A beginner's guide to golf in the North Carolina Sandhills, home of the back-to-back U.S. Opens at Pinehurst No. 2

PINEHURST, N.C. -- It's all about golf in the Sandhills of North Carolina.

There's no ocean or major lake to tempt players into floating away from the game. There are other pursuits of happiness available -- horseback riding and antiquing, for instance -- but none are ingrained into the community as much as golf.

It all traces back to James Walker Tufts, a Boston philanthropist who founded the Village of Pinehurst in 1895. This historic golf destination will add another chapter to its storied history by hosting the U.S. Open and U.S. Women's Open at Pinehurst Resort's famed No. 2 Course back-to-back weeks, June 10-22. It's never been done before and maybe never again, pending how well the two events come together. If the self-appointed "Home of American Golf" can't pull it off, nobody can.

Whether you're going to Pinehurst for the Opens or planning a trip to the Sandhills another time, here's the ultimate beginner's guide.

What are the Sandhills?

The Sandhills, running through the central corridor of the state, are a strip of ancient beach dunes. Some people include Fayetteville in the discussion of the region, but its epicenter is the village of Pinehurst and Southern Pines in Moore County.

The sandy soil is ideal for golf courses, most of which are set upon gently rolling terrain framed by tall longleaf pines.

Directions to the Sandhills

The Sandhills are the perfect drive-in market from the east coast and Midwest, including Chicago (12 hours), Detroit (10 hours) and New York (nine hours). Flying into Raleigh/Durham International Airport and renting a car for the 70-mile drive remains the best option through the air, although the Fayetteville Regional Airport (50 miles), the Piedmont Triad International Airport in Greensboro (85 miles) and the Charlotte Douglas International Airport (98 miles) are all within a one-and-a-half-hour drive as well.

Weather and winter golf

The shoulder seasons -- spring from March-May and fall from September-October -- are prime time in the Carolinas. The summer months can be sticky with afternoons prone to thunderstorms, a concern for tournament officials in June.

The winter months can mean frost delays or even snow days (especially last winter). If you're within driving distance, though, it's worth watching the weather for a good run of temperatures to book a last-minute trip. The winter rates make Pinehurst No. 2 more affordable.

The golf resorts

Pinehurst Resort, home to nine courses, including five designed by Donald Ross, has played a significant role in the history of the game. Ross lived just off the fairway of Pinehurst No. 2.

The resort has hosted dozens of major tournaments from the annual North & South Amateur since 1901 to U.S. Opens (1999, 2005), the 1951 Ryder Cup, the 1936 PGA Championship and two PGA Tour championships. The Carolina Hotel and Holly Inn are great places to stay (and eat) right in the heart of the village.

The sister properties of Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club and the Mid Pines Inn & Golf Club sit across the street from one another in Southern Pines. They're two completely different experiences. Mid Pines is a grand old inn with squeaky floor boards and small, charming rooms. Pine Needles consists of a main lodge where the drinks and meals are served and secondary buildings that house rooms and suites. Both courses are dynamite Ross originals.

Staying in a villa or lodge at the Talamore Golf Resort in Southern Pines allows access to the public Talamore Golf Club by Rees Jones and the private Mid South Club by Arnold Palmer.

Golf courses galore in the Sandhills

Roughly 40 courses are found in the Pinehurst/Southern Pines/Aberdeen triangle. Pinehurst No. 2 will cost you, but there's plenty of depth with 27 courses rated four stars by Golf Digest's "Places to Play" listings.

There's not much difference between the top-tier courses and others you've probably never heard of. There's great contrast, too, when you consider the old-school vibe of Pinehurst No. 2 and Mid Pines (both recently renovated); the wild contours of Tobacco Road by Mike Strantz; and the modern Tom Fazio designs at Pinehurst No. 4 and No. 8. Don't forget the 7,015-yard Pines Needles is championship caliber, having hosted three U.S. Women's Opens.

Those with private club connections will want to play both the North Course and South Course at Forest Creek Golf Club in Pinehurst. Budget-conscious players should play the shorter courses at Pinehurst (No. 1 and No. 3) and Longleaf Golf & Country Club in Southern Pines for better value.

To-do list in the Sandhills

My 1999 trip to the Sandhills was my first assignment as a golf writer. Looking back, I failed miserably. I just hung out at Pinehurst Resort, playing all eight courses in four days. Obviously I was well cared for, but I didn't see much else. Don't make the same rookie mistakes. Here's a to-do list for every golfer who visits:

1. Spend the ultimate day at Pinehurst. It would start with the buffet breakfast in the Carolina Room, followed by a round on No. 2 with a caddie. Sitting on the veranda with a drink in hand watching other groups play the 18th hole will cap a great experience. Be sure to take a selfie with the two iconic statues at the main clubhouse -- Putterboy near the putting green and Payne Stewart near the 18th green.

