By Lee Pace
The iconic poster from the 1920s depicts the Pinehurst “Golf Lad” in his floppy hat and golf bag slung over his shoulder amidst the well-dressed crowd at New York’s Grand Central Station. The words “Off for Pinehurst” say it all — a trip south to what at the time was a 72-hole resort in the North Carolina Sandhills, later augmented by three courses in Southern Pines and more to come in the mid-and then late-1900s.
“They’d get off work on Thursday in New York, board the train, travel all night and get to Southern Pines at 7 o’clock Friday morning,” remembered Peggy Kirk Bell, the late LPGA founding member whose family has owned and operated the Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club since 1953. “We’d pick them up in two station wagons, and those going to Pinehurst Resort & Country Club would jump on a big bus and go to the Carolina Hotel. They’d play golf all weekend and get back on the train at 7:30 Sunday night. They’d be at their desks Monday morning.”
Travel is much easier in the 2020s and the options are more plentiful. But now as then, there’s no better venue for a buddies trip than the Sandhills of North Carolina, which boasts nearly 40 courses in a 15-mile radius.
Tobacco Road Golf Club is half an hour’s drive north of Pinehurst and a great first-play course if you’re coming from as close as Raleigh or points further north. This Mike Strantz-designed layout opened in 1998 on land that traverses old rock and sand quarries and tobacco and soybean farms, and requires precise shot placement and mental focus through a visually stunning four-hour experience.
Afterward settle in at any of the many hotel accommodations between Pinehurst and Southern Pines — the opulent Carolina Hotel that opened in 1900, one of several charming inns in the Village of Pinehurst such as the Holly Inn, the Manor Inn or the Pine Crest Inn; modern villas at Mid South Golf Club or Talamore Golf Resort on Midland Road; or the chalet-style rooms at Pine Needles, the site of three U.S. Women’s Opens with their fourth set for 2022. And there are more remarkable golf stays across the Sandhills.
Headquarters today is the Resort Clubhouse at Pinehurst, where five 18-hole courses, the nine-hole Cradle and the Thistle Dhu putting course are located. This is the venue that garnered Pinehurst the “St. Andrews of American Golf” moniker a century ago. The trophy courses here are the venerable No. 2, now designated a U.S. Open anchor course with the 2024 championship next on the schedule, and No. 4, which was redesigned by Gil Hanse in 2017-18. Both reflect the linksland of architect Donald Ross’s homeland in the Scottish Highlands — sandy soil, taut fairways, unkempt natural areas lining the playing corridors, gnarly bunkers and intricate green settings. Both courses are walkable and caddies are available, and golfers can choose their means of transportation — walk and carry, trolley, caddie or golf cart.
Hanse also designed The Cradle while working on No. 4 and the course has been enormously popular since opening in 2017, with holes ranging from 56 to 127 yards long (789 total yards). The course is a perfect companion to the resort’s 18-hole putting course named Thistle Dhu, which was patterned after a similar layout at St. Andrews.
Don’t miss Heritage Hall, the club’s array of historical artifacts, photographs and championships boards arrayed in the long hallway from the front entrance back to the golf shop, and the statue of Payne Stewart overlooking the 18th green depicting the 1999 U.S. Open champion making his winning putt, just three months before his tragic death in a plane crash.
“We cherish our history at Pinehurst,” Pinehurst President and CEO Tom Pashley says of the vintage images displayed throughout the resort. “They’re what distinguish us. They make us unique. Some places try to manufacture a feeling of history. Pinehurst’s is authentic.”
Make time to knock around the village. Old Sport & Gallery and The Old Golf Shop in the heart of town have extensive arrays of fine golf art, memorabilia and antiques, and the Tufts Archives in the Given Memorial Library is a repository of Pinehurst history open to the public. The Villager Deli has some of the best sandwiches in town, and the Pine Crest Inn has one of the liveliest bars and a front porch teeming with golfers during warm-weather months. The Pinehurst Brewing Company opened in 2018 in a converted steam plant in existence since 1895; it does two things particularly well — beer from its brewing tanks and barbecue from its smokehouse.
Venture four miles to the east to the sister properties of Mid Pines and Pine Needles, both of them dating to the 1920s with Donald Ross having designed the courses and Kyle Frantz having updated them within the last decade. Both courses were conceived when the “off for Pinehurst” theme was clogging the early courses at Pinehurst and the Sandhills was growing as a wintertime golf destination — this before the advent of air conditioning made it a year-round resort. Both courses are compact, making them easily walkable, and feature Ross’s challenging green settings and demands to work the ball left and right, uphill and downhill.
The Sandhills area is chock full of interesting venues for post-round revelry and varied libations. The Southern Pines Growler Company is Moore County’s first dedicated, single-purpose growler fill station with the best craft beers from North Carolina and a mix of highly rated national and international beers. Hatchet Brewing Company strives to foster a culture of fellowship and community around great beer. Chef Warren’s is a French-inspired neighborhood bistro and Chapman’s Food and Spirits has one of the best burgers in town.
Time for one final round of golf before taking off. You could slip over to Southern Pines Golf Club, an early 1900s Donald Ross course that reopened in the fall of 2021 after a major restoration by Frantz that includes new greens and tees, rebuilt bunkers and cart paths. It’s one of the area’s best routings, and with the course kissing against some real estate on only two holes, for the most part you’re playing in a secluded, natural environment. Another option is to play one of the sister courses located halfway between Southern Pines and Pinehurst — Talamore, a 1991 Rees Jones design, and Mid South, a 1994 Arnold Palmer/Ed Seay design. Both courses and the club facilities have undergone extensive renovations in the 2016-17 window, each now sporting Bermuda greens and updated dining and drinking facilities.
“If you’re looking for pure golf, the Sandhills is the place to be,” says Mid South Director of Golf Dalton Leonhardt. “Other places do the nightlife and club scene well. Here, we’re true golf.”
Always has been, always will be.
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.