We imagined that golf season was winding down in Buffalo-Niagara, so our attention momentarily turned to domes, trips and television. However, Mother Nature in the guise of El Ninyo disagreed, so we golfed through December 23rd, took a break, and returned to the course in January. To keep the appetite whetted, I’m going to offer up a new series on eclectic eighteens across the USA. The only thread tying them together is my having played them. That, and the fact that all of the courses are worthwhile. You’ll never play them all in one sweep, as I once did, but when you find yourself in these regions, know that these courses are worth your money and your best game.
One of the great surprises for northeastern golfers is the first view of dormant winter grass. It’s unique to southern climates and when a course doesn’t overseed with a temporary variety, the turf browns into wheat. Or what looks like wheat. At this point, it’s a good idea to break out the colored golf balls, as the eye tends to lose the white orbs against this much-lighter background. Some courses overseed fairways only, so the rough is dormant but the short grass remains green.
Southern Pines is a wonderful golf course. It maxes out at around 6200 yards, but I’ll guarantee it’s one of the longest, most challenging courses of that length that you will play. Here’s the reason: none of the par-three holes is a pitch shot. You’ll hit seven iron or longer on all of them. Tee balls on many holes appear to be downhill, but it’s an illusion of sorts. The fairway begins to ascend to the green in the drive zone, so the tee ball’s forward momentum gets killed in the upward slope. And those approach shots to the elevated greens? They play a club or two longer, plus an adjustment of the shoulders and the swing path, to compensate for the uphill lie.
The greens at Southern Pines are not the original, Donald Ross-designed greens. There’s a bit of mystery to them. They occupy the same green pads as the originals, but nearly all of them have multiple tiers, something that Ross was not known to do (Alister MacKenzie, perhaps, but not Ross.) This is not to say that they are neither challenging nor good; they are both and you will enjoy them. My suggestion to you, on the occasion of your first playing, is to lay back in the flat spots. If you want to challenge par fives and driveable par fours with heroic shots, understand that the greenside lies you draw may confound you more than any other. Under no circumstances should you miss out on Southern Pines.
Among golfing purists, the notion of wide-open spaces is a cardinal tenet. There should be sweeping vistas of coastlines, hills, forests and fields that surround the playing area. The intrusion of man-made objects is a no-no, and is detrimental to the golfing experience. That’s all fine, if you have all the funding or land (or both) in the world and can afford to guarantee that nothing human (besides the golfers) will ever disrupt your experience.
I would bring those golfers to Ballantyne, which plays in the shadows of a grand hotel, alongside a busy highway, through corridors of tall office buildings, and finds a way to preserve a sense of isolation. I’m not trying to sell you a bill of goods and suggest that you won’t notice the fingerprints of corporate man as you enjoy your round. I will promise that if you focus your attention on the sideslopes, the positioning of the bunkers, the curves and rolls of the greens, and the trace of the fairways, you will come to understand that a golf course, and a golfing experience, can coexist with and within a decidedly-urban setting.
A winter playing over a golf course is a unique experience. Leaves are off trees, so fairway corridors seem more ample. The ground is often firm in some areas and moist in others; the various caroms and settlings differ from the consistency of in-season golf. Dormant grasses offer a natural, tawny playing surface, exposing undulations that might be hidden by a verdant green setting. Ballantyne offered a balanced tour of 18 holes, leaning left on occasion and bending right on others. In no case was a specific shot-direction called for, at the expense of its alternative. Rarely is a forced carry the only option; in the case of the par-three 10th hole, it’s a shot you want to play!