Experience Golf in the Old North State
Book your tee time on these iconic coursesBy Craig Distl
Golf and North Carolina. In a place boasting hundreds of courses from mountains to the coast, the two are inseparable.
Casual golfers, avid golfers, top amateurs and professionals all flock to our state’s fairways. Next year, for the fourth time, the men’s U.S. Open returns to North Carolina’s famed Pinehurst No. 2 course — considered among the finest courses in the world. In 2029, the men’s and women’s U.S. Opens will take place during back-to-back weeks at Pinehurst No. 2 for only the second time in American history.
Indeed, North Carolina has both a rich golf history and an excellent selection of courses that welcome public play. Let’s touch on that history first, then highlighting public-access links across the state where Carolina Country readers can tee it up.
A storied past
North Carolina received statehood in 1789, but it wasn’t until the 1890s that golf courses began to dot the landscape. During that decade, Boston businessman James Walker Tufts purchased 5,800 acres of deforested timberland in the Sandhills of Moore County. He was enticed by warmer weather and the dream of building a wellness retreat. That retreat quickly evolved into the golfing paradise known as Pinehurst, which now has nine courses and is marketed far and wide as the “Home of American Golf.”
Golf in NC enjoyed steady growth in the early decades of the 1900s before slowing during the Great Depression and World War II. As post-war America boomed, so did golf in the Old North State. The sport’s future king, Arnold Palmer, headed south from Pennsylvania in 1948 to play collegiately at Wake Forest College, creating a powerhouse program that remains a force today. Along the way, golf courses and resorts sprung up, people moved to golf communities in the suburbs and the golf bug that touched every corner of the state throughout the 1980s and ’90s continues to this day.
Courses across the state
We’ll start our sweep of public-access golf in the mountains at Asheville’s Grove Park Inn. The course as it now exists was designed by legendary Scottish architect Donald Ross in 1926 and renovated in 2002 by Greensboro’s Kris Spence. Nestled between the historic inn and downtown Asheville, it’s definitely a bucket-list course for avid golfers.
An hour northeast is another stay-and-play retreat, Mount Mitchell Golf Club. Routed through the Toe River Valley below the highest peak east of the Mississippi River, Mount Mitchell Golf Club is a fair test of golf designed by famed English architect Fred Hawtree.
Heading east to the Piedmont offers the chance to play Tanglewood Park, site of the 1974 PGA Championship. Tanglewood underwent a major renovation in 2018 that kept the original intent of the Robert Trent Jones, Sr., design, but eliminated more than 20 bunkers to make it more playable for the average golfer.
Further down Tobacco Road in the Triangle, public golfers enjoy three top-notch university courses designed by esteemed architects: Duke University Golf Course (Robert Trent Jones, Sr.), NC State University’s Lonnie Poole Golf Course (Arnold Palmer), and UNC’s Finley Golf Course (Tom Fazio), which reopens this fall after a renovation.
Moving south to the Sandhills, golfers from across the world tee it up at Pinehurst Resort.
The state’s most famous layout, Pinehurst No. 2, should be on every golfer’s bucket list. Designed by Ross in 1907, it became a passion project he worked on until his death in 1948. Pinehurst No. 2 will pose a stern challenge for the world’s best next year at the U.S. Open, but as daunting as it is for professionals, it’s very playable for the average golfer. Many holes can be described as a “hard par, easy bogey” as there are no water hazards and few out-of-bounds stakes. Regular golfers are able to advance the ball from tee to green, at which point the notorious turtleback greens — designed to be highest at the center, falling away at the sides — offer a stiff test for those trying to play at or below par.
Naturally, the thrill of playing No. 2 carries a premium price. However, there are eight others under the Pinehurst Resort umbrella available at varying price points and levels of difficulty, as well many others in the Pinehurst/Southern Pines area.
Down at the coast, just across the line from South Carolina’s golf-crazed Myrtle Beach, Brunswick County has become a golf destination all its own. The county has more than 30 golf courses, including a standout foursome at Ocean Ridge Plantation.
The award-winning “Big Cats” courses — Leopard’s Chase, Tiger’s Eye, Panther’s Run and Lion’s Paw — make Ocean Ridge a golf nirvana. Leopard’s Chase is arguably the pick of the litter, finishing in style with an 18th green guarded by a man-made waterfall tumbling over a wall of coquina boulders, the same type of rock that first made a splash at Tiger’s Eye.
Up the coast in the Outer Banks, where the state disappears into the Atlantic Ocean, Nags Head Golf Links provides one more unforgettable experience. Built along the Roanoke Sound, the course is known for its rugged shoreline, island holes, seaside vistas and rolling dunes with native sea grass.
We are fortunate to reside in a state so ideally suited for golf—a place that combines golfing history, interesting topography and an abundance of publicly accessible links. Whether you crave a round with ocean breezes or crisp mountain views, there’s a tee time waiting for you nearly every day of the year.
About the AuthorCraig Distl is a Belmont-based freelance writer and proud native of North Carolina.