told by several people that Little River is their favourite choice as a home base for a Pinehurst golf vacation and now I understand why.

8:20 P.M.

With the afternoon left to fill we decided to pack away the clubs and find out what else the area had to offer.  We again satisfied our NASCAR curiosity by driving a half hour south from Little River to the Rockingham Speedway.  It was a short visit as it was clear that not much happens around the track except during race weeks.  Instead we jumped on to the Interstate 73 for a quick jaunt up to Asheboro.  An excellent zoo, extended shopping district and thriving arts community make it another side trip you can add to a golf vacation in this part of the country.

We are on the move east to Fayetteville tomorrow before turning north to Raleigh.  It is a double round day that holds a lot of promise as long as the weather will cooperate.

October 20th – Double Trouble

1:15 P.M

The spectacular Anderson Creek Golf Club
The spectacular Anderson Creek Golf Club

The first round is over but the day has plenty more in store for us.  We’ve put our faith in our trusty GPS unit and pointed our vessel toward Raleigh.

It was a crispy start this morning.  We awoke to frost and a thermometer struggling to reach 0 Celsius.  Most would have tuned the lights off and snuggled back in bed but we had no choice, a packed schedule meant we had to press on.

It took us about 45 minutes of backwoods driving to cross over from Carthage to Fayetteville.  As endearing as Pinehurst is this was one stop that was highly anticipated.  For years we had both driven down I-95 on our way to parts beyond, skirting past Fayettville and never making the short jaunt off the main artery.  We won’t make that mistake again and neither should you.

When the clock struck 8:20 there was nobody to be seen at Anderson Creek, a much heralded Davis Love III design, save for Wayne in the pro shop.  “It should warm up….eventually,” he said with a smile knowing we were planning to brave the weather either way.

We were disappointed at first as John Meroski of the Fayetteville CVB, our host for the day, was not to be seen but we had no malice in our hearts for any native of North Carolina who chose not play golf in these temperatures.  This was true Canadian golf weather.  Of course he gained our full respect when he showed up as we arrived on the 2nd tee box, took nary a practice swing, and swatted the ball with disregard to where it might end up.  He didn’t even complain about the temperature.  Just our type of guy.

It wasn’t long before John had filled us in on the incredible golf bargains that Fayetteville offers.  Anderson Creek, equivalent to a course like Eagle Creek in Ottawa (a top 50 course in Canada at one time), could be played with a room, breakfast, and cart for just over $100.  It took us a couple holes to stop giggling and asking him if he was serious.

Anderson Creek is a statuesque course, full of rises and falls.  The cool morning, lit by bright sun, brought out the best of its look and it was not lost on us as I fired off frame after frame on my trusty Nikons, trying to capture its essence.

John told us there are six golf courses that are the core of their local golf packages, including Anderson Creek.  Also in the mix were about 10 hotels to offer accommodations.  “They are great value and we are so close to I-95,” he commented.  “It’s a perfect place to stop in for a full vacation or just a couple days to break up your trip north or south.”

By the time we finished up on the 18th, a bending par 5, dotted with bunkers and set with the colonial style clubhouse in the background, all we could do was agree.

8:00 P.M.

We are fourteen hours into our day.  Jeff and I just got back from walking around the University of North Carolina campus here in Chapel Hill.  With a coffee in hand it was a perfect way to see what life is like around one of the most heralded schools in the nation, and even talk a little golf.

Lonnie Poole Golf Course is located on the NC State Campus
Lonnie Poole Golf Course is located on the NC State Campus

This afternoon, after a 45-minute drive, we made it to the brand new Lonnie Poole Golf Course at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.  As many Canadians are aware we have a bevy of young canucks filling out their varsity golf teams so it was nice to see the place they call home.  Brad Revell of Kingston popped out to see us and we were joined for our round by Martin Armes and Brad King, a duo well known in our industry from both the editorial and public relations side of the business.

The $14 million layout didn’t exactly overwhelm us, being in its early stage of growth but the practice areas were incredible and perfectly suited to developing top golf talent.  It did have some unusual holes, including a 500+ yard par that played uphill but I credit that to trying to bump up the length to 7400 yards for marketing purposes.

In a few years, and once a real clubhouse is built, the facility will likely be more highly regarded.

