Keith Hills About To Become Twice As Nice

By Patrick Jones, Contributor

BUIES CREEK, N.C. -- Ardent road-warrior fans of Atlantic Sun Conference schools, including the Lipscomb Bisons, Stetson Hatters and Florida Atlantic Owls, may have zealously followed their teams and found their way to this speck on the North Carolina map. It is home to fellow conference member Campbell University and its pugilistic, Dromedary-dubbed athletic teams, the Fighting Camels.

The only other feasible explanations for non-Campbell U. travelers meandering to this off-the-beaten-path hamlet of a few thousand citizens are that they got lost on the road between Lillington and Coats, or, more likely, have their clubs in the car and are bound for Keith Hills Country Club, one of eastern North Carolina's best hidden golf gems.

Originally opened in 1974 with 18 holes designed by Ellis Maples, Keith Hills is about to become twice as nice.

The final nine holes of a new 18 by Dan Maples, son of Ellis, are scheduled to open Nov. 16. Officially called Keith Hills II, and unofficially nicknamed the River Course, it will complement the existing 28-year-old Keith Hills I, or Creek Course.

Nine holes of Keith Hills II already opened in November 2001, allowing golfers to savor half portions of this new-to-the-menu Harnett County golf serving.

According to John Hockaday, director of golf at Keith Hills Country Club, golfers familiar with the popular original course will see significant differences when they make their way around the new River Course. Though father and son Maples share the same genetic makeup, it's apparent after teeing off on their adjoining tracks that golf-course architectural philosophy is not a hard-coded DNA component.

"I do see some similarities as far as their bunkering, how they shape their bunkers and a lot of little things like that," said Hockaday. "But there's a tremendous amount of difference in the two courses. They are not two layouts that you'd look at and think they were done by the same architect."

Hockaday made it clear that the variances in terrain also had a lot to do with the diversity between the courses.

"A lot of the differences are because of the land they're on," he said. "Even though the courses are side by side, the ground is really different. Plus, all of the laws governing wetlands and their preservation are a lot different than when Keith Hills I was built back in the '70s."

Golfers who pay out the maximum prime rate fees at Keith Hills of only about $45 will be treated to a cornucopia of change and challenge on the River Course. Four holes traverse wetlands. Four holes with significant elevation changes run parallel and perpendicular to the Cape Fear River (Scorsese movie buffs should not concern themselves that a dripping wet Robert DeNiro will show up on the tee box asking for phone numbers of teen-aged daughters). And holes 9, 10 and 11 have what Hockaday called a "Pinehurst-like feel" to them.

"I think it's going to be a great course to play," said Hockaday. "At 6,900 yards from the back tees, yardage-wise, it's going to be a challenge. But it will also be a very playable course for the average player who chooses the right set of tees."

Hockaday mentioned the 181-yard, par 3 16th hole as his favorite on the back - "green with water front, right and long" - and the par-5 sixth hole as perhaps the finest on the front. "An absolutely beautiful hole that runs parallel to the river," he said.

If golfers are as receptive to the new Keith Hills II as to the original, which was voted by Golf Digest as one of the top 100 bangs for your buck in the country, it cannot be called an overnight sensation. Dan Maples originally had the second course routed as far back as 1987. Several challenges, mostly financial and regulatory hurdles, not lack of petrol for the bulldozers, delayed construction of Keith Hills II until 1999.

When Campbell University launched its PGA of America-approved Professional Golf Management (PGM) program in 1995, enough impetus was gained for the university-owned Keith Hills to finally undertake the additional 18 holes of field study for its students.

"With the number of kids that are going into the program (current enrollment of 164), it is important for this to be a model facility to train golf professionals," said Hockaday, who served as the school's initial director of the PGM. "With the tremendous number of rounds that the students play, in addition to the public rounds, that's what finally pushed it over the edge to getting a second course here."

The club has long been one of the state's best destinations to work on your game - perfect for those dedicated Campbell golf students more interested in pitch and putt than drink 'n drowns. Keith Hills' 32-acre practice facility was listed as one of the top 50 in the Southeast by Golfweek.

While the town of Buies Creek still enjoys the solace of being out of the mainstream, it is still easily accessible from major interstates and lies only about 30 to 45 minutes from the major population areas of Raleigh and Fayetteville. Even before the addition of the River Course, it was already worth the trip.

The next time that traveling fans of the Belmont Bruins, Troy State Trojans or Mercer Bears follow their team to Buies Creek for a conference showdown, they should know to bring their clubs along for a quality side golf outing to Keith Hills Country Club.

How to Get There

From the Raleigh area, take Hwy. 401S into the town of Lillington where you will pick up Hwy. 421. Go 3 miles and turn right onto Pearson Rd. and you will see the club.

From Fayetteville, take I-95 to exit 73 (Dunn and Hwy. 421). Turn left and drive 12 miles directly past the Campbell University campus. Yield the right-of-way for any Camels you may come across. The course will be on your left.

Where to Stay

Unless you can arrange a sleepless night in a freshman dormitory, your best lodging options are in the nearby town of Dunn. The Keith Hills pro shop provided the number of the Holiday Inn in Dunn (910-892-4400) as a popular overnight station.

Patrick JonesPatrick Jones, Contributor

Patrick Jones was the senior producer for ESPN's "Lower Your Score with Tom Kite" CD-ROM instructional golf training series. He spent six years as a full-time sports writer and was awarded first-place honors for column writing from both the Florida and Texas sports writers associations.

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