Sleepy Summers No More

By Lee Pace


It was a quaint scene, for sure, those Sandhills summers back in the 1960s and ‘70s. The Bell family, owners and operators of the Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club in Southern Pines, transferred incoming calls to a phone by the swimming pool, carried the laminated reservations board outside and spent the afternoon swimming, diving and answering phone calls from golfers booking golf reservations for the coming fall and spring.

“It was sleepy during the summer for sure,” says Peggy Bell Miller, daughter of Warren and Peggy Kirk Bell. “All the staff went to Myrtle Beach. There was no business during the summer.”

Pinehurst No. 2 was a favorite course of many of the nation’s top amateurs through their participation in North & South Amateur every April, but the course through the 1960s had never been the venue for the U.S. Amateur. A group of golfers led by Billy Joe Patton presented a petition to Pinehurst owner Richard Tufts to invite the United States Golf Association to hold the Amateur at Pinehurst. That led to Pinehurst hosting the Amateur in 1962, this during an era when the Tufts family left town and moved to Linville, where they had the management contract for Linville Golf Club and the Eseeola Lodge.

“The Amateur was held the third week in September, and Pinehurst had never been open that early,” Patton said. “They had to get the place ready and get staff back early to host the event.”

Golf architect Bill Coore was born in 1946 and grew up in the Davidson County countryside, just south of Thomasville about an hour’s drive from Pinehurst, and in the 1950s visited Pinehurst with some friends regularly during the summer to play golf on the No. 2 course.

“It was five dollars and you could play all day,” he says. “There was no one else around. More than once we played 54 holes in a day.”

Pinehurst was conceived in the late 1800s as a wintertime resort. Once golf took hold in the early 1900s, it was still an October-to-March high season well into the 1960s.

The catalyst to changing the calendar was the advent of air conditioning. By the late 1960s, most new homes in the United States had central air conditioning, and window air conditioners were more affordable than ever, fueling population growth in hot-weather states like Arizona and Florida.

The second was the purchase of Pinehurst Resort & Country Club in 1984 by Robert Dedman Sr. of Dallas and his club management firm, Club Corporation of America.

“When Club Corp bought Pinehurst, the whole business model changed,” says Bob Farren, who joined the course maintenance staff in 1982 and now is Pinehurst’s director of grounds. “Before that, course No. 2 was closed all summer. When ClubCorp took over, they said we need to fill in the summer business and build it up. A lot of big groups from the textile, tobacco and furniture industries brought groups to Pinehurst

“Those industries have all changed and a lot of that business has dried up. But the summer business has grown.”

Yet another catalyst was the evolution of the ultradwarf Bermuda grasses in the early 2000s that allowed golf courses in the so-called Mid-Atlantic “transition zone” to convert their greens to a blade that could better withstand hot weather and heavy foot traffic, yet still provide smooth and quick putting surfaces. Farren remembers when U.S. Kids Golf brought its national and international championships to Pinehurst beginning in 2006 that the heavy play of four golfers and four sets of parent/caddies took a huge toll on the quality of the green.

“We could not have supported the summer business we have now without the successful conversion of all our greens to ultradwarf Bermuda,” he says. “The business we have now in the summer could not be supported on bent grass. It was a challenge.”

Figures available from the Pinehurst, Southern Pines, Aberdeen Area Convention & Visitors Bureau and its occupancy tax collections vouch for the explosion in summer visitors to Pinehurst, Southern Pines and Aberdeen. In 2015, the tax collections for June through August were nearly $390,000, and that number grew to nearly $520,000 four years later. Following the Covid-dip and the subsequent expansion of the golf industry, those numbers are expected to soar to approximately $850,000 for the most recent summer.

The linchpin is certainly the neatly 40 golf courses within a 15-mile radius, but the lodging, restaurant and attractions industry has blossomed in the 21st century as well. The microbrewery industry has exploded with four venues for craft beer and excellent food. Pinehurst Resort recently completed a renovation of its guest rooms, public areas and the Magnolia Inn in the village of Pinehurst.

On the first weekend in July 2023, U.S. Kids Golf drew 475 golfers and their families to the area for the Red White & Blue Invitational at four Pinehurst courses and Longleaf Golf & Family Club. That event has become a prelude to the last week of the month and the first week in August, when U.S. Kids stages back-to-back its World Teens finals for ages 13-18 and then the World Kids competition for ages 5-12.

“Summer in Pinehurst was a sleepy, shoulder season when we first came here in 2006,” says Dan Van Horn, the founder of the U.S. Kids program. “It was a challenge for the resort and the community to gear up to handle all the traffic. We wore out the bent greens with all of the traffic. Then they changed to Bermuda, and the greens have thrived. The restaurants in town have learned to gear up for all the people. It puts a strain on their staff.”

So much so, in fact, that many in the hotel and restaurant business breathe a sigh of relief when they survive another two-week invasion of families from 50-some foreign countries. It’s a good problem to have, make no mistake, and quite a contrast from the days when all the employees migrated to the beach or the mountains.


Chapel Hill-based writer Lee Pace has written about golf in the Sandhills since the late 1980s and has authored a dozen books about the clubs, courses and people who have made it special over more than a century.


014: Lee Pace, author and publisher