I consulted a golfer friend about this article, telling him I was writing about the best public golf courses in North Carolina. “Pinehurst No. 1 through Pinehurst No. 9, right?” was his response.
It’s true -- public golf in North Carolina has one magical destination: Pinehurst Resort. Its second course, Pinehurst No. 2, is often rated in the top 10 of all public golf courses in the United States. Pinehurst No. 8 consistently finds its way onto top 100 lists. Pinehurst No. 4 was recently renovated and is starting to show up on some of these lists. It’s true that this article could possibly be nine words: “Just go to Pinehurst and play all the courses”.
Short of that, you could probably just limit a list like this to Moore County, North Carolina. Pinehurst’s nine courses are there, but you’ll also find world famous courses like Mid Pines, Southern Pines, and Pine Needles. There’s no greater concentration of fantastic public golf in the United States than Moore County, North Carolina.
But as a travel writer, I’m not trying to get into golf architecture debates. There are plenty of debates about these North Carolina golf courses. Is Mid Pines possibly better than Pinehurst No. 2? and such -- but that’s not what I’m going for here. You’re looking at a golf trip in North Carolina, and you’d like to explore (or at least consider) different parts of the state, so here are nine courses, spread around the state, where you can play fantastic golf. I’ll start with four great courses in Moore County (again, I could just pick nine from here) and then wander around a bit.
1. Pinehurst No. 2
We have to start here. It’s one of the greatest golf courses in the United States. Donald Ross designed more than 400 golf courses, and you’re going to hear his name a lot as we tour around the state, but even Donald Ross claimed that this one was his masterpiece.
As a result, it has hosted more major golf championships than any other course in the country. The PGA Championship has been held here. The Ryder Cup. The U.S. Amateur. Three U.S. Opens -- 1999, 2005, and 2014 (soon to be four, in 2024). In 2014, it hosted the Men’s U.S. Open and the Women’s U.S. Open in back-to-back weeks, the first course to do that. And it was the site of one of golf’s most famous moments: Payne Stewart’s putt to win the 1999 U.S. Open, only four months before his tragic death.
This is holy ground for golf, much like Augusta National, but the difference here is that you can book a tee time. The fact that Pinehurst No. 2 can be played by the public remains one of golf’s great treats. It’s not cheap, but it’s likely to be the greatest course you’ll ever play.
Pinehurst No. 2 Peak Tee Times: $495
2. Mid Pines Inn And Golf Club
Four miles away from Pinehurst (yes, four miles) you’ll find Mid Pines. In fact, because there are nine courses at Pinehurst, the distance from the eighth hole at Pinehurst No. 9 to Mid Pines is only 1.5 miles. So yes, the Pinehurst/Southern Pines area is quite rich with golfing options.
This is another Donald Ross design, and the layout remains unchanged since 1921. I have several friends who have played this course and immediately asked the question I referenced above: Is Mid Pines perhaps more fun than Pinehurst No. 2? The famous No. 2 still reigns supreme in the golfing world, but the fact that the question can even be asked should tell you all you need to know about Mid Pines. World-class golf within walking distance of Pinehurst.
Mid Pines Peak Tee Times: $215
3. Pine Needles Golf Course
We stay in the same region for the third course on our list. In fact, we stay on the same street. Across the street from Mid Pines you’ll find its sister course, Pine Needles. This is yet another Donald Ross course. I promise we’ll eventually leave Moore County (and Donald Ross courses), but there’s just too much perfection here.
Pine Needles is often viewed as the most important golf course in the women’s game. It has hosted three U.S. Women’s Opens and will host a fourth in 2022. The course was purchased in 1954 by Peggy Kirk Bell, one of the LPGA’s founding members, and she led the restoration of the course and then became the head golf instructor.
Both Mid Pines and Pine Needles were refurbished in the 2010s by Kyle Franz. He didn’t change any of the layouts but restored the “edges” of the courses to their original Ross designs with sand waste areas and beds of pine needles everywhere. This has led to a resurgence of both courses and will make for a gorgeous U.S. Women’s Open in 2022.
Pine Needles Peak Tee Times: $235
4. Southern Pines Golf Club
One more course in Moore County before we move around the state. And this one is the most affordable. Southern Pines Golf Club may be a little more rough around the edges when compared to the other courses in the region, but playing a Donald Ross layout for $85 (or less) is a treat.
