PINEHURST, N.C. -- There are golf trips and there are golf pilgrimages. Pinehurst falls under the latter category. And how do you make it better? Take that trip in October, which is exactly what I just got to do.
Besides the perfect weather – which starts with a pullover in the morning and ends in short sleeves -- it was also an all-star itinerary. Not only did I get to play Pinehurst No. 2, but also three other courses at Pinehurst, including the new short course, The Cradle.
The week-long trip also included stops at Mid Pines Golf Club and Pine Needles (which go together), as well as New Course at Talamore Golf Resort and Mid South Club and a grand finish at Tobacco Road, which may be one of the finest and most unique golf courses in the world. All-in-all, a dream week with almost perfect weather at one of America's top three or four golf destinations, the Sandhills area of North Carolina.
Video: Improvements galore in the Carolina Sandhills
The warmup, then the main event
After flying into Raleigh, my first stop was Anderson Creek Golf Club near Spring Lake, N.C., on the way to Pinehurst. As head pro Dale Fogerty said, "We're usually either the first or the last golf course people play when they make a trip to Pinehurst."
In this case, Anderson Creek is about three-quarters of the way to Pinehurst, which is a pleasant 71-mile drive overall from Raleigh-Durham International Airport. The course was designed by Davis Love III, and it's on a beautiful piece of property. It also costs a fraction of what the premium courses at Pinehurst do, so it's a good value. As a warmup, Anderson Creek was perfect. Just an hour after getting my rental car at RDU, I was already on the course for an afternoon round. Playing from the second set of tees at just over 6,600 yards, it was plenty of golf course, too, with doglegs, large bunkers, tree-lined fairways, streams, ponds, lakes and greens with plenty of movement.
The Carolina Hotel at Pinehurst Resort
After finishing 18, we headed off to Pinehurst Resort and the Carolina Hotel for the next three nights. The 116-year-old Carolina Hotel is the centerpiece of this historic resort, which now has 10 golf courses and as much or more history than any other golf destination in America. The best part about staying at the Carolina is walking the halls, gazing at the historic photographs that chronicle the history of the resort, from the owners like the Dedman Family to Harry Vardon and, of course, Donald Ross, who created much of the golf at Pinehurst and also lived there for 48 years (his house is near the third hole on No. 2).
One of Ross' greatest achievements, of course, is Pinehurst No. 2, which I got to play for the first time since it was restored by Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore to its original look. With modern technology, No. 2, certainly plays faster with better turf (the conversion to Champion Bermuda on the greens is a real godsend) than it did in the old days (it once had sand greens). Off the tee, it's really not overly difficult, but finding the right part of these greens and holding them can be a whole different story. After a slow start, I did manage a 40 on the back nine, which was aided in large part by my caddie, who helped immensely with green reading.
The rack rate for No. 2 is more than $400 and you generally have to stay at the resort to play it. But I put the experience in the same category as Pebble Beach, and serious golfers should play it at least once in their lifetime. Besides the history, it's just one of the country's very best golf courses with subtleties that might be lost on higher handicappers, but can only be realized by playing the course. The history of this course is unmistakable, with Payne Stewart's epic U.S. Open win over Phil Mickelson in 1999 just months before his untimely death, and of course, countless other championships, including a Ryder Cup, PGA Championship and both the men's and women's U.S. Opens in 2014. No. 2 will host its next U.S. Open in 2024.
More golf at Pinehurst
Also on the schedule at Pinehurst was No. 8, No. 9 and The Cradle. The design of No. 8 is unmistakably Tom Fazio, but it also seems right at home in the Sandhills with its bunkering. It's all the golf you want, just like No. 9, which tee to green seemed much harder to me than No. 2 (if you play the right tees). No. 9, a Jack Nicklaus design that was acquired in 2014, has a lot of difficult holes with several forced carries, difficult doglegs and difficult greens complexes. Miss the greens and you're often faced with downhill lies in the rough to an elevated green, which to me is one of the toughest shots in golf (I'd rather have the long bunker shot, thank you).
