PINEHURST, N.C. -- It's all about golf in the Sandhills of North Carolina.
There's no ocean or major lake to tempt players into floating away from the game. There are other pursuits of happiness available -- horseback riding and antiquing, for instance -- but none are ingrained into the community as much as golf.
It all traces back to James Walker Tufts, a Boston philanthropist who founded the Village of Pinehurst in 1895. This historic golf destination will add another chapter to its storied history by hosting the U.S. Open and U.S. Women's Open at Pinehurst Resort's famed No. 2 Course back-to-back weeks, June 10-22. It's never been done before and maybe never again, pending how well the two events come together. If the self-appointed "Home of American Golf" can't pull it off, nobody can.
Whether you're going to Pinehurst for the Opens or planning a trip to the Sandhills another time, here's the ultimate beginner's guide.
What are the Sandhills?
The Sandhills, running through the central corridor of the state, are a strip of ancient beach dunes. Some people include Fayetteville in the discussion of the region, but its epicenter is the village of Pinehurst and Southern Pines in Moore County.
The sandy soil is ideal for golf courses, most of which are set upon gently rolling terrain framed by tall longleaf pines.
Directions to the Sandhills
The Sandhills are the perfect drive-in market from the east coast and Midwest, including Chicago (12 hours), Detroit (10 hours) and New York (nine hours). Flying into Raleigh/Durham International Airport and renting a car for the 70-mile drive remains the best option through the air, although the Fayetteville Regional Airport (50 miles), the Piedmont Triad International Airport in Greensboro (85 miles) and the Charlotte Douglas International Airport (98 miles) are all within a one-and-a-half-hour drive as well.
Weather and winter golf
The shoulder seasons -- spring from March-May and fall from September-October -- are prime time in the Carolinas. The summer months can be sticky with afternoons prone to thunderstorms, a concern for tournament officials in June.
The winter months can mean frost delays or even snow days (especially last winter). If you're within driving distance, though, it's worth watching the weather for a good run of temperatures to book a last-minute trip. The winter rates make Pinehurst No. 2 more affordable.
The golf resorts
Pinehurst Resort, home to nine courses, including five designed by Donald Ross, has played a significant role in the history of the game. Ross lived just off the fairway of Pinehurst No. 2.
The resort has hosted dozens of major tournaments from the annual North & South Amateur since 1901 to U.S. Opens (1999, 2005), the 1951 Ryder Cup, the 1936 PGA Championship and two PGA Tour championships. The Carolina Hotel and Holly Inn are great places to stay (and eat) right in the heart of the village.
The sister properties of Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club and the Mid Pines Inn & Golf Club sit across the street from one another in Southern Pines. They're two completely different experiences. Mid Pines is a grand old inn with squeaky floor boards and small, charming rooms. Pine Needles consists of a main lodge where the drinks and meals are served and secondary buildings that house rooms and suites. Both courses are dynamite Ross originals.
Staying in a villa or lodge at the Talamore Golf Resort in Southern Pines allows access to the public Talamore Golf Club by Rees Jones and the private Mid South Club by Arnold Palmer.
Golf courses galore in the Sandhills
Roughly 40 courses are found in the Pinehurst/Southern Pines/Aberdeen triangle. Pinehurst No. 2 will cost you, but there's plenty of depth with 27 courses rated four stars by Golf Digest's "Places to Play" listings.
There's not much difference between the top-tier courses and others you've probably never heard of. There's great contrast, too, when you consider the old-school vibe of Pinehurst No. 2 and Mid Pines (both recently renovated); the wild contours of Tobacco Road by Mike Strantz; and the modern Tom Fazio designs at Pinehurst No. 4 and No. 8. Don't forget the 7,015-yard Pines Needles is championship caliber, having hosted three U.S. Women's Opens.
Those with private club connections will want to play both the North Course and South Course at Forest Creek Golf Club in Pinehurst. Budget-conscious players should play the shorter courses at Pinehurst (No. 1 and No. 3) and Longleaf Golf & Country Club in Southern Pines for better value.
To-do list in the Sandhills
My 1999 trip to the Sandhills was my first assignment as a golf writer. Looking back, I failed miserably. I just hung out at Pinehurst Resort, playing all eight courses in four days. Obviously I was well cared for, but I didn't see much else. Don't make the same rookie mistakes. Here's a to-do list for every golfer who visits:
1. Spend the ultimate day at Pinehurst. It would start with the buffet breakfast in the Carolina Room, followed by a round on No. 2 with a caddie. Sitting on the veranda with a drink in hand watching other groups play the 18th hole will cap a great experience. Be sure to take a selfie with the two iconic statues at the main clubhouse -- Putterboy near the putting green and Payne Stewart near the 18th green.
2. Shop the Village of Pinehurst. You could easily lose an afternoon enjoying the memorabilia, books and art in the Old Sport & Gallery.
3. Party at the Pine Crest Inn's Mr. B's Lounge. Be sure to chip a few shots into the fireplace before you have too much to drink at this popular 19th hole in the village.
4. Don't neglect Southern Pines. Make time for at least one round (I'd lean toward Mid Pines) and one meal in downtown Southern Pines (where the locals hang).
My personal favorites
If I were setting up a "dream" itinerary, I'd schedule rounds at Pinehurst No. 2, 4 and 8, along with Pine Needles and Mid Pines. I've not yet played Tobacco Road in Sanford and The Dormie Club, a newer Bill Coore/Ben Crenshaw course in West End.