Piedmont region of the Tar Heel state has plenty to offer for golfers

By Joel Zuckerman, Contributor

NC - By virtue of his surprising win in June's U.S. Open championship, New Zealand's Michael Campbell will always have exceedingly fond memories of golf in North Carolina. And though the rest of us will never know the feeling of hoisting major championship hardware, or pocketing that million-dollar payday for our stick-and-ball skills, we still feel fondly about Tarheel golf ourselves.

The mountains to the west offer the rugged topography and the exhilaration of elevation. The seaside courses to the east offer the dazzling water views and whipping coastal winds that ratchet up the challenge factor at most every venue. But the central, or Piedmont region of North Carolina, might have the most fertile golf soil in the state.

Never mind the eight courses at Pinehurst resort, where Campbell was the only player who maintained par through four rounds at famed No. 2. Disregard that there are more than 40 courses in total within 15 miles of Pinehurst, colloquially referred to as "the birthplace of American Golf."

Throughout the Piedmont, in and around Durham and Chapel Hill, in Greensboro, near Winston-Salem, outside of Fayetteville, there's plenty to recommend. Good golf in Raleigh? Really.

Must plays

This correspondent's university golf course education is lacking. I've never seen Stanford or the Scarlet Course at Ohio State, but I've traipsed the wacky and delightful antiquity at Yale on several occasions, and likewise enjoyed bucolic Taconic, on the leafy campus of Williams College in Northwestern Massachusetts. Classics they may be, but the former has had a long fallow period in terms of conditioning and the latter is being asphyxiated by trees.

The Duke Golf Club in Durham, near the campus of the esteemed university of the same name, stands shoulder-to-shoulder with these classic New England layouts. Robert Trent Jones designed the course in 1957. Five years later, his son, Rees Jones, took part in the NCAA championships contested there, ironically, playing for Yale. Some 30 years later Rees Jones returned again to refurbish his father's work and make improvements on a course that had frayed badly in the interim.

Restored to its original grandeur, this parkland beauty is once again one of the premiere golf venues in the south. It's 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.

Longtime PGA Tour star Davis Love III was born in Charlotte and two decades ago was at UNC-Chapel Hill before heading off onto a career as a professional. So it only makes sense that as a golf course architect, he's come home and delivered some big, bold routings in his home state.

The Preserve at Jordan Lake is Love's best local work, an impressive housing development outside of Chapel Hill. This rugged gem offers the type of up-and-down golf experience normally found in the mountainous western reaches of the state.

Major elevation changes, encroaching wetlands and forest put a premium on tee accuracy. Also, occasional rocky outcroppings and deep ravines make this course seem better suited for an Asheville or Hendersonville address.

Most of the houses surrounding the course are show-stoppers, large and dramatic. They fit in nicely with this exhilarating test of golf, with a daunting slope rating of 140 from the 6,600-yard penultimate markers (the back tees are 7,100 yards), which is certainly one of the finest in the triangle region.

Solid seconds

Bryan Park is a muscular 36-hole public facility in the town of Greensboro. It features a Rees Jones original effort called Champions and a George Cobb designed, Rees Jones-renovated course called Players.

Now more than 30 years old, the original Cobb is a side salad to the main course. Champions is a true championship track. Playing 7,150 yards from the tips and 6,650 yards from the middle markers, there's plenty of perimeter mounding to help propel would-be errant tee shots back into play.

Bunkers are many and massive, but this parkland beauty really scores points because of its proximity to Lake Townsend. Seven holes border the water, including the all-world 13th, a par-4 dogleg stretching 435 yards from the penultimate markers, where the lake comes into play on both drive and approach.

The Greensboro location is ironic, because Champions at Bryan Park brings to mind a Jack Nicklaus course with a significantly higher 'Q' rating, also located in Greensboro, albeit in the tiny burgh of Greensboro, Ga. Great Waters is the pinnacle of golf at ritzy Reynolds Plantation, in middle Georgia some 90 minutes east of Atlanta, and offers some of the same up-close lake views seen at this well run, finely conditioned public facility.

The major difference? Champions tops out at about $50 per round and can often be accessed for much less. The same amount of money on a per hole basis at Reynolds won't even get you halfway through the front nine, which is a shame. Because the real lakeside beauties are found on the back.

Anderson Creek is another Love creation just outside of Fayetteville. It's little more than 40 miles from Pinehurst and reflects the Sandhills sensibility, with fairways lined with longleaf pines, and generous greens with large roll-off areas and swales. It's a straightforward routing, nothing overly tricky, interspersed with a couple of wetland carries and waste areas.

At present, housing is something of an incidental presence, found mostly on the inward nine. That situation is destined to change as the development continues to gain attraction in the years to come.

The Championship Course at Tanglewood Park's moment in the sun was more than 30 years ago when Lee Trevino held off Nicklaus by a single shot in the PGA Championship. But this estimable parkland outside of Winston-Salem has aged well since 1974 and gives daily players all they can handle.

The clubhouse is located at the apex of the property and the tee shots at the first and 10th holes plummet downhill, the approaches to the ninth and 18th greens are well elevated. In between are numerous water hazards, well placed, reddish-hued bunkering, and doglegs both gentle and severe.

Tanglewood, unprepossessing, modestly priced, is one of slightly more than 600 courses in this golf-centric state. Pinehurst may be the pinnacle in terms of recognition, but hundreds and hundreds of other courses are well worthy of visitor's attention, as well.

Off course

When playing golf along "Tobacco Road" - noting the area and close proximity of the great college basketball teams in the state - one should spend some time on the campuses of the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, Duke University in Durham, North Carolina State University in Raleigh and Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem.

Check out hoops heroes, golf greats and other outstanding athletes at the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame in Raleigh. The Airborne & Special Operations Museum in Fayetteville, Guilford Courthouse National Military Park in Greensboro and Old Salem in Winston-Salem offer something for everyone.

Dining out

Ultra casual, down-home cooking can be found at Ron's Barn and Seafood in Sanford.

Slightly more upscale, but still without the tuxedo requirement, is Fowler's Food and Wine in Durham. Want a bit more chic? Try Restaurant Starlu, also in Durham.

Stay and play

Much like the Pinehurst Hotel, the Washington Duke Inn in Durham is not just one of the best hotels just steps from great golf, it's one of the best hotels in the state, period.

The Winston-Salem Marriott is another worthwhile choice, as is the O. Henry Hotel in Greensboro.

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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