PINEHURST, N.C. - Few areas are as fertile for growing golf courses as the Sandhills region of North Carolina. The ideal soil and terrain have sprouted 43 of them over the years, anchored by the venerable No. 2 course at the Pinehurst Resort.
Donald Ross' masterpiece has inspired a number of top-notch tracks in the region many call the home of American golf. Here's TravelGolf.com's list of the Pinehurst area's top 10 courses.
1. Pinehurst No. 2: Early on, No. 2 may lull first-timers into thinking they're playing just another pleasant Sandhills course. Then you get to the greens. Why does my ball keep rolling back to me? Notice the diabolical upside-down-bowl shape? Ross called it the ultimate test of golf.
He did it by crowning the greens and brushing No. 4 with a Scottish influence. More than 140 pot bunkers are scattered throughout the classic, rolling sand-hill terrain, for strategy rather than show, guarding greens and doglegs and catching wayward tee shots.
3. Pinehurst No. 7: A Rees Jones design, No. 7's mountain flavor sets it apart from its seven Pinehurst Resort compatriots. It also has the "Devil's Gut," a large expanse of wetlands on the short par 4 seventh that you have to clear to reach the green. The par-5 12th has a double dogleg with an elevated green.
4. Pinehurst No. 8: Another Fazio project, No. 8 opened in 1996 to mark the resort's centennial. The goal was a modern-day version of No. 2 - solid, straightforward golf with no earth moved and no deviation from the natural contours of the land. There are some visual tricks, though, like bunkers that seem close to the greens but area actually 20 yards in front.
"It's one of the best we've done," said Ed Seay, Palmer's chief designer. "It's got length. The strategic element is strong. You have the option on so many holes of playing conservative or gambling. There are choices of how to attack every hole."
6. National Golf Club: In an area that includes the fabled No. 2, being difficult can be considered an attribute, and the National enjoys its tough reputation. Oh, they cleared some perimeter areas and cut down some trees, making the fairways faster and firmer, but that's about all you get.
It's the National's green complexes that really whack your backside. They're big, and they undulate like a belly dancer. They're segmented, so a hole can change radically from day to day, depending on pin placement. Don't even think about running it up; this is a course built for high shots lofted close to the hole, and if you don't hit the right spot on the green, forget about birdie or even par - you'll be putting from another county.
7. Pine Needles Country Club: "I've been playing Opens for almost 20 years now, and this is one of the better Open golf courses that I've played," former Women's U.S. Open winner Pat Bradley said of Pine Needles. "It just flows from start to finish. And there are no gimmicks out there."
Many courses of similar vintage have been gussied up by modern architects, but circa-1928 Pine Needles remains mostly true to Ross' original ideas. It has been lengthened, a near-necessity in today's golf industry, but the basic canvas looks much as it did eight decades ago - wide fairways and deep, grass-faced traps alongside the greens, which are relatively flat but fall off sharply.
8. Pinewild Country Club, Magnolia course: Amid the many No. 2 clones, some Sandhills courses dare to be different; Pinewild's two courses, Holly and Magnolia, are two of them.
Though closer to the Pinehurst mold, the Magnolia is the more difficult of the two, even for the pros. It was a U.S. Open qualifying site in 2002 and '03, and of the 250 golfers who came through each year only a handful broke par.
9. Talamore at Pinehurst: Yes, this is the "llama course," and yes, the beasts of burden are a gimmick. But Talamore always gets mentioned when the subject of Pinehurst's best comes up. This 7,020-yard Rees Jones design was ranked among the country's top five new courses by Golf Digest when it opened in 1991.
"This is a position course," Jones has explained. "Length isn't going to benefit the long hitter. What I'm trying to do is require thinking. ... You have to manufacture golf shots and make them happen."
10. Legacy Golf Links: Legacy is one of those courses that mixes playability, conditioning and aesthetics into a nearly perfect cocktail.
"This is one of the most popular courses around here because it's the friendliest," member Peter Munster said. "The rolling terrain kicks everything back to the target, so this one gets a lot of play. No tricks, everything in front of you."
What's in front of you is a green, lush, picturesque course cut through rolling hills of sweet Carolina pine, with mounded fairways that keep the ball in play and mounded greens that suck up offline approaches and funnel them back toward the hole. It's a look-good, feel-good course that is a blast to play.
October 2, 2006