PINEHURST, N.C. -- There is arguably no better golf destination east of the Mississippi River than the historic Pinehurst and Carolina Sandhills region of North Carolina, and it's only getting better.
Not only does Pinehurst Resort & Country Club now have 10 golf courses with the new Cradle -- and a new Thistle Dhu putting course -- to go along with its iconic No. 2 Course that was restored in 2011, but No. 4 recently shut down for what's sure to be a jaw-dropping rebirth. Improvements are ongoing on Pinehurst No. 3 and No. 5.
Toss in updates at surrounding golf courses both historic and modern, as well some new dining and accommodation options, and golf groups familiar with the area have plenty of reasons to return.
Pinehurst just keeps getting better
The big news at Pinehurst this year was the opening of The Cradle, a new 789-yard short course designed by Gil Hanse, who also did the Olympic Course in Brazil as well as the recently unveiled Black Course at Streamsong Resort in Florida. The course has been a big hit among every level of player, perfect for resort guests. It's beautiful, playable and never boring.
Alongside it is the new Thistle Dhu, an 18-hole putting course that's as good as any in the country. Together, you could spend the whole day on both of them since the green fee of $50 is good all day on The Cradle and Thistle Dhu is complimentary.
Matt Ginella on the new Thistle Dhu and The Cradle
But what many may forget is that in addition to The Cradle, there are ongoing changes on No. 3 and No. 5, partly because The Cradle took the land for the opening holes at each course, so routings had to be rearranged a little. Now, both courses start on the other side of the road from the main clubhouse, but more importantly, there are new holes on No. 3 and both courses are getting the natural Sandhills treatment common to the more famous No. 2 now. All of this work is being done in house, supervised by Pinehurst director of agronomy Bob Farren.
Pinehurst No. 3, when it's all said and done, will be one of the best sub-6,000-yard golf courses in the country.
The biggest news, however, is the renovation coming to No. 4, which was already good enough to warrant placement in Top 100 public national rankings. Originally built by Donald Ross, renovated by Robert Trent Jones Jr. and later entirely redone by Tom Fazio, it is getting a completely new design yet again, this time by Hanse. The course closed during the fall of 2017 and shaping is expected to start around December of 2017 with an expected grand opening in October of 2018. Hanse got the job, in part, because he passed the audition of doing The Cradle with flying colors, not to mention other courses he and partner Jim Wagner have created in recent years.
While Farren is careful not to characterize the future version of No. 4 as a clone of No. 2, it will certainly share some of that feel, especially when it comes to lowering the greens and some of the tees to provide better sightlines and shot values. The routing will remain the same, and new greens will tie in better to the fairways than they currently do, wire grass will be added to the natural areas, and those natural areas, where there are just larges areas of soft sand now, will be much more playable, even hard-pan, texture. (More: Gil Hanse joins Morning Drive to talk about the No. 4 project.)
Hanse, in a short video on the Pinehurst website, says what stands out about No. 4 is the dramatic landscape, which includes as much or more elevation change than No. 2 as well as a large lake that was only visible on a couple of holes. With the grade changes, the lake, which will feature new natural borders, should be visible from much of the golf course. The course will also get new Champion Bermudgrass on the greens and a couple of brand new holes.
"People ask me, 'How does it relate to course no. 2?' And I refer to holes 4 and 5 on Course No. 2. and holes 13 and 14 as being the most dramatic holes on the topography on Course No. 2," said Hanse, who will live in the Donald Ross Cottage near the third hole on No. 2 during construction. "And I think we have at least eight or nine holes that have that sort of element."
Farren, who, with eight superintendents, heads up one of the largest maintenance staffs in the world, is excited about the project. "It has the potential to have a really bold look," he said.
The golf courses aren't the only improvements at Pinehurst. A new indoor/outdoor dining venue, The Deuce, is located in the main clubhouse that overlooks the 18th hole of Pinehurst No. 2., serving lunch until 3 p.m. and small bites through dusk each day.
Talamore, Mid South receive terrific makeovers
The beauty of taking a trip to Pinehurst is that in addition to the 10 golf courses at the resort, there are some real treasures within a few miles. A couple of those courses have also received facelifts lately, and they are both first rate.
The most recent was Mid South Club, which is the sister course and private club associated with the Talamore Golf Resort in nearby Southern Pines. Mid South, designed by Arnold Palmer and Ed Seay in 1993, has always been an exceptional layout, but it has gone through lean times in its history.
Mid South's new look
All that has changed recently with a greens renovation to Champion Bermuda (notice a trend here?) from bentgrass. The course reopened in September is in absolutely perfect shape. And to go along with the new look, the club is emphasizing a more relaxed, welcoming atmosphere, says General Manager Matt Hausser.
The main course at Talamore Golf Resort, now called the New Course at Talamore Golf Resort, reopened a year ago after getting a greens and bunker renovation is pretty close to flawless now, too. Open to the public, and quite a bargain at $89 rack rate. Originally designed by Rees Jones, the course now features a dozen sod wall bunkers, some of the course has been opened up and the greens are as good as any in the area.
Mid Pines, Pine Needles better than ever
Of course, the best way to play Talamore and Mid South is to book a golf package that can also include its outstanding neighbors, Mid Pines Golf Club and Pine Needles, a couple of Donald Ross designs that have their own classic pedigree as well.
For example, Talamore is offering golf packages right now that include rounds at all four courses, villa lodging for three nights and free breakfasts and a barbecue for a little more than $400.
As for Mid Pines and Pine Needles, those two gems have also received updates in recent years. Mid Pines was restored back in 2013, which included cutting back trees to open up the corridors, new greens that were enlarged to their original sizes and new modern Ultradwarf Bermudagrass. And Pine Needles has also been restored in recent years. Both are in terrific shape and overseeded for fall, winter and early spring play. Packages are also available at the Mid Pines and Pine Needles lodges, starting at around $220 a night.
Tobacco Road debuts new onsite cabin package
Stewart Cabin near the 14th green at Tobacco Road
One of the very best and most unique golf courses in the Sandhills area is Tobacco Road, the imaginative Mike Strantz creation that should be on every avid golfer's bucket list. The course sits near Sanford, N.C., in between Raleigh-Durham and Pinehurst. (It's No. 65 on our all-time Top 100 based on user reviews.)
Despite being a standalone course in an area full of multi-course properties, Tobacco Road could be a mini-destination all on its own. Playing this beautiful, quirky course more than once is highly recommended; booking a stay-and-play package for a day or two would be suitable for any group.
The good news is that Tobacco Road has refurbished the old Stewart Cabin by the par-3 14th hole. Done in bunk-style fashion, but still roomy with modern conveniences and an outdoor grill, the cabin goes for $600 a night (it sleeps four) and includes golf for a foursome. The cabin was used by Strantz when he worked on Tobacco Road and more recently as office space. You can, of course, book other packages at Tobacco Road that include other courses and lodging in and around Pinehurst.
What have you heard about the restoration of Pine Needles by Kyle Franz? Is it going to be as extensive as his restoration of Mid Pines? When is it going to be completed?
The restoration at Pine Needles is done. Kyle changed par on a couple holes but otherwise you will recognize the course. Nothing too dramatic.
I thought he did a tremendous job at Mid Pines, really took the course to the next level. I might have even preferred the course to #2 my last trip to the Sandhills.
I thought Pine Needles was a little tired the last time I played it. I am hoping Franz's restoration breathed new life into the course like he did at Mid Pines.
I believe that work was done last year, and having just played Pine Needles, I thought the restoration work there was every bit as impressive as it was at Mid Pines. The new greens are especially terrific.