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Thad Gutowski

Head for the hills.

By Thad Gutowski

As a golfer, I have been blessed. No, not with a faultless swing or a plus two handicap. But, with something better. Over the past fifty or so years I have had the opportunity to tee it up on many of the world's most revered courses: Pebble Beach, Augusta, Pine Valley and the best of Scotland - St. Andrews, Carnoustie and Royal Troon,- to name a few. I tell you this, because I believe I have at least some insight in to what it takes to have a memorable golf experience. A trip last November to the Sandhills of North Carolina was one of them.

Golf Digest magazine ranks the Sandhills area as the third greatest golf destination in the world. That's right, in the world! Who's ahead? Only Pebble Beach and St. Andrews. But let's face it, the Sandhills are easier to get to for us Michigan golfers. A lot easier. Forget about the twentyone-day advance purchase, and the excruciating long lines at the airport security. Just jump into your car as I did, and 13 hours later you are ready to experience some of the very best golf America has to offer.

Let's start at the beginning. It was 1895 when a fellow named James W. Tufts decided to spend the winters away from his native New England. He used a small portion of the fortune he made inventing the soda fountain to purchase 5,000 acres of near worthless cut-over timberland in the Sandhills area, for what many considered an outrageous price of a dollar an acre. A couple of years later a nine-hole course was introduced at the new Pinehurst Resort, but it really wasn't much more than a built-up tee and a few feet of rolled ground around the hole. But hey, you have to start somewhere. Within a couple of years this course was spruced up and another nine was added.

Things really started to happen in 1900 when the renowned British amateur Harry Vardon played the course and gave rave reviews that were widely publicized here, as well as abroad. Later that year Donald Ross from Dornoch, Scotland an assistant to the legendary Tom Morris, was hired as the golf professional. The rest is as they say, history. Today Pinehurst Resort has eight championship courses and another coming soon. What golfer of any ilk is not aware of Pinehurst #2, a Ross masterpiece where in 1999 the late Payne Stewart won his first U.S. Open with a fantastic 15-foot putt? Incidentally, Stewart's triumphant fist-pump gesture is now immortalized near the 18th green with a life-size bronze statue.

But there is more to the Sandhills area than The Resort. A lot more! For openers there are another 16 great courses scattered around and near the villages of Pinehurst, Southern Pines and Aberdeen. Though all of the courses have their own personality, each rewarded me with what I look for - a pleasant experience.

Tobacco Road Golf Club

Tobacco Road Golf Club

The toughest course without question is one with the most unusual name of Tobacco Road Golf Club. Though I'm not one of those guys who remember every shot on every hole he ever took, I remember vividly those I took here. But I'm trying to forget the quantity! I thought Pine Valley in New Jersey was the toughest track I had ever played, but after Tobacco Road I'm not so sure. The yardage from the tips is a very manageable 6,554 yards. But the slope is 150! Get the picture? Tobacco Road has received a plethora of accolades since it opened for play in 1998, including the Best New Course in North Carolina. I'll add mine: Here is a course of uncommon beauty and incredible imagination, which you will never forget·ever!

Rees Jones put his mark on the Sandhills with the outstanding Talamore Golf Club. In 1991 it was named the Best New Public Course in the South, and if it opened today it very well could win the award again. This is a fine test of golf, which thankfully doesn't benefit the long hitter but those that send the ball in the intended direction. The excellent condition, nice elevation changes and tree lined fairways gives Talamore a special character. Don't forget to ask about the Llama. Not the Dali type, but those that perform as caddies!

The Pit Golf Links

The Pit Golf Links
If the Pit Golf Links wasn't a knockout golf course, one might question the name. Constructed on an abandoned 230-acre sand quarry by noted course architect Dan Maples the Pit has been gaining praise since it opened about fifteen years ago. Incidentally, the Maples name holds a very notable place in golf history that began with great grandfather Frank who worked with the venerable Donald Ross on the second course at The Resort. You'll like the Pit, especially the fourth hole: a 232-yard par-three through a chute to a green surrounded by moguls. Even after all the years, The Pit remains on the Golf Digest list as one of the top 50 courses open to the public. I believe it.

There are another two Dan Maples designed courses in the area:

Little River Golf Club

Little River Golf Club

Little River Golf Club once a landmark in the world of equestrian sports is now an exceptional layout that takes you through protected wetlands and one-time pastureland, before disappearing into dense woodlands on the backside. With large greens, superlative elevation changes and daunting par 5's Little River comes through as a wonderful experience.

It began as a training facility for some of America's top thoroughbred horses, but since 1988 The Club at Longleaf has held the distinction of being "the most playable course in the Pinehurst area." If you are looking to post a score you can talk about back home this could very well be the place.

Here's a name you won't forget: Bayonet at Puppy Creek. And you won't forget the course either, if you include it on a trip to the Sandhills. An annual tournament site of the Hooters Tour, Bayonet presents 18 distinctive holes sculptured through the rolling hills surrounding, you got it- Puppy Creek. (I still haven't figured out the Bayonet part.)

