Golf in North Carolina's Triangle: Favorite public courses in the Raleigh/Chapel Hill/Durham region

Golfers in the Triangle area of North Carolina -- that's Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill -- have an abundance of public courses to choose from. The three anchor universities (Duke, UNC Chapel Hill and NC State) each have their own course open to the public, and dozens of semi-private neighborhood courses hold their own against heavy competition from the Pinehurst area an hour south.

But among the embarrassment of riches, which courses stand out as the true gems? Obviously it depends on what you're looking for. Some players actually enjoy long, forced carries and impossible-to-read greens. Maybe some even get a kick out of hitting an errant ball out of someone's backyard. But for me, a mid-handicapper, not-so-long hitter who loves to just enjoy a nice, scenic round without wondering why I paid good money to be kicked in the teeth, I can attest to the five I enjoy the most.

UNC Finley Golf Course

Scenic. Quiet. Secluded. UNC Finley Golf Course -- a beautiful, playable championship course in the middle of Chapel Hill -- has been a landmark since 1949. Architect Tom Fazio completed a full redesign in 1999 and described it as some of his best work.

With five tee boxes on each hole and an overall length that ranges from 4,981 yards to 7,187 yards, a defining factor of Finley is its playability for golfers of all levels. Masochists can head back to the black tees to test their skills, and the rest of us have a decent shot at actually hitting greens in regulation.

Mill Creek Golf Club

Mill Creek Golf Club , how do I love thee? Let me count the ways. Your scenery. Your playability. Your insistence on a reasonable pace of play. Granted, I may be a little biased since Mill Creek was the site of my first sub-100 round, but this course holds a place in my heart for many reasons.

Located about 15 minutes west of Chapel Hill in the town of Mebane, the course offers lush, tree-lined fairways, natural water features, rolling terrain and a sense of history. The course's moniker derives from the old Mill Creek Grist Mill that once stood here. You'll play past the historic remains of the mill, through natural areas and past the creeks and streams that once fueled the mill.

Its four tee boxes range from 7,004 yards to 4,884 yards -- hallelujah, ladies, we can hit greens in regs. And it's clever: the signature hole is no. 18, a 428-yard par 4 offering two fairways to choose from. You'll never feel like you played the same course twice.

Lonnie Poole Golf Course

You're tired of the gentle pampering you've received at Finley and Mill Creek and you're ready to take a bruising. Head to Lonnie Pool Golf Course in Raleigh, NC State's track and the newest member of the Triangle public golf course family.

Again, there's no lacking for beauty at Lonnie Poole. An Audobon-certified course, it is possibly the most eco friendly of Triangle courses and has as many natural areas as you'll find anywhere. You can always expect excellent conditioning and lush terrain. But easy on the eyes does not translate to easy on the scorecard.

Lonnie Poole has teeth -- big wolf fangs, you might say -- it's by far the most challenging course on this list. But Arnold Palmer was kind to the bogey-golfer set and provides a bail-out on every hole. Your masochistic playing partner can take the risk, and you can still get the reward.

Occoneechee Golf Club

Family-owned Occoneechee Golf Club in Hillsborough offers one of the best values in the Triangle area. Guests can pay as little as $21 to walk the pretty, well maintained, par-71 course.

Multiple dog legs, tiered greens and water on several holes will keep you on your toes, but medium-to-high handicappers can still expect to score.

Tobacco Road Golf Club

Okay, I might be cheating just a little bit with this pick seeing as how Tobacco Road Golf Club isn't technically located in the Triangle but a half hour drive south. But that means it's close enough for horseshoes, and you just can't talk about top public courses in this area without including Tobacco Road.

From the rustic, charming, country-style clubhouse to the unique target-golf format, this Mike Strantz course has garnered multiple awards since it opened in 1998, including inclusion on Golf Magazine's Top 100 Greatest Courses in America.

Carving around an abandoned sand quarry in the sleepy town of Sanford, the course offers a challenging experience unlike any other. Conditions are always excellent, especially with the recently rebuilt greens. Some find the target golf format a little gimmicky -- I say, bring on the gimmicks. The course is visually stunning and just plain fun.

Jennifer Mario is a regular contributor to the TravelGolf Network and the author of "Michelle Wie: The Making of a Champion" (St. Martin's Griffin, 2006). A graduate of Duke University, she lives in the Triangle area of North Carolina with her family.
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Golf in North Carolina's Triangle: Favorite public courses in the Raleigh/Chapel Hill/Durham region
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