Mrs. Smith goes to Pinehurst: No. 2, to be more specific

By Jennifer Mario, Contributor

PINEHURST, N.C. - Here's my story: I'm always on the lookout for my next golfing vacation, preferably one that doesn't require me to call in every favor I have to get someone to watch my children.

I need a place I can bring my kids. I need a place my husband and I can relax. I need a place I can tee it up that offers multiple courses to choose from, preferably all in pristine condition and with loads of history and charm. Is that so much to ask?

As a golfing North Carolinian, I've heard much about the resort at Pinehurst. After all, it hosted the U.S. Open only six short years ago and will be hosting it again this June, a quick turnaround by all accounts.

It's been described as the St. Andrews of America and a national treasure. A glance at its Web site informs me that it has no fewer than eight - eight! - courses, three hotels, a brand-new spa and a charming little village full of boutiques and shops. Eh? Did someone mention a spa?

'It's a beautiful day at Pinehurst'

Entering the resort's main hotel, the Carolina, was like stepping back in time. In fact, I felt just like Christopher Reeve in the film "Somewhere in Time," and half expected Jane Seymour to appear and start giving a tour.

Talk about charm - the sun-filled lobby was filled with antiques and the bellmen, wearing their plus-fours, greeted us with smiles. Sepia photographs documenting Pinehurst's storied history lined the walls. Afternoon tea was just being set up, complimentary to guests, of course. We had officially arrived.

As a golfing mom, my first question is always, can I bring my kids? At Pinehurst, the answer is yes and no. Let me explain. From June 26 to Sept. 6, Pinehurst offers enough family-friendly amenities to make Disney blush. The rest of the year, however, kids are still welcome, but there's just not much for them to do.

For example, during the summer, kids 17 and under stay, eat and play golf with their parents for free. Yes, you heard me - stay, eat, and play golf for free. Sign up for the summertime Family Fun package and they'll get to attend kids' golf clinics while you and your husband go play. Enjoyed your round with your husband and now want some bonding time with your daughter? Try a mother-daughter pedicure at the spa.

Why the big push to make the place more kid friendly?

"We've discovered that women are the decision-makers when it comes to planning trips," Pinehurst Director of Golf Matt Massei said. "So we're making more of a concerted effort to market to families and to women. The majority of customers, when they think of Pinehurst, they think of great golf. But we want people to understand that hey, it's great golf, but also we've got this great family package."

There's a catch: Although kid-friendly amenities abound, baby-friendly amenities are barely existent. Witness the hit-or-miss nature of baby changing tables in the hotel restrooms. They'll provide cribs and highchairs and arrange for a qualified babysitter if you ask, but unlike some resorts, which offer daycare-type rooms where you can park your really little ones for a few hours, Pinehurst has yet to add that to their list of family-friendly amenities.

Yes, but how's the golf?

We had an 8:50 a.m. tee time set up on Pinehurst No. 2, one of the best-known courses in the country, if not the world. It's a bit daunting to step out on the first tee on a course like this.

After all, this is the site that's considered to be architect Donald Ross's greatest masterpiece. It's the place where Ben Hogan won his first professional tournament. Where Payne Stewart drilled a 15-foot putt to clinch the U.S. Open in '99. And where an angry John Daly lost a battle to the greens on the eighth hole, hitting his own ball as it rolled back to him.

Oh, there's history here all right. There was also a small gallery of people milling around watching folks tee off. Talk about first-tee jitters. Could my game possibly be worthy?

Feeling about as confident as Bridget Jones on a first date, I teed it up. Thanks be to the golf gods, it split the fairway right down the middle. I hadn't embarrassed myself - not yet, anyway. One encounter with the infamous turtleback greens and I was ready to pull a John Daly myself.

I had been warned that the best way to prepare for a round on No. 2 is to practice your short game. But let me take that a step further. If you really want to prepare yourself for a round on No. 2, go out and buy a skateboarder's ramp. Then cover it with some Crisco to get it nice and slick. Then chip golf balls at it and watch them roll back to your feet. If you watched Tiger Woods' first round at the Masters this year, you know what I'm talking about.

I'm not the only one who felt this way. After the round, I sat down to chat with a friendly group of eight women, avid golfers on an annual girlfriends' golf excursion. We were all in agreement that the greens were a tricky bunch and not necessarily a fair test of one's golf skills.

That's kind of ironic considering that right next to No. 2's first tee rests a plaque with a quote by Donald Ross that reads: "I sincerely believe that this course offers the fairest test of championship golf I have ever designed."

"You can't (go for) the greens," Susan Rein of Nantucket, Massachusetts, lamented. "There's no way to go for the green if the ball won't stick, so I had to lay up every time. The course is actually very easy until you get to the green. But then …" she trailed off.