The highlight, though, of my Pinehurst experience was playing The Cradle, the Gil Hanse-designed 789-yard short course that's right next to the clubhouse where the opening holes for Nos. 1 and 3 used to be. It's also next to the new 18-hole putting course, Thistle Dhu, also designed by Hanse. This is actually the latest incarnation and new location of the putting course, which originally got its name from the 1916-designed miniature course at from James Barber, who proclaimed upon seeing the finished project, "This'll do." Complete with drink holders, it's a great way to wind up the day with or without playing The Cradle.
But it's The Cradle, which opened in early October, that's all the rage. It has that terrific Sandhills look, but isn't overly difficult, with holes that range from around 50 yards or so to around 120. They give you an old-timey Pinehurst carry bag to tote your three to five clubs around the yard, and there are a couple of pin positions that can be receptive to aces for added enjoyment. Best of all, it's playable by all levels, so if you're traveling with someone who is more of novice, they will enjoy as much or more than you will, though I promise you even scratch players will find this fun. Cost to play it is around $50, but you can play it as many times as you like in day, which isn't a bad deal at all.
Mid Pines, Talamore hold their own, too
While Pinehurst is a bucket-list experience, the rest of my golf on this trip certainly didn't disappoint.
My next two rounds -- while staying at the Talamore Golf Resort just three miles from Pinehurst -- were at Mid Pines and Pine Needles golf clubs respectively. Like Pinehurst No. 2, these are both classic Ross designs with recent restorations. They're both also impeccable (both are overseeeded by the way) and classic in every imaginable way. One of my playing companions, a former member of the University of Florida golf team, had one of the best phrases I had heard on this trip when he would miss a putt or fall victim to a false front on the difficult greens at Mid Pines: "I've been Rossed," he would say. No doubt, after all these years, figuring out Ross greens are always a challenge. Pine Needles is certainly the easier of the two courses, and one I could play every day, but both a can't-miss on any trip to the Sandhills.
Rounding out the itinerary at Mid South, Talamore
Also, highly recommended are Mid South and Talamore golf courses. Mid South is technically private, but open to resort guests. It's a wonderful Arnold Palmer/Ed Seay design that just reopened in September after a greens renovation. It's in perfect shape, and one of the most enjoyable courses you will play in North Carolina. Add to that a new level of service they are providing there, and Mid South also vaults to the list of must-plays in the area if you can get on.
And finally at Talamore, there's the New Course, which is a renovation of the original Rees Jones-designed resort course there. Also opening with new greens, albeit a year ago, the course has new bunkering as well, including a dozen sodwall bunkers that really stand out. This was certainly one of the favorites in the area for groups on packages as the resort, with its condo rental pool, offered free breakfasts and a pork barbecue on Thursdays complimentary to guests of the resort.
An interesting side note: Talamore once used Llamas as caddies, but the practice became too cumbersome. There are still a couple of llamas on the property, though, penned up by the 14th tee.
Journey punctuated by Tobacco Road
On my last day, I made the stop about halfway to the airport to play the legendary Mike Strantz-designed Tobacco Road Golf Club in Sanford, N.C.
I don't have enough superlatives.
My colleague, Tim Gravich, a former college player who's still a really good stick, calls it "one of the most important golf courses ever built. A masterpiece that stretches the boundaries of how a golf course can look and play."
And I agree. It's what happens when a skilled architect with great imagination is free to create. There's nothing like Tobacco Road out there really, and unfortunately because Strantz passed away far too soon in 2005, there never will be (though I recommend playing his other designs, too, like Caledonia near Myrtle Beach and Royal New Kent in Virginia).
While I wouldn't steer high handicappers to Tobacco Road (you do have to be able to carry the ball to some difficult greens), it's a must play for avid golfers who can appreciate solving a great puzzle. More forgiving than it looks, you approach each hole with a plan. Despite the acres of sand and grass-covered mounds, there's plenty of room to drive the ball. The greens have intriguing slopes, but they are solvable. Best of all, this course never gets boring.