I remember well when I played Foxfire Golf & Country Club for the first time back in the late 60's. With 36 holes and convenient lodging it quickly became one of the Pinehurst area's premier golf destinations. Just a few years ago over $5 million was spent to bring everything up to date, but what I like most about this facility remains unchanged: treacherous greens, rolling fairways, and the region's landmark towering pines.

Deercroft Golf Club is a little off the beaten path, but very well worth the ride. Carved through a virtual forest of long-needle pine trees the tight fairways will penalize the errant shot. If hitting it straight is your claim to fame, don't miss this one.

Seven Lakes Country Club is as one might expect, is not built around six or eight lakes. This private gated community that welcomes visitors, is home to many retirees from Michigan. But it's not your grandfather's course. Not by a long shot. With small, severely sloped greens, many uphill holes, and water all around, it is a fine test of golf. Tip: Keep it below the hole!

You won't find all of the gimmicks prevalent in today's designer courses at Hyland Hills Golf Club. This is traditional golf at its finest. No island greens. No adrenaline pumping forced carries. Just a lot of fun, value and Southern charm. Can you ask for more?

Arnold Palmer is known for masterful design and The Carolina is in this tradition. The King took full advantage of the natural beauty here and created a course that meanders gently through natural wetlands, longneedle pines and picturesque views. I've never set foot on a Palmer course I didn't enjoy. The Carolina keeps the string going.

The Legacy

The Legacy

Not to be outdone in the area, the Nicklaus family came up with a design that took top honors as North Carolina's 2000 Course of the Year, according to the National Golf Course Owners Association. The Legacy Golf Links is one of only three official USGA sites in the region and last year was host to the 24th U.S. Women's Amateur Public Links Championship. I must admit there are a couple of Nicklaus courses in Michigan I try to avoid, but I'm pleased to give two thumbs up to The Legacy.

If you long for the days when golf was a genteel endeavor and not over-run with cap-backward crazies yelling "you da' man!" Beacon Ridge Golf & Country Club is the place for you (and me). Here is a course designed in the classic style that provides a worthwhile challenge in a beautiful setting.

Woodlake Resort & Golf Club offers two championship courses. The first was designed by one of the famous Maples clan, Ellis back in 1971. And as you might expect, is in the classic style popular at the time. But with water coming into play on nine holes and over 7,000 yards from the tips, you will find it a genuine challenge. A second 18-hole Arnold Palmer design was introduced in 1996 with extensive natural areas, lots of native sand, water hazards, and strategically placed bunkers. I found each course a joy to play.

The very latest addition to the Sandhills collection is the 7,180-yard Anderson Creek Golf Club designed by Davis Love III and his brother Mark. The course opened for play in July 2001 and Davis is quoted as saying, "I've never seen a property more perfect for a golf course than Anderson Creek. Golfers will be treated to one of the most beautiful and breathtaking courses in the historic Sandhills of North Carolina." 'Nuff said!

My most recent journey to the Sandhills fulfilled again my fondest expectations; not only for the golf, but also for the very special feeling you get throughout the area. Something I remember from "the good old days." Let me tell you a little of what I found especially appealing.

Pinehurst Village offers a uniqueness and ambience found no where else in the world. It is a wonderful slice of the Americana I fondly remember before the days of super highways, urban sprawl and mega-malls. Pinehurst was the very first golf- oriented resort and community to receive the designation as a National Historical Landmark. It is without question the real home of golf in America.

Nestled among the pine trees in the center of The Village is the Pine Crest Inn, an important part of the Pinehurst tradition for many years. From 1921 until his death in 1948 it was owned and managed by Donald Ross - that is when he wasn't away putting his stamp on over 400 courses! Not much has changed here, except that for the past forty or so years genial Bob Barrett and his family have been the gracious innkeepers. The rooms are homespun and very cozy with huge 100 per cent down pillows and comforters (like at my Grandma's house). And Mr. B's Lounge, though relatively small, holds the unchallenged distinction of being the most popular watering hole in all of golf. Oh yes, don't forget to check above the door in the Men's room. You'll find a huge authentic autograph by Payne Stewart, done on one of his many visits to the Pine Crest.

The Magnolia Inn

The Magnolia Inn

Since 1895 The Magnolia Inn has presented guests with a special charm and elegance. Just a few years ago it was carefully restored to reflect the Victorian era and the true atmosphere of the Old South. The 11 rooms as well as the dining room and English style pub, take you back to the days of polished brass, white wicker and the charm of a bygone time. The menu here is one of the most diverse and delicious in The Village area. My recommendation? The oven roasted honey glazed pork tenderloin, paired with a large glass of Blackstone Merlot. Voila!

If you are of the era that has trouble identifying with "old and charming" hostelries, there are another sixteen lodging facilities in the Sandhills, offering everything from large golf course condos to value-priced rooms. All offer great golf packages through the Sandhills Golf Association at http://sandhillsgolf.com or toll-free: 888.926.GOLF.

I agree most enthusiastically with Mike Floyd, Executive Director of the Sandhills Golf Association when he says, "Come and enjoy our 324 championship holes and over 1,400 comfortable rooms. You will quickly discover why the Sandhills holds the enviable title: World's Third Greatest Golf Destination and First in Golf Package Value."

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