Southern Pines was owned and operated by the Southern Pines Elk Club until late 2019, when an agreement was made to sell it to the group that owns and operates Mid Pines and Pine Needles. So the improvements seen at those two courses are likely coming to Southern Pines as well. It may soon be another Donald Ross course restored to its original glory.
And golf course junkies take note: The sale included the famous “Lost Nine” at Southern Pines. Donald Ross designed 27 holes at Southern Pines, but nine holes were later abandoned. The layout still exists, and the holes have been mowed occasionally over the years so that trees would not grow up and reforest the area, but it has sat abandoned for decades. Like finding an original Monet in someone’s basement, perhaps the new owners will restore this “lost nine” so that it can take its rightful place alongside other great Ross courses.
Southern Pines Peak Tee Times: $85
5. Lonnie Poole Golf Course
If you’ve never played a campus golf course before, they’re often in the best condition of any course you’ve ever played. The students taking agronomy courses are sometimes charged with improving the turfgrass management year after year. Some schools, like NC State, even have professional golf management programs, so there are classes designed around keeping the course in perfect condition. It’s like a course with 30 superintendents.
So while many of the courses on this list so far have been the sandy Donald Ross kind of layouts, this course is more of a traditional design like you’ll see at other Arnold Palmer facilities. And the views of the Raleigh skyline aren’t bad either.
Lonnie Poole Peak Tee Times: $85
6. Grove Park Golf Course
I was just sitting on the patio at the famous Grove Park Inn in Asheville last year overlooking the golf course below. I was there for other reasons and couldn’t fit in a round of golf, but the setting is just spectacular.
Grove Park Inn is an Omni hotel and resort (and is a treat in its own right). The massive stone hotel (with its iconic red roof) looms above the course while you play. Asheville is in the far western part of North Carolina, nestled into the Blue Ridge Mountains, but it does have one thing in common with the rest of the state: Grove Park Golf Course was designed by Donald Ross. Just as Frank Lloyd Wright designed the best structure in many cities, Donald Ross designed nearly every great golf course in North Carolina.
Grove Park Peak Tee Times: $155
7. Tobacco Road Golf Club
A list of golf courses in North Carolina needs to include at least one Mike Strantz golf course. Strantz only designed 10 golf courses before his untimely death from cancer at age 50, but the “cowboy” earned a legendary status with just those 10 courses.
Strantz’s “Cowboy” nickname came from how he would route a golf course. Once hired, he would go to the property with his horse and ride up and down the hills for days trying to picture where the holes would be. From there, he began working on his routing. And nearly every Mike Strantz golf course eventually reached the same point: difficult shots which provide exhilaration when you pull them off. That’s certainly the case at Tobacco Road Golf Club.
A friend of mine calls Mike Strantz golf courses “a fun kind of difficult.” They’re a test, and you start to really get frustrated with the test, but when you finish, you want to take the test again. I’m betting you’ll feel that way after playing Tobacco Road.
Tobacco Road Peak Tee Times: $159
8. The Currituck Club
Although I’ve never played this course, it’s the golf course I’ve viewed the most in North Carolina. Good friends of ours have a condo near the 10th green. When I’m there, it’s without my golf clubs, but each time, I’m tempted to rent some and go play this course.
Golf is best played near the ocean, I think, and the Currituck Club is on the Outer Banks in Corolla, which is most famous for its wild horses roaming the beaches north of town. But on the southern end of town there’s a fantastic golf course right along the Currituck Sound.
There’s something about playing golf with the smell of salt water in the air, and that’s what you’ll find at the Currituck Club. Many believe it to be a private club, and there are memberships, but it is also open for public play. Designed by Rees Jones, this course can provide a perfect golf day during your Outer Banks vacation.
Currituck Club Peak Tee Times: $149
9. Wilmington Municipal Golf Course
Every list like this needs a municipal golf course. And this muni was designed by -- guess who -- Donald Ross.
I mentioned above that Southern Pines was a course where you could play a Ross design for, at most, $85. Wilmington Municipal Golf Course is a Ross track you can walk during the week for $37. And residents of Wilmington pay only $27.
Like all munis, the conditions aren’t going to match some $240-per-round golf club. They don’t have the maintenance staff available the way expensive clubs do. But there’s still great golf to be played on a challenging layout. Sure, you might get stuck behind some high school kids trying golf for the first time. But that’s the joy of playing a muni. Everyone has a golf origin story, and in Wilmington, many stories begin at this municipal Donald Ross course.
Wilmington Peak Tee Times: $52