Duke Golf Club in Durham is one of North Carolina's best

By Joel Zuckerman, Contributor

DURHAM, N.C. - My eldest daughter's junior year of high school has just commenced, which means one thing. It's the start of crunch time for college. In this "go-go" age, it's the penultimate year of high school that's most crucial in terms of college application, and hopefully she'll maintain her focus in this most decisive year.

She wants to go to school up in Boston, which is a fine city and college Mecca. But we prefer her closer to home, for emotional and logistical reasons.

While the Northeast is full-to-brimming with good schools, here in the South there are plenty of worthwhile options, as well. And after touring the exceptionally fine Duke Golf Club during U.S. Open week in June, I'm encouraging her to set up her dorm room in Durham, N.C.

Yes, it's a wonderful institution. Sure, the campus is magnificent. Granted, the men's basketball team lends national, even international athletic prominence to a campus best know for academic excellence. But have you ever seen the campus golf course? It's an absolute corker.

Recently restored to its original grandeur, this parkland beauty is once again one of the premiere golf venues in the South. It is tree-lined but not tree-choked, with elevated greens, yawning greenside bunkers and a palpable sense of remove. Several par 5s are bisected by streams, requiring careful decision making. Many of the par 4s feature both length and bend of fairway. It's a worthy complement to the nearby university.

"It's an old-style track, with everything right out in front of you. There are no houses, and no out-of-bounds," said Brent Bowen, a North Carolina native and long-time assistant professional at the Duke Golf Course. "As more and more courses are built with a real estate component in place, it's rarer to find a pure golf experience like Duke."

Acclaimed golf course architect Rees Jones thought as much himself the first time he saw the facility back in 1962. But of course, he was prejudiced. His father, Robert Trent Jones, had built it five years earlier.

"The course has a great natural flow. The elevation changes work perfectly for the 18 holes that are there," said Jones, known as "the U.S. Open Doctor" because of all the restoration work he's done to courses preparing to host that event.

Individual highlights are numerous on the course. But Duke's version of "Amen Corner," including the downhill, stream-crossing par-5 11th , daring a power player to reach in two blows, which is followed by the back-across-the-water-in-the-other-direction par-3 12th , and then the pond-on-the-periphery-of-the-landing area par-4 13th , are likely the three best successive holes.

Rees Jones first visited as a member of the Yale University golf team, which headed south for the NCAA Championships back in the early '60s.

"When my dad built the course a few years prior, there wasn't money available for fairway bunkering or grading," Jones said. "When we came in to do the restoration work in the early '90s, we added fairway bunkers, graded the fairways, re-contoured the greens and re-bunkered the entire golf course. We added some length at that time, then came back in time for the 2001 NCAA Championships, and added more length. People really love the golf course, they always have."

To make matters even better, the course is just steps away from the Washington Duke Inn, one of the area's premiere accommodations. "Now that the on-site hotel is undergoing improvements and enhancements of its own, it's practically a one-of-a-kind university experience," said Jones. "It's almost like a resort experience at a university golf course."

So I'll spring for the SAT preparation courses. I'll help her write those college entrance essays. I'll encourage her to make a campus visit this fall, and be sure to accompany her, clubs at the ready. Hopefully I can convince Karli to attend Duke, and her grades will warrant admission. It would be a wonderful achievement, and a great time in life. For both of us.

The verdict

First, the bad news, if it must be construed as such. Because so many greens are elevated and well-protected by bunkers and swales, the course is fraught with potential difficulty for less-skillful players. The run-up shot is a rarity at Duke, as most balls must fly all the way to the putting surface.

Now the good news: The course has been in great shape over the summer, as the most recent renovation to the facility has been completed. The new golf shop has opened, there's a new swimming and fitness facility at the adjacent hotel, the practice range and 10th tee have been redone. Though it was a more-scorching-than-usual summer in Raleigh-Durham, members and frequent visitors have commented that the course has never been in better condition, the greens especially. Bill Sessums and his staff have done wonderful work, particularly on the greens.

Rates are extremely reasonable, and vary from $27 (walking on Sunday afternoons, or after 3 p.m. Mondays) up to $85 (including a cart on Friday through Sunday.) Mid-week fees are about $70, buggy included.

Aside from the seasonal vagaries of playing conditions, the fact remains that this classic woodland layout is truly wonderful. Challenging, yes. But also scenic, pastoral and thoughtfully designed. It's one of North Carolina's finer courses, and that's saying something.

Stay and play

The obvious choice is to stay on site at the Washington Duke Inn, 271 rooms of elegance, with the only Four-Diamond designation in the city of Durham. It's built in the style of an English country estate, and comfortable as the Inn may be, the watchword is convenience. It's on the University campus, 20 minutes from the airport, 15 minutes from Research Triangle Park, and most importantly, 2 minutes to the first tee. Other fine choices abound in the area, and some of the top hotel chains like Doubletree, Hilton, Marriott, Millennium Radisson, Sheraton and Wyndham are all represented in close proximity.

Dining out

Fowler's Fine Food And Wine Store ((919) 683-2555). This is a casual, come-as-you-are facility, a Durham institution for 80 years. It's part wine shop, part deli, part restaurant, with a gourmet selection of salads, entrees, and sandwiches, in addition to coffees and wines.

Restaurant Starlu ((919) 489-1500). A bit more upscale, the chic factor firmly in place, Starlu offers the dichotomy of haute cuisine in a college town. Chef Sam Poley serves a menu of eclectic American cuisine with an extensive (but not necessarily expensive) wine list that is sensible and easy to navigate.

Devine's Restaurant & Sports Bar ((919) 682-0228). It's awfully tough to get a ticket to Cameron Indoor Arena to watch a Blue Devils hoop game. This convivial tavern offers good pub food in a student-casual atmosphere where the sports du jour is of equal, perhaps greater importance than the soup du jour.

Fast fact

Though the course opened in 1957, it was originally slated for construction many years earlier. But when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, plans were put on hold by then-Athletic Director Wallace Wade.

Joel ZuckermanJoel Zuckerman, Contributor

Joel Zuckerman is based in Savannah, Georgia and Park City, Utah. He is the author of five books, and his golf and travel stories have appeared in more than 100 publications around the world, including Sports Illustrated, Golfweek, Travel+Leisure Golf, Continental and Golf International.

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