Hidden gems of the Sandhills

By Shane Sharp, Contributor

PINEHURST, N.C. -- The usual suspects of the Sandhills golf scene are well-documented. Pinehurst No. 2 is one of the greatest golf courses in the world, has hosted the U.S. Open and will do so again in 2005. Pine Needles - another Donald Ross designed beauty - has twice hosted the women's U.S. Open and is considered by many locals to be the one course with the wherewithal to look No. 2 square in the eye.

More recently, Pinehurst Resort's No. 4 and No. 8 courses have stolen most the headlines, largely due to their association with world renowned golf course architect Tom Fazio. Fazio completely redesigned No. 4 in 1999, and crafted No. 8 from scratch in 1995 to commemorate the resort's 100 year anniversary. No. 7 is even making a solid bid to become big man on campus with a recent revamping by Rees Jones.

But for every course that grabs some national attention in the Sandhills region, there are two that exist in relative anonymity. Depending on the source of the tally, there are close to 40 courses open for public play in and around Pinehurst, Southern Pines, and Aberdeen. Here's a sampling of some hidden gems with plenty to offer in terms of quality and value.

The Lineup

Pinehurst No. 5 -- Pinehurst No. 5 -- Just because this Ellis Maples designed track it is part of the redoubtable Pinehurst Resort lineup doesn't mean it gets mass publicity. In fact, No. 5 is arguably one of the lesser known courses in the area. Maples' father was Donald Ross' go-to-guy for more than 40 years and his son Dan has set up shop in the Sandhills where he carries on the family tradition. In No. 5, golfers will find a straight-forward design with a good mix of short and long par 4s and 5s. The course opened in 1961, but is still meaty by today's standards at 6640 yards. The par-3 15th - dubbed the "Cathedral Hole" for its resemblance to the 12th at Augusta -- is widely considered to be the signature hole. Greens fees: $60-$100.

Longleaf Country Club -- Contrary to the "Country Club" moniker, Longleaf is available for public consumption and well worth a visit. Longleaf opened in the late 80s when designers like Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer were churning out jaw-dropping, hair pulling, round-wrecking layouts as part of an ongoing race with Pete Dye to build the most difficult golf course known to humankind. The aforementioned Dan Maples made it clear with this design that he wanted no part of this misguided chivalry. The layout at Longleaf is forgiving to the extent that the course bills itself as the most "playable" in the Sandhills. Longleaf was built on (and over) an old Thoroughbred training farm, and Maples and his crew preserved the old watering troughs, white fences and hedgerows for effect. Greens fees: $40-$60.

Pinewild Country Club -- Pinewild is easily one of the most robust golf properties in the Sandhills. The Magnolia Course, designed by Gene Hamm, opened in 1989. The Holly Course, designed by Gary Player, opened in 1996. Both tracks are held in high esteem by locals for their conditioning and affordability. Pinewild also houses a fine par-3 track, the nine-hole Azalea Course, which sports a smattering of picturesque holes. The 2,100-acre residential playground is also home to one of the state's premier practice facilities. With three full practice holes, two behemoth putting greens, a chipping green and a practice range with fairway and greenside bunkers, it is little wonder that Pinewild hosts so many PGA sectional events. Greens fees: $50-$70.

Talamore at Pinehurst -- "So I said, hey llama," is not so much the beginning of bad Caddyshack joke as it is a commonly heard refrain at Talamore. As in "hey llama, hand me the 7-iron please." Despite an ultra modern and highly touted Rees Jones designed golf course, Talamore gets more press for its llama caddies. When the course first opened in 1991, golfers could choose from a wide variety of these friendly beasts of burden: Bille, Dollie, Jack, Sir Hogan and even Reg the Wonder Llama. Today, it is down to Bille and Dollie II (the original Dollie passed away a couple years back, cause of death related to witnessing exorbitant amounts of bad golf.) Either animal can lug your sticks through the countless mounds and bunkers of the 7,020-yard course during the winter months. Tee times: (910) 692-5884. Greens fees: $40-$120.

Keith Hills Country Club -- From llamas to camels, although at Keith Hills the later are simply some of the student body out for a little R and R on the golf course. This Maples (Ellis on the goal, Dan on the assist) designed course in Buies Creek is operated by Campbell University, home of the Fighting Camels. This traditionally styled track is virtually unknown outside of the Sandhills and central Piedmont, despite being rated as high as the seventh best public course in the state by North Carolina Magazine. It's easy to see what the experts like about Keith Hills: all 6660 yards of the course are blanketed with a lush combination of longleaf pines and deciduous Carolina hardwoods, and there's a good mix of easy holes (see the 338-yard par-4 16th) and brutal holes (see the 398-yard par-4 15th). Greens fees: $35-$45.

Shane SharpShane Sharp, Contributor

Shane Sharp is vice president of Buffalo Communications, a golf and lifestyle media agency. He was a writer, senior writer and managing editor of TravelGolf.com from 1997 to 2003.

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