SOUTHERN PINES, N.C. — The formula for a good group trip is not that complicated. All you need are some people willing to engage conversationally, a good course lineup and the most unpredictable but crucial part that’s easily overlooked: good weather. Luckily, we had all of it during our recent Golf Advisor Getaway to the North Carolina Sandhills.
The small area around Pinehurst and Southern Pines, N.C. is hardly a metropolis. But in terms of concentration of great public golf courses, it’s akin to the Kingdom of Fife in Scotland. Given the embarrassment of riches, it’s always a problem that in choosing some courses to play, you are inevitably missing out on others. A solid rule of thumb I have followed over 30+ years of coordinating such trips is never to worry about what you are missing and to make the most of what you line up.
We experienced a mix of representative modern and classic-era courses: The New Course at Talamore (Rees Jones, 1991) and Mid South Club (Arnold Palmer, 1993) sandwiched around Mid Pines Golf Club (Donald Ross, 1921) and Pine Needles (Ross, 1927). All four courses sit along Midland Road, the main connector between the towns of Pinehurst and Southern Pines. Besides minimizing driving, we simplified accommodations, with the across-the-street partnership of Talamore and Mid South enabling us to stay adjacent to the clubhouse at Mid South. There’s nothing on a golf trip like waking and walking your clubs over to an inviting driving range.
Back in the early 1990s, Talamore was the first new upscale daily-fee facility in the region that sold itself on course difficulty. That was the keyword back then in establishing a reputation. But as market perception changed an competition increased, the emphasis in the area – and nationwide – shifted to enjoyable and fun.
Kudos for Talamore for recognizing this and taking out more than 60 bunkers in the last decade. It’s still demanding in terms of the aerial approaches into its raised fill pads, and the signature Rees Jones lateral mounding still serves to exaggerate the effects of a wayward shot by kicking it outward. But the sense of the group was that Talamore was engaging and demanding yet also pressure-free in terms of do-or-die shot making.
The next day at Mid Pines proved the treat of the week, not least because the dry, clear early-fall weather allowed us to enjoy a modicum of ground roll after several days of wet weather had soaked area courses. My foursome – two guys, two gals – ended up playing from four different sets of tees on the par-72 layout: 6,723 yards, 6,163, 5,669 and 4,913. We were not playing a formal competition, and any awkwardness at the tee when it came to awaiting play from four different tees was more than compensated by the quickened pace of golfers playing their subsequent shots from areas more suited to their game.
Mid Pines had long taken a back seat to other Ross-designed courses in the area, including the Pinehurst Resort courses and Pine Needles across the street. But a 2012-13 restoration by designer/shaper Kyle Franz changed all of that and brought back Mid Pines’ character of uniquely shaped greenside fall-offs and fairways that meandered among towering pines and offered alternate paths to the greens.
During a post-round walk through of two holes with Franz, he explained to the group his thinking about what Ross was up to back in 1921. “This was always intended as the hard, demanding private course for the elite clients staying in the Pinehurst area,” said Franz. “Thus the severity of the putting surfaces on the periphery, which we brought back, following historic photography.” It explained a lot about the unusually demanding character of the approach shots at Mid Pines.
That night at a pig pickin' dinner over at Talamore we fretted over the weather forecast for the following day’s golf at Pine Needles. But instead of rain we simply faced heavy overcast skies and enjoyed the more generous fairway contours and softer lines of play that Ross created here in 1927. The real marvel of Pine Needles, a course that has hosted the U.S. Women’s Open in 1996, 2001 and 2007 and which just held the 2019 U.S. Senior Women’s Open, is how gently the holes sit on the rolling land that Ross actually designed to accommodate a traditional real estate development. Along with what we learned the day before at Mid Pines, it showed Ross’ flexibility as a genius of routing.
Our Getaway ended with another good weather day, this time at Mid South. The course is very much an example of mid-1990s design, when the golf boom was producing a lot of boldly shaped layouts that maximized real estate frontage. The back nine has a softer, more natural feel, and for all the shaping you still had a clear sense of intended target line and what to avoid.
Our group included three couples, and the best of the golfers among them, Beth Cowell of Myrtle Beach, S.C., carries a 6.8 index and is competitive in the Grand Strand and on the Carolinas amateur circuit. She and her husband have played all over the U.S, and they frequently hit the road with serious golf couples because, as she says, “I don’t care about much else but golf, and as long as we have a comfortable place to stay and a decent place to eat we’re happy.”
She said she “really enjoyed the course walk with the architect [Franz] and appreciated how all of the tee times and accommodations made the trip so easy.” She’s already talked to other couples about attending future events.
Fine golf courses. Knowledgeable, keen golfers. Decent-enough weather and a program that provides a behind-the-scenes look at golf course set up. It all makes for a worthy trip, as we found in Southern Pines.
Preview Golf Advisor Round Trip: Pinehurst