PINEHURST, N.C. - On Super Bowl Sunday, 1998, the owners of Foxfire Resort and Country Club weren't watching the Denver Broncos beat the Green Bay Packers. They weren't scarfing down peanuts, sucking down brews, or tossing the football in the backyard.
Instead, they were burning down Foxfire's old clubhouse, and with it, a golf bag full full of bad memories from a golf resort gone bad.
"There were 16 years of memories in that building," former head professional Tom Garber told Pinehurst Magazine shortly after they burned the structure to the ground. "But it was definitely like the dawning of a new day."
That new day is illuminated by the resurgence of two traditional golf courses, now named Red Fox and Grey Fox, that can now hold their head high amid Pinehurst's collection of outstanding golf courses.
There was a time when the original 18 hole course at Foxfire was mentioned as one of the best layouts in the Sand Hills. No, it wasn't a Pine Needles or a No. 2, but Gene Hamm's original layout could hold its own with just about any other course in the area.
There was also a time not so long ago that it took seven days just to water the resorts' 36 holes. Workers had to move sprinklers around from hole to hole by hand. The course owned no walk mowers, so the greens were handled with nothing close to the kid gloves that good putting surfaces require.
The joke was that Foxfire had the best mechanic in the Sand Hills. It had to with all the equipment that would break down every day.
Now the joke is on those who don't give Foxfire a chance.
Foxfire used to change owners like Madonna changes looks. Today the resort is under the steady guidance of GolfMatrix, a Scottsdale, Ariz. based company that has a stake in six Pinehurst area courses, collectively referred to as the Carolina Collection.
Now an ornate, yet cozy clubhouse stands in place of the debilitated structure that went down faster than Packer quarterback Brett Favre under the pressure of the Bronco defense back in 1998.
A visit to the resort and one will see that both the Grey and Red Fox courses are in tremendous condition, and the bentgrass greens are nearly flawless.
So is it officially time to declare Foxfire "back"?
"It is back," says Phil Wiggins, Vice President and General Manager at GolfMatrix. "We were back as early as last fall. In April, when spring hits, we will be all the way back."
When asked what players can expect from Foxfire this season, Wiggins leans back in his chair pensively before answering.
"They can expect four star service," he says. "They are going to get service like they won't get anywhere else in our competitive market set."
Wiggins says that the all the essential ingredients for a great golfing facility were already in place when GolfMatrix (then GolfSouth) took over in 1997. The courses' enviable location -- perched along the shores of local lakes amid hundreds of the Sand Hills trademark pines -- oozed with potential.
The traditional layout played right into the hands of what Pinehurst golf is all about. Modern courses stick out in Donald Ross' magical village like Jennifer Lopez at the Oscars. All Foxfire needed was a little tender loving care to regain its foot hold in the local market, and its reputation among players.
That TLC came in the form of $5 million worth of renovations and improvements courtesy of GolfMatrix. Under the direction of superintendent Doug Walker, the courses were outfit with new Penn G-6 greens, 145 rebuilt bunkers, six rebuilt holes, new cart paths through all 36 holes, new equipment and new staff.
Now, it's possible for players to stroll down Foxfire's fairways, and gain an appreciation for where the courses have been, and where they are going. Gene Hamm once said that the original 18 at Foxfire was one of his favorite golf courses.
Hamm must have been appalled at what went down in the early 1970's - and we ain't talking about the emergence of Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd.
The owners de jure built 18 holes in a shotgun fashion with total disregard for good course design. Wiggins calls the course construction "real-estate nines", in that the new holes were built quickly, cheaply and with total disregard for the original course.
Upon taking over operations, Wiggins and GolfMatrix spent a great deal of their time coming up with plans to reconfigure the course and make it more playable. The owners had moved little earth in the early 1970's, and landing areas were so severe, well-placed tee shots would run off the fairway and into the woods.
Now, both courses are fair, challenging, and perhaps just as importantly, affordable.
While greens fees can go as high as $69 during the peak spring season, offseason rates can be ridiculously cheap. Early spring golf packages start at $69 per person, per night, which includes lodging and a round of golf. Regular greens fees are often cut in half in the off season, and replays are usually available for $25.
Traditional courses appeal to traditional players, and both tracks at Foxfire are walkable almost any time of day or day of the week. Wiggins believes that most players, particularly visitors to Pinehurst enjoy the design elements of the older courses.
"People's tastes are coming back around to the traditional," he says. "That is what Pinehurst is about. I am not sure there is another place where golf is so prominent.
"It is an interesting place because the guy that delivers the mail is probably a two handicap and the garbage man can probably break 80. It is the only place where you can go to a restaurant and listen to a table full of old ladies talking about cutting 8-irons into the green."
Sharp's Analysis: I felt that Grey Fox was the better of the two layouts. The starting hole is a downhill par 5 with water to the right that is out of play from the blue tees for mere mortals. The second shot requires a bit of a cut over the water as the hole jogs around to the right. Talk about starting strong - No.1 is No. 1, as in the toughest hole on the course from a handicapping standpoint.
Good course design - the opening hole is not reachable in two, therefore a bunch of overly ambitious duffers aren't sitting in the middle of the fairway waiting to pull off some shot they have a snowball's chance in Phoenix of making.
The second hole is a 214 yard par 3 that is nothing to scoff at, and the third hole is yet another par 5. Some purists may question the flow of going par 5 - par 3 - par 5 on the opening two holes. While it could cause some backups during peak season, most players will relish the opportunity to stave off a par 4 until the fourth hole.
Other great holes include the par 4 fourth - it drips with traditional design elements, No. 10 - excellent view from tee box, No. 11 - one of the more interesting holes on the course, and No. 16 - hands down the prettiest hole on the course.
Inside the Numbers: Length: 6834 Blue, 6286 White, 5864 Red. Slope: 129, 127, 114. Rating: 73, 70.3, 70.7.
Sharp's Analysis: Red Fox is a full 100 yards shorter than its sister course, but is just as challenging in my book. The layout is not quite as memorable, but features a solid collection of good holes.
Unlike Grey Fox, which smacks you in the face on the first hole, Red Fox eases you into play with a 365-yard par 4 starting hole, then works its way up to its first par 5 on the 526-yard fourth hole. The flow of the course is a little more logical, but it is lacking some of the overall natural beauty of Grey Fox.
No. 11 is a great hole, featuring one of the Sand Hills larger pine trees on the right side of the fairway. The 379-yard par 4 15th hole stood out, if only because it appeared to be more of a modern looking hole wedged between a glut of traditional links.
Red Fox finishes in a rather benign fashion, with a somewhat uneventful 189-yard par 3 with a huge bunker on the left, and the 405-yard 18th, which plays as the No. 2 handicap, but shouldn't pose that much trouble for right to left hitters.
Inside the Numbers: Length: 6742 Blue, 6333 White, 5574 Red. Slope: 129, 125, 113. Rating: 72.7, 70.8, 70.2.
The Carolina Collection has two special 2001 U.S. Women's Open golf "stay and play" packages that include passes to the U. S. Women's Open, May 31 through June 3 at Pine Needles Golf Club in Pinehurst, N. C. The packages offer golfers an easy and affordable way to play some of the area's finest courses and attend the most prestigious event in women's golf. Contact Chris King at LHWH (843-448-1123) for more information.
Practice Fac.: B+
Club House/Pro Shop: A
Pace of Play: A
Overall Rating: B+
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.
Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.
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