By Lee Pace
When golfers traveled by train to Pinehurst a century ago, they came for extended stays, often weeks at a time. They lugged heavy trunks and they needed storage space in their hotel rooms for their clothes and luggage — ergo large closets in the Carolina Hotel averaging about 50 square feet.
When management at Pinehurst Resort & Country Club consulted with architects and interior designers on a room renovation project in 2021, they realized the huge closets were out of place in the 21st century. Thus, those spaces were redesigned with built-in armoires for clothes and luggage and a coffee/snack nook and are part of the first phase of 42 rooms recently re-opened in the west wing of the 122-year-old hotel (the rest of the hotel will follow in two more phases through early 2024).
“It took us a hundred years to realize golfers aren’t traveling with steamer trunks for a month,” says Pinehurst CEO Tom Pashley. “They’re coming for a long weekend and don’t need that space.”
That’s the challenge of running a resort that opened in 1895 and remains the cornerstone of a thriving Sandhills golf community — pay respect to its history and tradition but evolve with the times. Bobby Jones and Ben Hogan have played golf at Pinehurst. Four U.S. Women’s Opens have been held at nearby Pine Needles, the club that’s been owned by the family of World Golf Hall of Famer Peggy Kirk Bell since 1953. Junior golfers the world over convene in the Sandhills and play 10 different golf courses every summer for the U.S. Kids Golf World Championship.
As former USGA Executive Director David Fay once said, “Pinehurst is the closest thing to St. Andrews we have in the United States in terms of that feel for the history of the game, the passion of the game. The whole place just exudes golf.”
The fall golf season is nigh. Sweater weather. Autumn color. Cigars and port by the fire pit. It’s time to plan your trip to the Sandhills.
Pinehurst Resort & Country Club had four courses designed by the Scottish architect Donald Ross by 1919 and serviced visiting golfers from around the nation out of the Carolina Hotel and a smattering of inns within the Village of Pinehurst. Today this core remains the hub of the Pinehurst golf experience.
There are five courses operating out of the resort clubhouse, including Pinehurst No. 2, the venue for every major championship in American golf (including the 1936 PGA Championship, 1957 Ryder Cup and set to host in 2024 its fourth U.S. Open). No. 2 was the pride and joy of Ross, who came to America from Dornoch, Scotland, in 1900 and built No. 2 to reflect the characteristics and personality of the ancient Scottish courses like Dornoch, St. Andrews and Carnoustie. The course was restored by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw in 2010-11.
Next door is the No. 4 course, which was redesigned by Gil Hanse and opened in 2018 and reflects the same tenets of No. 2 with bouncy fairways, rugged bunker configurations and perimeters of hardpan sand, wire grass, and the cones and needles falling from the indigenous pine trees lining the holes. Courses No. 1 (Ross), No. 3 (Ross/Ellis Maples) and No. 5 (Ross/Maples) compliment the central core with a variety of looks, lengths and challenges.
The vibrancy and spirit around the clubhouse have been taken up a notch since the 2017 opening of The Cradle, a nine-hole “short course” with holes ranging from 56 to 127 yards. It’s the perfect venue for kids and grandparents for a low-key and fun round of golf, for twilight “emergency nines” and to enjoy a beverage from the Cradle Crossing Bar and watch the action from an Adirondack chair.
“We have built a playground where kids and elders can enjoy the game — they can hoot and holler and high-five all they want. It’s a relaxed and comfortable feeling,” said Hanse, who designed the course along with partner Jim Wagner.
The Thistle Dhu putting course is another accessory to the golf experience, with 18 holes of a putting course over mounds and through swales emulating the Himalayas course at St. Andrews.
“The theme of The Cradle and Thistle Dhu is fun,” Pashley says. “Fun is undefeated. Fun knows no age, no genders, no level of playing ability. Anyone can come out here with a few clubs and a ball and have some fun.”
There was so much golfing traffic on courses 1-4 by the 1920s that it was time to expand. Mid Pines Inn & Golf Club opened in 1921 on land four miles east of Pinehurst in the town of Southern Pines, and Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club followed seven years later just across Midland Road, the main passage from the train station in Southern Pines to the Village of Pinehurst. Both courses were designed by Ross and remain today among the most popular draws in the Sandhills. Over a century some three dozen courses have sprouted throughout Moore County to turn the Sandhills into such an alluring golf destination.