2. Shop the Village of Pinehurst. You could easily lose an afternoon enjoying the memorabilia, books and art in the Old Sport & Gallery.

3. Party at the Pine Crest Inn's Mr. B's Lounge. Be sure to chip a few shots into the fireplace before you have too much to drink at this popular 19th hole in the village.

4. Don't neglect Southern Pines. Make time for at least one round (I'd lean toward Mid Pines) and one meal in downtown Southern Pines (where the locals hang).

My personal favorites

If I were setting up a "dream" itinerary, I'd schedule rounds at Pinehurst No. 2, 4 and 8, along with Pine Needles and Mid Pines. I've not yet played Tobacco Road in Sanford and The Dormie Club, a newer Bill Coore/Ben Crenshaw course in West End.

The Anderson Creek Club in Spring Lake, Pinehurst No. 7 and Beacon Ridge Golf & Country Club in West End belong on a second tier but could easily sub in for a fantastic golf trip.

Jason Scott Deegan has reviewed and photographed more than 1,000 courses and written about golf destinations in 20 countries for some of the industry's biggest publications. His work has been honored by the Golf Writer's Association of America and the Michigan Press Association. Follow him on Instagram at @jasondeegangolfpass and Twitter at @WorldGolfer.
Commented on

Saying that Pinehurst has 5 Ross courses is almost like an inside joke anymore. Course #1 had the 18th hole destroyed to make the putting green. Courses #3 and #5 had their respective opening holes demolished to make the pitch and putt course. Course #4 was completely bulldozed by Fazio in 2000 or so and is being bulldozed again by Hanse as I write this. There is no Ross left on #4; not even the routing is Ross anymore. Course #2 has been changed so many times that true Ross fans will tell you that it resembles nothing of what Ross put in place; that course is just a mannequin that gets the clothes changed every 10 years or so. I love the Sandhills and love Pinehurst, but there's very little Ross left at Pinehurst Resort.

Related Links

The pull of Pinehurst is often too strong for out-of-state golfers to stop at an out-of-the-way destination such as Anderson Creek Golf Club. Those who veer only slightly off course are rewarded with a strong Davis Love III design stocked with the signature elements that make the Sandhills so great for golf: the rolling terrain, sandy soil and priceless natural setting.
The golf course at Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club in Southern Pines, N.C. has hosted three U.S. Women's Opens. The quality of the winners -- Annika Sorenstam (1996), Karrie Webb (2001) and Cristie Kerr (2007) -- certainly matches the merits of this classic Donald Ross design, which dates back to 1928. The Sandhills terrain gently rises and falls. Big hitters can challenge doglegs but only at their peril.
There are scores of excellent golf courses around the Village of Pinehurst. We've narrowed it down with five top choices.
Want a one-stop golf binge? These are the 31 biggest golf resorts in the world. So where should you start?
More from the author
4 Min Read
December 4, 2023
Combine sightseeing with a handful of golf resorts and premier courses to enjoy Lisbon, one of Europe's most inspiring cities.
4 Min Read
November 30, 2023
Last-minute golf gift ideas rule our final roundup of the year.
4 Min Read
November 20, 2023
The former Jewel Dunn's River Beach Resort & Spa has been completely transformed into the Caribbean's newest golf resort.
2 Min Read
November 20, 2023
Golf is a game of control and composure. Don't lose yours by tossing a club.
5 Min Read
November 15, 2023
The opening of Black Desert, a PGA Tour host in 2024, signals a new era of golf in one of America's most beautiful natural landscapes.
8 Min Read
November 12, 2023
The rise of artists launching their own companies has changed the way golfers use wall art that impresses their co-workers on Zoom.
16 Images
November 27, 2023
There's a lot to be thankful for this November.
4 Min Read
November 15, 2023
The streaming giant picked golf as the medium for its foray into live sports. How did it go?
3 Min Read
November 30, 2023
For six days in early spring, The Old Course at St. Andrews will open its "reverse" routing, offering a completely different experience at one of the world's great golf courses.
3 Min Read
November 12, 2023
Rounds at tough-to-access private clubs, luxury travel experiences and more are on offer, all for a good cause.
Now Reading
A beginner's guide to golf in the North Carolina Sandhills, home of the back-to-back U.S. Opens at Pinehurst No. 2