All I know is that after that day, I will have no problem getting to sleep at our home for the next few nights, the charming Carolina Inn in Chapel Hill.  Exquisite in every facet it is the premier location to stay on the UNC Campus – with everything in the area in easy reach.

October 21th – Collegiate Showdown

UNC has been home to great golfers like Davis Love III
UNC has been home to great golfers like Davis Love III

We have but two days left in North Carolina and it looks as if we will finish with a flurry.  Today we are off to the University of North Carolina Finley course just down the road from The Carolina Inn.  Then we have the balance of the day to explore before dinner this evening.  It seems to be warming up a bit today so at least frost shouldn’t be part of our morning menu.

11:10 p.m.

I’ll preface what I am about to write next by admitting that I have a penchant for Tom Fazio designed golf course.  That  said, after playing the UNC – Finley course that he reworked many years ago it is hands down my preference over the Lonnie Poole course Arnold Palmer was responsible for over at NC State.

UNC Finley has many years of advantage but with more tree density, a covering of carefully coiffed landscaping, and impeccable turf conditions I can see why collegiate players like to visit for tournaments.  Tackled from the “Tar Heel” tees it is a handful at 7328 yards but even a novice golfer can enjoy it.  The shortest of the five decks measures less than 5,000 yards.

We would have entertained a 2nd loop at Finley but the popularity of the course left us with no tee time options.  We’ll not be afraid to look it up again if ever back in the Chapel Hill area.

An afternoon to catch up on paperwork and take a short drive about the area for some shopping was welcome earlier.  With a later dinner scheduled we took the opportunity to walk the ten blocks to the restaurant, Crooks Corner, where we were joined by Jennifer Francioni from the state along with Patty Griffin of the Chapel Hill CVB.

Southern home cooking was the fare at the very relaxed restaurant.  Chef Bill Smith proved to be an amiable man who came out to visit our table a few times.  Once he realized we were from eastern Ontario, he regaled us with stories of autumn visits to Smiths Fall.  His dessert selection was sinful, but proved to be too much after having consumed his award-winning shrimp & grits.  Let it be known that it is worth every ounce of effort to seek out his conservative-sized abode.  If you get lost just look for the pig on the roof or ask a local – everybody seems to know and revere the place.

With a UNC football game brewing tomorrow against Florida State we took the opportunity to have a beverage at the most famous corner in Chapel Hill after dinner.  Sitting on the 3rd floor patio of the Top Of The Hill brew pub and restaurant you can envision the 60,000 fans that swarmed the crossroads below in a raucous party after the last UNC NCAA Basketball Championship.  With basketball such lifeblood of the state, it was a fitting place to end our final full day.

October 22ndJunior and Claude Go Golfing

6:45 A.M.

It’s hard to believe – just one round to go.  Time to pack up and prepare for the journey home but we still have one game to play.  It is on to The Preserve at Lake Jordan Golf Club today and just about everyone we have mentioned it to has raved about it.  We’ll see if it can deliver.

2:10 P.M.

With our vehicle now turned for home we are happy to say we ended on a great note.   It got off to a shaky start as our pairing for the round Junior and Claude, had some antiquated and slightly offensive views on society, but once we got on the golf course we paid little attention to their “interesting perspectives’.”  The sun even poked out and warmed us up enough to put on shorts – a sweet parting gift from the state that did not go unrecognized.

The Preserve was our second go-round with a Davis Love III course on the trip and all I can say is that he certainly knows how to pick his projects.  The land was just as remarkable as that we had found at Anderson Creek but with a blueprint taken to an even higher level.

A little tight in some spots for a public golfer this one is best traversed with a rangefinder and some local knowledge at the ready but it was just plain fun.  Much effort has been taken to keep the course from intruding on the natural surroundings, creating a lot of really defined lines of play.  It would have been nice to see more of the lake but the views from many elevated tees were satisfying enough.

Home

Always a fan of golf in the Carolinas, I am even more so after the latest jaunt through North Carolina.  Diverse terrain and golf courses all benefit from southern hospitality and just so many varying activities you can do to fill your time.

With literally hundreds of golf courses to choose from you certainly can find something to suit your taste, budget and golfing abilities in North Carolina.  Whether it is in the Sandhills Region, Fayetteville, Raleigh, or beyond the boundaries of our trip – to the ocean coast or the mountains – North Carolina delivers a consistently impressive expedition every time.

And even if you have been there before, just like us you will discover that a visit to North Carolina never disappoints.