Knight's Play Golf Center in Raleigh open to all comers

By Patrick Jones, Contributor

APEX, N.C. -- On the opposite end of the Hootie-Martha-Augusta National inaccessibility debate resides the Raleigh area's Knight's Play Golf Center.

The 27-hole, par-3 course just off U.S. 1 on the road to Pinehurst is open year-round from 8 a.m. to midnight (weather permitting) to anyone looking for fun and game improvement. It closes its doors to no one, except in the middle of the night. It does not discriminate based on race, creed, color, swing path, portfolio balance, tacky green Masters jacket or feminist agenda.

Opened in May of 1998 and designed by TPC of Sawgrass contributing architect David Postlethwait, Knight's Play is available for play to all comers. As proof, last year it hosted an astronomical 90,000 rounds in 2001, which are numbers more closely associated with numbers of burgers sold by the Golden Arches than with annual tours of an 18-hole track. According to Golf Course News, full layouts in the U.S. hosted an average of 33,000 rounds last year.

The equally hectic 60-station Knight's Play driving range has had its practice balls skulled, ripped, topped, striped, whiffed and pured into the millions by the gamut of golf swings, with hands attached to clubs from motorcycle to weak-sister grips, with stances ranging from open to closed to pigeon-toed. Balls have left clubfaces and flown through the sky here at every conceivable arc, angle and parabola. Leonardo Da Vinci could have used the place as a geometry lab.

The full-service center also sports a practice green, clubhouse, pro shop and grill. It is a busy place at breakfast, lunch and midnight snack. Demand was so immediate at the facility that an additional nine holes was added and opened in November 1999 to complement the original 18.

Kevin Jones, Knight's Play's head golf professional, said Postlethwait and fellow owners Richard Godwin and Nelson Hare had the vision for turning the 100 acres of unused and somewhat swampy area off Ten Ten Rd. into an everyman's potential hole-in-one haven.

"They saw a need for something we didn't have in this area, a par-3 course, and, boy, it has done really well," said Jones. "We're blessed with a location that is heavily trafficked with its close proximity to Research Triangle Park and the booming growth of (the nearby towns of) Cary, Apex and Holly Springs."

Most of Knight's Play's clientele are novice golfers, according to Jones, who estimated that 60 to 70 percent of his customers are 30-plus handicappers, with a higher concentration of women and children drawn to the facility than you would find at a standard course.

And they come for good reasons.

"We have a lot of advantages over a standard 18-hole course," said Jones. "Financially, playing par-3 courses are a lot cheaper, it doesn't take as much time to play, and it's great for beginners, kids, families and people who don't feel comfortable playing in a country-club environment.

"You can take the whole family out and play for almost the same as you would pay for one person on a nice course on the weekend," Jones added. "For four people, you can get everybody on for only $60. There are a lot of good reasons for why Knight's Play should work, and it really has."

Prime-time weekend rates are just $15 for 18 holes. It costs $12 before 5 p.m. on Monday through Thursday, plus junior and seniors receive an additional discount on top of that.

Like moths drawn to the light, the more skilled golfers tend to find their way to Knight's Play when darkness settles.

"Better players tend to show up around here at night," said Jones. "You look up and down the range when the lights come on, and you see some really good golf swings and can tell you have some single-digit handicappers out there hitting balls. The better player, the hardcore golfer, during the daytime, if he's got time to play and can take an afternoon off, he's probably going to play a standard 18 holes. They mostly come out after work when they can't find the chance to play during the day or on weekends."

Playing the Knight's Play par-3 course doesn't require every club in the bag, but it's definitely more than a pitch-and-putt layout. No. 2, at an even 100 yards, is the shortest hole on the course. There are several 170- to 190-yard challenges that require mid-irons for better players and a wood for beginners and short hitters. No. 12, playing to 213 yards off the back tees, provides the longest test. A large oak tree guards the left side of the green, and the hole offers no forgiving space for a good miss or a bailout.

"It's such a good mixture of holes," said Jones. "Playing the course takes longer than you think (he estimated about three hours when it's busy). You're not just hitting wedges all the way around."

With the exceptions of green-and-orange rental shoes, risqué pinball machines and cigarette-smoke haze that requires assisted breathing, Knight's Play's 18-hour-a-day accessibility, come-as-you-are dress code, and late-night hours bring to mind its similarities to a bowling alley.

While golf tends to attract seekers of recreation a notch or two higher on the evolutionary ladder than those willing to stick three fingers up to the knuckles into dark holes while trying to keep a 16-pound spheroid out of the gutter, par-3s like Knight's Play can also sometimes attract, well, unfocused and colorful (reads boozed up) characters, especially as the bewitching hour approaches.

"For the most part, we haven't had a lot of crazy stuff," said Jones. "But we have had an occasion or two when we had to call the sheriff when someone gets intoxicated. If they're disobeying the rules or taking the carts off the path or just refusing to listen, we don't take any chances.

"It's like having a drunk at a ballgame," he added. "Nobody has thrown any punches at our staff, but we have had some customers get into it with each other when somebody hit into somebody else. We did have someone drive a cart into the pond, but they fled the scene before we even knew about it."

With the rare exceptions of rowdiness, Knight's Play prides itself on being a family recreational center. It's an establishment that welcomes players of all stratas and treats the game of golf with dignity and without agendas.

Hear that Hootie and Martha?

Where else to play

A par-3 course is certainly not an overnight destination, but Knight's Play is the perfect spot for Triangle-based travelers going to -- or coming from -- Pinehurst to stop and get in some quick holes or practice before or after a round. Besides Pinehurst, golfers in the area might want to check out nearby standard 18-hole courses, including The Preserve at Jordan Lake Golf Club, a Davis Love III design that opened this fall; Crooked Creek, a Chuck Smith design in nearby Fuquay-Varina, N.C.; or Lochmere, a Cary staple for years.

Where to stay

If you're passing through the Raleigh area and would like to add Knight's Play to your itinerary, your best bet would be the Comfort Suites off Tryon Rd., just five minutes away from the course. A host of shopping and dining options are within a mile of the hotel.

Comfort Suites
350 Asheville Ave.
Cary, N.C. 27511
(800) 726-2955

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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