Pine Needles has been the site of U.S. Women’s Opens in 1996, 2001, 2007 and 2022. The world’s elite lady golfers and as well as high-handicappers visiting to learn the game from the resort’s renowned “Golfaris” (aka a “safari into golf”) have embraced the relaxing surroundings and the welcoming service. The resort is still run by the children of Peggy Kirk Bell, who with her husband, Warren, began running the club in 1953.
“This is a huge golfing community,” said Lydia Ko, who finished sixth in the 2022 Women’s Open. “It’s actually nice to go to places where people love it, people are excited about women’s golf being here, people are excited about golf in general.”
Golfers are certainly excited about playing Pine Needles, Mid Pines and Southern Pines Golf Club, all early 1900s Ross designs restored within the last decade by Kyle Franz, who cut his design and construction teeth at Bandon Dunes and Pinehurst No. 2, among other locations.
They’re excited about Mid South and Talamore, sister resorts featuring designs by Arnold Palmer and Rees Jones, respectively, with on-site lodging, dining facilities, a new Toptracer Range and a massive new practice putting green. They flock in droves to the quirky design and aesthetic drama of Tobacco Road Golf Club, designed in the late 1990s by the late Mike Strantz. And they enjoy a taste of the Maples family of architects and course superintendents, with Dan Maples having created 18 appealing holes of the Longleaf Golf & Family Club over an abandoned equestrian facility. Longleaf is also the home of the U.S. Kids Golf Academy and U.S. Kids Golf Foundation, where kids and families are prioritized and thrive in an environment gearing toward learning the game of a lifetime.
Meld this smorgasbord of golf with the New England replica village that James Walker Tufts built and named Pinehurst with the vision of landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, and the result is an oasis of golf and serene ambiance unmatched in America.
“Our reason for being is the game of golf,” former Pinehurst CEO Pat Corso said prior to the 1999 U.S. Open, contested on Pinehurst No. 2. “We don’t have any seals flapping on the rocks below, we don’t have any beautiful mountain backdrops. Pinehurst is here because of golf.”
Many are the visitors who first ventured into the village and were smitten immediately. There is the venerable Pine Crest Inn, now 109 years old and boasting one of the most popular bars and front porches in the area (not to mention a fall-off-the-bone pork chop at dinner). There is the Manor Inn, recently restored into a boutique hotel. Aficionados of golf books, artwork and collectibles can lose themselves in the Old Sport & Gallery and the Old Golf Shop in the village.
At the heart of the town is the Villager Deli, which has been serving biscuit sandwiches for breakfast and thick deli sandwiches for lunch since 1982. Drum & Quill dishes out excellent burgers and tacos, and is decorated with memorabilia from the career of noted golf writer and broadcaster Bob Drum, whose son Kevin is the proprietor. Villaggio Ristorante & Bar in the Magnolia Inn offers a fine-dining experience and some of the best Italian food in the area. And if you like to see and smell the smoking of pork and the brewing of beer with your very eyes, the Pinehurst Brewing Company is your place.
Some prefer the more casual appearance of Broad Street in downtown Southern Pines, where you can shop for books at the Country Bookshop and have an ice cream cone at the Ice Cream Parlor. New hotspot Red’s Corner isn’t far away, offering outdoor seating, an assortment of 5-7 food trucks, live music on the weekends, and fire pits perfect for crisp fall evenings. Chapman’s Food & Spirits, Chef Warren’s, Betsy’s Crepes, Ashten’s, Scott’s Table, and Southern Prime Steakhouse are all within walking distance of the Southern Pines train depot, which deposited golfers from the north in the early 1900s. It’s not slowed down since.
One of those golfers who visited as a young man with his father from their home in western Pennsylvania was none other than the great Arnold Palmer.
“Pinehurst was the most elite spot in the world as far as I was concerned,” Palmer said of those days in the 1940s. “It was the golfing capital of the world.”
It’s certainly among the elite destinations anywhere. And it’s approaching the best time of the year, when there’s a nip in the air on the first tee and you’re out of your pullover by the turn.
Chapel Hill based writer Lee Pace has written about golf in the Sandhills since the late 1980s and has authored a dozen books about clubs, courses and the people who’d made it special over more than a century.