PINEHURST, N.C. -- The heart of the North Carolina Sandhills markets itself as the "Home of American Golf."
Considering its history, deep roster of golf courses and intimate connection to Donald Ross, the Pinehurst-Southern Pines corridor certainly rates as one of the world's top golf destinations. But where should you play?
Put these five golf courses on your bucket list. Playing Pinehurst No. 2 won't be an option during the back-to-back U.S. Open and U.S. Women's Open in June 2014, but Pinehurst No. 7 or Pinehurst No. 8 are no sorry substitutes if you're in town at that time.
Architects Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw tastefully bowed to history during their incredible restoration in 2011. Using old aerial photos from the nearby Tufts Archives as their guide, they replaced 26 acres of rough with sandy, hardpan waste areas filled with pine needles and hand-planted wiregrass, creating a more visually stimulating, strategic course ready for the two major championships. Eight new tees added less than 100 yards in length, although one will transform the signature par-4 fifth hole into an epic par 5 for the men's Open. The inverted saucer greens -- Pinehurst No. 2's signature -- remain as perplexing and dangerous as ever.
This Donald Ross gem has already hosted the 1999 and 2005 U.S. Opens, the 1991 and 1992 Tour Championships, the 1951 Ryder Cup, the 1938 PGA Championship and countless prestigious amateur events. The best might be yet to come.
It's certainly up for debate whether Tom Fazio's redone No. 4 Course is the second-best course at the resort. Pinehurst No. 8, a Fazio course that opened in 1996 to commemorate Pinehurst's centennial year, certainly deserves a lot of attention. The 7,117-yard No. 4 Course gets my nod because it's so different from others. Fazio kept the spirit of the Ross greens intact, with their false fronts and subtle ridges, but then sprinkled in menacing pot bunkers throughout the routing. Give him bonus points for such stylistic flair. The large lake introduced at the par-5 13th hole and the dangerous par-3 14th hole kick-start an epic finishing romp.
Mid Pines Golf Club also returned to its roots after a recent restoration. The original Ross routing dating to 1921 reopened in August 2013 -- to rave reviews. Architect Kyle Franz used aerial photos as a blueprint to uncover sandy native areas lining its fairways. Greens that had shrunk over time were restored to their original sizes and redone with Bermuda grass. Bunkers were renovated or removed. Subtleties were recaptured. The graceful Georgian-style Inn, a haven of Southern hospitality, frames the final green. Pine Needles/Mid Pines President Kelly Miller said the new version might play a bit tougher than the old one.
"You need to be on the proper side of fairway for a good shot and an angle," he said. "With the new Bermuda greens, you can't fly it and stop it. It is more of a ground game. It is more the way the game was played years ago."
Another Ross classic dating to 1928, Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club has hosted three U.S. Women's Opens. The quality of the winners -- Annika Sorenstam (1996), Karrie Webb (2001) and Cristie Kerr (2007) -- certainly matches the merits of the 7,015-yard course. Big-hitters can challenge the towering trees protecting the doglegs but only at their peril. Its classic look complements Mid Pines.
"We didn't want them both to look the same. It's why there are a lot of different flavors of ice cream," Miller said. "We've got some longtime guests who say, 'We like Pine Needles, but it's no Mid Pines.' Others say, 'Mid Pines is nice, but it's no Pine Needles.' That's pretty neat. Having two different looks to us is really a plus."
Coore and Crenshaw also worked magic at the Dormie Club in nearby West End. There are plans for this timeless-looking treasure to eventually go fully private, so play it while you can. Walkers can easily manage the 100 feet of elevation on this secluded and sprawling 307 acres of land. Taking a caddie (or forecaddie) will certainly enhance an exclusive experience. All the sand on the 6,883-yard course was designed as waste bunkers.