The Sandhills have some great golf, and if you look around, it doesn't have to cost an arm and a leg

By Patrick Jones, Senior Writer

Hyland HillsPINEHURST, N.C. -- Want to play at one of the premier golf destinations in the world and the cost is no object?

Then I would suggest calling Robin Leach -- he of the numbingly pretentious, and mercifully cancelled, "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" television schlock -- for assistance with lining up champagne wishes and caviar dreams to accompany your $350 rounds.

Here's another question: Want to play golf at one of the premier golf destinations in the world -- The Sandhills of North Carolina -- and spend significantly less than $300?

Of course you do. And, yes, there is a catch. The price includes three rounds of golf and two nights of accommodations.

Another caveat emptor is don't forget to read the fine print: The price also covers cart fees, taxes and continental breakfast. Can it get any better for a frugal foray? Rates for these packages run from $199 to $265, depending on the season, along with the disclaimer that, like gas prices, they are subject to change without notice.

It's a fact that you can stay and play in the Pinehurst, Southern Pines and Aberdeen area, aka The Sandhills, home of some of golf's greatest championship moments, without having to pray for an inheritance to pay for the privilege.

Pinehurst was the site of that indelible image of the late Payne Stewart celebrating his 1999 U.S. Open Championship after sinking a long par putt on the final hole. The Open is coming back to Pinehurst No. 2 in 2005.

Peggy Kirk Bell's Pine Needles Resort and Lodge in Southern Pines hosted the U.S. Women's Open Championship in 1996 and 2001. A return engagement is set for 2007.

Add the Tour Championship (1991 and 1992), the U.S. Amateur Championship (1968, 2007) and a Ryder Cup in 1951 to the Pinehurst area's resume and you' re hard pressed to find any golf destination on the globe with more prestigious qualifications.

Such international renown tends to cause the less affluent -- those who think Chevrolet, not Cessna, when discussing travel in a Citation -- to filter out the Pinehurst area as a golfing destination. There is a strong tendency for Carolina-bound golfers to have Myrtle Beach on the brain. While the Grand Strand can be a great place for a getaway, and has numerous fine courses, its surroundings have less, well, refinement than Pinehurst. Not that there's anything wrong with having a Wings store on every block so vacationers can load up on Coppertone, Betty Boop shot glasses, Styrofoam bellyboards and "I'm with Stupid" T-shirts.

Pinehurst's more sophisticated reputation has proven to be a minor obstacle that needs to be overcome when it comes to luring more golfers to the area.

"When you say Pinehurst, a lot of golfers identify it only with the Pinehurst golf courses (Nos. 1 through 8)", said Mike Campbell, director of golf for the Sandhills Golf Association. "Many don't realize that the Pinehurst area has 43 courses and that they're inexpensive and some of the best rated golf courses along the East Coast."

You can certainly pay top dollar for a tour of the Donald Ross-designed No. 2, or the other seven courses in the numbered Pinehurst series. But there are numerous alternative, more affordable layouts in the area by architects such as Ellis Maples, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Davis Love III, Willard Byrd and Mike Strantz.

Part of Campbell's duties is traveling to other parts of the country to market the 16 Pinehurst-area courses represented by his association. Much of Pinehurst's golf package business comes from golfers living within an eight-hour drive, he said. Whether visiting Ohio, Pennsylvania or New Jersey, Campbell said he hears constant themes in his discussions.

"Two things kept coming up in golf shows that we did over the winter," said Campbell. "First, we would hear from golfers that they didn't know Pinehurst had so many courses. And we also heard from them that they were tired of Myrtle Beach and were looking for a different golf destination. We pretty much have it all here: great dining, shopping and plenty of other things to do along with the excellent and affordable golf opportunities."

The Sandhills region does not require a hard sell. It boasts 13 of the top 30 courses in the state in rankings by North Carolina magazine's golf panel. Golf Digest designated the Pinehurst area as one of the top three golfing destinations in the world.

As mentioned, some of the courses, particularly the Pinehurst No. 1 through 8 layouts, can command big bucks, but there are numerous quality courses in the immediate vicinity that you can play at bargain rates. Robin Leach is cringing at such appeal to the hoi polloi.

Sandhills sleepers

Beacon RidgeDeercroft Golf Club and Beacon Ridge at Seven Lakes are two of the most outlying courses in the area. Deercroft defines the southernmost outpost of the Sandhills. It is off the beaten path in Wagram, N.C., but the 15-minute drive south from Aberdeen is worth burning the extra petrol - even at two bucks a gallon. Beacon Ridge, a Gene Hamm design, is located to the west in, appropriately, the town of West End. It, too, is a course that deserves serious consideration when arranging an itinerary to this area. For more information on these two courses, see the accompanying sidebar story.

Other quality Sandhills courses that won't break the bank

Anderson Creek

This course designed by Davis Love III was voted the state's "Best New Golf Course for 2001" by North Carolina magazine.

The Pit Golf Links

The Pit is rated was rated one of the Top 50 Public Courses in America and one of the Top 10 courses in N.C. by Golf Digest. Dan Maples sculpted the course in a 230-acre sand quarry.

Talamore

This Rees Jones design was voted N.C.'s Course of the Year in 2002 and 2003 by the N.C. Golf Course Owner's Association.

Woodlake CourseWoodlake Maple and Palmer

Woodlake offers 36 holes of championship golf by Arnold Palmer and Ellis Maples.

Hyland Hills Golf Club

Hyland Hills remains in exceptional playing condition even as the most played course in the Sandhills. Its popularity is the result of its price and playability.

Even more courses to consider

Tot Hill FarmWith 43 courses, it's tough to go wrong in the Pinehurst area. Among other courses to strongly consider are Foxfire, Mid Pines, Woodlake, The National, The Carolina, Pinewild Country Club, Country Club of Whispering Pines, Tot Hill Farm, Tobacco Road and Legacy Golf Links.

Visit the Sandhills Golf Association Web site at www.sandhillsgolf.com for more information on their available golf packages at these and other courses.

Eats

There is no shortage of dining opportunities in the Sandhills. Whether it's the Pinecrest Inn for a sumptuous breakfast to power your rounds or Dugan's Pub to squelch your thirst and rehash every glorious pin-seeking shot, the opportunities abound. See Contributing Writer Shane Sharp's roundup of Pinehurst dining for insights on the best spots to go.

Shopping, for sure

Shop-until-you-drop opportunities abound. You can browse the boutiques in Southern Pines and the Village of Pinehurst. Whether you're looking for a good bottle of wine, pottery, stylish clothing or golf collectibles, it's all here. Nearby Cameron is a haven for antique shops.

Other activities

It's not all about the golf. The area provides a myriad of other opportunities. There are jazz, bluegrass and classical music concerts throughout the year. Dog field trials, equestrian events and even NASCAR races in nearby Rockingham are all part of the Sandhills scene.

Patrick JonesPatrick Jones, Senior Writer

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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