My sentiments exactly. Turns out that Susan is a 16-handicap, just like me, and scored a 102, just like me. Playing golf on a championship-level course has a lot going for it, but unless you have championship-level ball control, expect to be humbled.

Six of Pinehurst's eight courses offer two sets of women's tee boxes, red and green - something I've never encountered before at a golf resort. Men always get to choose between the whites and the blues and sometimes even black or gold "championship tees," but us women generally get the Henry Ford selection of tee boxes: "You can play any tees you want as long as they're red."

Sure, we could step back to the white tees, I guess, and watch our scores balloon. But at Pinehurst, we don't have to; it's nice to know that here at least, women of differing handicaps have fully rated and sloped tee options.

For all the difficulty around the greens, moments of brilliance at No. 2 are still within reach. My husband and I were paired with a father-in-law/son-in-law duo, Millard Mack and Linwood Davis, both with 20-plus handicaps, here at Pinehurst as a family to celebrate Linwood's wife's birthday. They each managed to pull off a few pars and Linwood even made an impressive birdie.

(Sound of an LP record scratching): Wait a minute, Linwood. You say you're here for a trip for your wife's birthday? And she's not a golfer? I sensed a gift in the style of Homer Simpson's bowling ball. But no, he explained. Actually, she's the one who picked Pinehurst. It was all about the spa.

The spa

Ah, the spa. It's pure understated opulence, if that's possible. Beautifully decorated, keeping with the historic golf theme of the Carolina hotel. It's one of those places where every detail has been thought of, like putting not just shampoo, but also shaving cream and individual plastic-wrapped razors in the showers.

Plus, you get to loll around in plush bathrobes and sanitized sandals. It offered every service I could think of, plus a few I hadn't.

During my 50-minute massage, my therapist dished some of the gossip. Apparently Oprah Winfrey has paid a few visits to the Spa at Pinehurst, along with the likes of Stone Phillips and Ron Howard, to name just a few celebrities. Well if it's good enough for Oprah, it's good enough for me. Expensive, yes. This is a resort, after all. But L'Oreal tells me I'm worth it, so there you go.

Places to stay

What good is a girlfriend who scopes out a resort for you but doesn't give you the real scoop? The last thing you need when you go on vacation is a case of hotel envy, that painful realization as you check in, that you could've had a V8.

When staying at Pinehurst, you have three options for places to stay, all within a short walk or shuttle ride's distance from each other: the Carolina, the Holly and the Manor. The Carolina is the largest, and has a "grand hotel" feel to it. The other two are cozier, more intimate inns.

Each has pros and cons, but I'll admit, my first choice is the Carolina, mainly because that's where you'll find the spa and the children's activities. Not surprisingly, that also makes it the most expensive.

Places to eat

Where to eat obviously depends on whether or not you're bringing the kids. Got kids? Stick with Hackers, a fairly noisy sports-themed eatery with large-screen TVs dotting the walls.

Got privacy? Try the Carolina Room, but be sure your husband wears the (required) jacket. Also try The Tavern, a pub that rivals anything you'd find in St. Andrews. Nothing like a fresh-squeezed Guinness after a long day of golf.

My primary complaint in this regard is that if you're bringing the kids, you'll probably get tired of eating at Hackers every day. It's the most family-friendly restaurant in the resort, but it's also pretty much the only family-friendly restaurant in the resort, and it has a bar, something most parents prefer to steer their kids away from.

The Village of Pinehurst, however, has plenty more dining options; you might have to suck it up and go off-property.

The Verdict

All that charm, history, and playing like the pros comes at a price. If you were to go a la carte during peak season, one night at the Carolina (which includes full breakfast and dinner at any of the resort's restaurants) plus one round on No. 2 will run you almost $600 per adult.

However, the resort offers a number of packages that will help bring down your per-night cost. Summer and winter rates are lower and the other seven courses will run you considerably less than the big granddaddy, No. 2. You can basically bring kids along without adding any extra cost and remember that most of your meals and activities are included in your final price.

Would I come back? Are you kidding? With eight courses to choose from and top-notch service, it's always been a golfer's paradise. And now with all the family-friendly activities that mean you don't have to leave your kids behind, it's a haven for golfing mothers (and fathers, for that matter) as well. I'll definitely go back - I still have seven more courses to play, after all.

Fast fact

Pinehurst No. 2 has as a sister course, none other than The Old Course at St. Andrews. The two courses even swapped sand from their respective bunkers earlier this year in a special ceremony. Not too surprising considering Donald Ross apprenticed under The Royal and Ancient's own legendary Old Tom Morris.

Jennifer MarioJennifer Mario, Contributor

Jennifer Mario is a regular contributor to the TravelGolf Network and the author of "Michelle Wie: The Making of a Champion" (St. Martin's Griffin, 2006). A graduate of Duke University, she lives in the Triangle area of North Carolina with her family.

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