North Carolina, and in particular the east-central part home to Pinehurst and the Carolina Sandhills, can be a tricky golf season to figure out.
We know the summers will be warm, but will it be too hot to play comfortably? What about the winter? Can I book a golf package in February, fly down from the north and be sure there won't be snow on the ground?
And when is the best time of year to find a deal on green fees?
A Carolina conundrum for golfers is that the most popular months for golf tourism aren't necessarily the very best for weather and course conditions. In Myrtle Beach, tee sheets from February thru early March are packed with snowbirds, but chilly days with frost delays are common, and bermuda grass is generally dormant until the second half of April.
The average highs in Pinehurst from December thru February don't crest past the mid-50s. My first golf trip to Pinehurst was in late-February in 2010, and on some chilly days I was the only one on the course. One morning I skipped my tee time to hang out at the Tufts Archives.
The Sandhills are one of the most popular golf markets in the east, and the roster goes well beyond the historic Donald Ross gems at Pinehurst Resort, Mid Pines and Pine Needles. Dig deeper and it's actually a very strong bang-for-buck destination, and one with plenty of solid courses even if you skip the top shelf.
So how do the courses set their green fees by season? Well, the courses in the $50-80 range don't alter there rates that noticeably by season and instead tend to rely on dynamic pricing.
Two high-end golf courses (Mid Pines and Dormie Club) have static, seasonal rate structures on their sites and provide a glimpse into what is considered peak season. Both have a low-season rate from November to early March ($80-95). Their peak seasons are from late-March/early-April until just before Memorial Day weekend ($195-210). Summer rates dip back to closer to winter levels (Dormie drops lower than Mid Pines). Rates go back up in mid-September thru mid-November, and are about 75-85% of the spring peak season fees.
Tobacco Road on the other hand posts one, yearlong rate of $100 weekday, $130 weekends.
With those rate expectations in mind, I wanted to analyze your review data and learn when green fees are matching up best with the conditions and overall experience. I compiled a collection of two dozen of our most popular courses in the Pinehurst area -- of varying price points but worthy to the traveling golfer -- and gathered a sample of nearly 2,800 reviews.
Here are the average Overall, Conditions and Value average scores per month dating back to the fall of 2012 when we began tracking reviews:
The Verdict: Best month for a Sandhills golf trip
The first thing that sticks out in the data is that Value is very strong in the Sandhills. The worst month for value may be peak season in April, but it's still nearly 4.0, and in many months the average soars above 4.4. The only better subcategory average for the sample is Course Layout, which is a very high 4.5/5 avg. among the selected courses.
The destination's Course Conditions however are the laggard average (3.9) and actually the worst of the six subcategory ratings we track. Being in the country's "transition zone" for turf grass likely gives area superintendents headaches in terms of whether or not to overseed in the winter. Abnormally warm, cool, wet and dry spells can throw a wrench in a super's agronomy plan. Just another reason why more courses like Pinehurst and Mid Pines have opted for native areas rather than rough.
So can the April peak season at Pinehurst deliver? Apparently, not really. Ratings are lowest across the board. Basing what we know about area rate structures, we can assume peak prices are causing a sharp drop in overall satisfaction. That said, October has similar temperatures but a sharply higher satisfaction with a little bit lower demand.
Ratings from November thru February are good, but the sample size is low, which hints that comfortably playable days are spotty. But if you can catch a warm day in February, when rates are still off-season, you'll be a happy golfer. But this is a better option for those that can drive into town on a whim and less so for national markets.
I'll recommend golfers visit either in early March before rates shoot up (hey, I love golf in a sweater), or wait until after Memorial Day weekend and go in early June. The best time of year however is that secondary peak season in October, when the three categories are collectively the highest.
How rate structure can impact overall scores
The results got me thinking about the very different rate structures at Dormie Club and Tobacco Road. Both are among the best non-resort courses in the area, and yet Tobacco Road's rates don't swing seasonally. Each have a similar amount of reviews on Golf Advisor, so I compared the two course ratings by month:
It's quite clear that when Dormie Club's rates shoot up in April, ratings drop, while Tobacco Road receives consistently strong reviews all year. Granted, we're looking at a small sample of 35-40 reviews total per course, and Dormie Club is closer to the Village Pinehurst with a real estate and membership component, but it seems like the only thing keeping Dormie from a comparable Overall score as Tobacco Road is its lofty peak season rates.
I'm curious how you think this data compares to your experience playing golf in North Carolina. Let me know on Twitter @brandontucker or in the comments below. Ready to plan a trip? Click here for our Beginner's Guide to golf in the Sandhills for everything you need to know about accommodations, packages and more.