Over the last twenty years or so, the U.S.G.A has made an effort to bring its flagstick championship to more venues that are publicly accessible – sometimes to great effects (Pinehurst x3, Pebble in 2000 and 2010, Torrey Pines in 2008 and 2020, and Bethpage in 2009), and other times less so (Bethpage in 2009, Erin Hills in 2017, and, of course, the agronomic disgrace that was Chambers Bay in 2015). Considering its convenient location, the depth of golf in the area, and the recent re-invigoration of the resort from a Bermuda-stifling country-club setting to a more modern and vibrant destination, there seems hardly a better place to experience a U.S. Open – whether spectating or playing #2 or Pine Needles – than in the Sandhills of North Carolina. And get ready, the U.S.G.A is returning here a-lot of over the next little while. With that said, here are my top 10 courses in the Pinehurst area:
1. Pinehurst #2: As good as golf gets, especially on the public front. In my mind, this is quite clearly the best public course in the country. I’m not sure if I would award it a perfect 10, but it’s pretty close.
2. Southern Pines: I made a concerted effort to play the renovated product before most others did, mainly so that I could form my own opinion before it got swept up in the same social media hysteria as, say, Sweetens or Sleepy or Moraine (or a handful of others), and, let me tell you, did I come away impressed. Obviously, the vast tree removal program and remodelling of the bunkers and grassing lines did much to recapture the genius of Donald Ross’ original creation, but I was especially blown away by the work that Kyle Franz’s firm did to the greens and their surrounds, which, aside from #2, are my favourite set in town. I think this is likely a top 100 golf course in the country now; if it isn’t, it’s right on the cusp.
3. Mid Pines: There are few more pleasant places to play than this Ross gem, which traverses what is undoubtedly among the best properties for golf in the area. In particular, the set of par 4s is strong and varied, with a great mix of long and medium and short, sidehill and uphill and downhill.
4. Dormie Club: My relationship with the Dormie Club is long and, unfortunately, a little mixed, having played it more than any other course in the area since its creation. In the early days of the 2010s, the experience here was much like that of an upper-end private club (which was the original vision of its creators, of course), with a handful of jump-suit caddies absent-mindedly waiting by the first tee for a loop, an understated and spartan yet charming clubhouse cum restaurant cum locker room, a halfway house that operated according to the “honour system”, an absence of rakes, and, most importantly, a course that was kept firm and fast, which emphasized the clever contouring and strategic elements of Bill Coore’s and Ben Crenshaw’s design. Yet, as I returned on an almost yearly basis, I saw first-hand the product and atmosphere of the club gradually transform (read: dilute) into something akin to most other public options: the caddie program disappeared; the sight of carts driving across fairways and through the waste areas became common; the turf lost its crispiness; and the fine detailing work, to the bunkers especially, was lost due to neglect (although I haven’t returned since The Dormie Network’s recent takeover, and reprivatization, of the club).
Still, the Dormie Club is a first-rate experience, featuring all the hallmarks one would expect from a Coore and Crenshaw design. Granted, there are a few clunkers, particularly the 600 yard par 5, 10th, where the golfer is forced to either attempt a heroic two hundred and twenty yard carry from a downhill lie over a marsh, or play way right on his second shot, leaving a third of more than two hundred yards into the tight green. On this hole, as on a few others, wetland restrictions supposedly tied the architects’ hands. A heated debate ragged a handful of years back on GolfClubAtlas over the risk-reward merits of the 14th and 15th, and I find myself more in Mark Salzman’s camp, who thinks that they are both slightly miscalculated. In fact, the archived threads on the Dormie Club are all worth a peruse through, not only for their entertainment value, but also for a reminder of the kind of intelligent, cutting-edge back-and-forth that used to occur on the discussion board before it withered into what it is now.
5. Pinehurst 4: I’m a little higher on the course than co-writer, Andrew, but I understand his criticisms of the greens being, to paraphrase, overcooked merely for the sake of being overcooked. Perhaps my more favourable view of Gil Hanse’s effort has to do with having played what Tom Fazio originally laid down on the site. In short, Hanse’s work is not perfect, but it is, undoubtedly, a huge upgrade. I am particularly fond of the stretch from the 2nd to the 6th, and of the last four holes. I think the middle segment, however, which traverses some of the less interesting land, is a tad plain and, in many ways, just a President’s Choice version of #2.
6. Pine Needles: A really good championship venue, although I think it lacks some of the more intriguing and unique elements of the courses that are higher on this list, which, consequently, also makes it perfect for major championship golf. To me, everything is just a little too right in front of you and predictable. Yet, the greens and their surrounds are excellent, as are the holes over the more intense parts of the property. Its positioning on this list, though, is more a reflection of the quality of golf in the area than a criticism of the course, itself.
7. Pinehurst #3: Recently restored to match the aesthetics of its bigger and more famous neighbors, from the second shot to the last putt this 5100 yard course, however, does not take a back seat. In truth, I really struggled with where to rank it, considering just how much fun it is. In my view of golf courses, I tend to value tee shots quite a lot, so I struggle to rank it higher than this, but I couldn’t disagree if someone told me that this is their 3rd or 4th favourite course in the area.
8. Forest Creek (South): A stock solid, rugged Tom Fazio effort over rolling topography. Like its sister course, this is an extremely pleasant and tranquil setting for a round. In short, I would gladly be a member at this absolutely first-rate private facility.
9. Forest Creek (North): Copy, paste the description from its sister course. This effort is a little less rugged, and more akin to what I picture when I think of a Tom Fazio design. Again, though, there really isn’t a bad hole among the eighteen. I am, and have always been, firmly of the belief that Mr. Fazio is the subject of far too much criticism as an architect, especially from the GCA/Fried Egg kvetch brigade. Frankly, I’ve never not enjoyed a round on one of his courses; I think he’s a perfect builder for a certain type of clientele and market. An not every client is of the single-strap bag, rope hat, everything-of-yesteryear-is-better-than-today mold.
10. The Cradle: Grab your wedges, a couple balls, and the booze of your liking – one word: fun. The one downside is that it’s constantly packed with golfers, especially at dusk, which does not allow for the kind of cross property, imaginative golf I would love to play upon it.
Note: Yes, I have played Tobacco Road.