For northern golfers, there’s little use in trying to restrain their enthusiasm for an upcoming, winter-respite golf junket. Planning leads to travel, which leads to … flexibility? In some cases, yes. For two consecutive years, my three amigos and I have scheduled a President’s Weekend journey to Pinehurst, North Carolina. Twice in a row, we have dealt with wind, rain, cold temperatures and snow. If it were anticipated, we’d either be crazy or realistic. Since it wasn’t, we had to adjust our plans and expectations.
I’ll elaborate: in 2013, the weather was wonderful leading into our four-days-away. Day one saw the snow come down midway through our first nine holes at Dormie Club and shortened the back nine to a back three. The planned courses for day two (Pinehurst #1 and #3) were lost and only a quick call to Little River saved a bit of the day. Day three greeted us with another weather delay, forcing a shotgun start at MidPines (we played 14 holes) and delaying our start time at Pine Needles, where we somehow completed the entire 18 holes before the arrival of the setting sun. Even our Tuesday round at Pinehurst #2, site of the 2014 Women’s and Men’s US Open championships, was hampered by similar elements.
As mid-February 2014 came into view, Mother Nature expressed a desire to redeem herself. Offering temperatures in the 50s and sunny, blue skies, the lady of the elements made us believe that this year would be different and that our planned rounds would play out as anticipated. Then winter storm Pax entered the picture and brought snow and ice to the North Carolina sand hills.
My friends, the beauty of the south-central region of North Carolina is its proximity to a weather line. Pax rode to the coast on an angle, coating Pinehurst in white but leaving places like Lumberton, Greenville and Rocky Mount virtually untouched. We shed a few tears over our lost rounds at Dormie (again!), Pinehurst #1 and Southern Pines, then worked the web and phone to replace those 18s with Cutter Creek near Greenville and Pine Crest in Lumberton. What might have degenerated into a few sessions of moaning, whining and complaining, instead evolved into a visit to some previously-unknown courses worthy of your attention.
Cutter Creek sits in a town called Snow Hill. Opened in 2009, it represents one of the last new builds in the lower 48. Cutter Creek was designed by Bob Moore of the JMP design firm and covers a fairly-massive 220 acres. Measured with ponds and a fair number of required carry shots, Cutter Creek will never be mistaken for a classic course, as its mounding and bunkering styles are pure 1990s and 2000s. Golfers have a penchant for one style of course design or the other and this Creek will make the modernists ask immediately for the replay rate after putting out on 18.
Speaking of the 18th hole, it’s an ideal finish to the other 17 and one of the finest examples of a heroic, risk-reward hole that I’ve played. The massive lake that you see in the distance, from both parking lot and clubhouse, serves for more than optional fishing. It flanks the right side of the hole and ranges from 460 to 610 yards, depending on your tee selection. From the tee, the green sits off to the right and a tip of the water edges in on the same line. Ignore both and play over the inside of the carry bunker on the left. The edge of the lake is very reachable in the drive zone and the entire fairway slopes hard-right there, sending wonderfully-struck tee shots toward a watery demise.
Balls played over the bunker alight in the short grass and present the next dilemma: stay or go. The fairway continues up the left for another 150 yards, but the green is a mere 225 over the H2O. With no wind, a well-struck hybrid or fairway metal will provide a run at eagle. A solitary tree grows at water’s edge and one playing companion mused on how the tree will continue to distract as it grows, thickens and widens. Good point, but for not, it’s still kinda thin. We played Cutter Creek’s front nine on a windy, cold and mildly-rainy day, then toured the back nine, finishing up with a play at the home hole. We hit shot after shot until we reached the green on 18 and it was fun, challenging golf from start to finish.
Our next detour came on day two of the trip. We drove to Pinehurst after Cutter Creek and unloaded bags in our condo. Check-ins with area courses indicated that Pinehurst was still a day away from enough snow melt to open, so we acted on a tip from fellow Golf Club Atlas denizen Jim Kennedy and headed an hour down route 211 to Lumberton, the last big North Carolina city along Interstate 95. Pine Crest country club epitomizes the nomenclature of unpolished gem. The course is definitely old school, offering ground-game options on every shot. At the same time, its fairways and greens reward a high-ball hitter who knows how to control trajectory, curve and distance. The club’s PGA professional, Dwight Cane, could not have been more welcoming and he even spent time on a club history lesson with us.
We’re still trying to untangle the threads, as a bit of northern snow was still wedged in our ear canals, but this is the gist of the architectural lineage: back in the late 1920s, Lumberton decided to build a golf course. Donald J. Ross was hired to route the course. The course wasn’t built until the 1930s and was put in the ground by Dick Wilson, a club pro and aspiring architect. He made trips to Pinehurst to gain advice from none other than Donald Ross. In the 1950s, the second nine was installed and was a collaborative effort by Wilson and Ross. In other words, it’s a pretty classic golf course.
The corridors of Pine Crest are lined with quite-tall trees, yet thanks to their trimming, they don’t obstruct ball advancement. A few water hazards dot the course, but they are not the type that demand heroic shots to clear them. In fact, the most bucolic spot on the entire 18 is framed by a large pond. The 13th hole is a mid-length par four that bends left yet slopes right. At the right perimeter, beyond the drive zone, is the water. It claims weak shots left right but otherwise does not impede on the natural playing of the hole. The ideal approach is left to right, off the high kick slope.
For the hundreds of thousands of golfers that travel to Myrtle Beach along I-95, Lumberton is the quintessential first or final round on a trip. The course is unlike any found along the Grand Strand and should be a required stop for all snowbirds who make a spring golfing pilgrimage an annual rite.
By Monday, we were able to tee up a ball, finally, in Pinehurst. More schedule manipulation ensued and Pinehurst #1 (for the second consecutive year) and Dormie (also snake-bit there) were dropped from the schedule, along with Southern Pines. Tobacco Road was moved to Monday with Mid Pines and Pinehurst #3 finished the run on Tuesday. In February, as you might imagine, with snow on the ground, golf course directors can be flexible. We were able to bump three tee times without batting an eyelash. We rescheduled to precisely the same time, different day. That doesn’t happen in the Fall or Spring; of course, neither does snow!
Briefly, when you go to the Pinehurst area, you encounter three types of courses. The first is the classic genre, built essentially by Donald Ross and made up of three courses at the Pinehurst Resort, Mid Pines, Southern Pines and Pine Needles, along with the most recent addition, Dormie, in which Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw captured the spirit of Ross and the classic sand hills architecture. You also encounter one other modern course unlike any other, Tobacco Road. Get past the visual intimidation and hijinks of the late and artistic Mike Strantz and Tobacco Road offers shot values at the same level as the great Ross courses. The third type of course found in the area are the modern courses of the touring pros (Nicklaus, Palmer, Love III), Robert Trent Jones, Rees Jones and the Maples family. These are paradigmatic examples of resort golf. They are terrific tests of your game, in a very modern, target-oriented way.
As for me, I’m lining up a third consecutive trip to south-central North Carolina for 2015. I anticipate that we’ll move Dormie and Pinehurst #1 to the end of the trip, so that we can finally take an uninterrupted run at their layouts. We’ll add some of the modern, resort-style courses as well, in order to report back fully on all the golf you can play at the classic home of golf in the United States of America.