SOUTHERN PINES, N.C. - Walking up the 18th fairway of Mid Pines' classic Donald Ross designed golf course on a late spring afternoon, a massive shadow was making its way across the hole's closely cropped putting surface.
Appropriate, it would seem, for a course that has not only been overshadowed by neighboring Pinehurt's famed resort courses over the years, but has been obscured in recent years by its sister course, Pine Needles, as well.
Upon this playing, however, it is obvious that Mid Pines no longer will play second fiddle to any course in the Sandhills. The course's design is as thought-provoking and subtly challenging as it was 75 years ago. The crowned, bentgrass greens, tight fairways and square tee boxes are complimented by sublime conditioning
"I would say that it is back," says Holly Bell, director of marketing for Mid Pines and Pine Needles Resorts and daughter-in-law of owner Peggy Kirk Bell. "For years, Mid Pines was the favorite course among guests and it is reclaiming that reputation. We have worked hard to get it back in resort golf condition."
The Bell family took over Mid Pines in 1994 after years of neglect by previous owners, Manor Care. Experts at operating midlevel hotel chains, Manor Care's hospitality moxy didn't transfer to the resort hotel and golf course business.
"The conference area and course had totally been neglected and had fallen out of favor," says Bell.
With the Bell family, however, Mid Pines had fallen into good hands.
Peggy and Bullet Bell purchased Pine Needles in 1953 with the intent of shaking the resort's reputation as an overflow property for Pinehurst Resort. And shake they did. Today, Pine Needles' Ross designed course is considered one of the top resort tracks in the world, and has hosted the 1996 and 2001 U.S. Women's Opens (it has also been tapped for the 2007 edition.)
Together, Mid Pines and Pine Needles present nearby Pinehurst Resort with a formidable competitor. Yet, Bell doesn't necessarily see it that way.
"They have their customer base and we have ours," she says. "Pinehurst is more professional, if you will, and corporately owned. I have great reverence for that property because we wouldn't be here without them. But we don't want to be them and that is the biggest difference. These properties are smaller, less formal, and less grand. This is family. We have people who have been returning here every year for the past 30 or 40 years."
Pinehurst Resort, Mid Pines and Pine Needles do possess a few common traits. All three are inexorably tied to Ross, and all three exist for a sole purpose - golf. Mid Pines and Pine Needles take that singular dedication to the game to the extreme with their all-you-can-play golf packages, instructional facilities and the "golf-deco" interiors of their clubhouses and resort rooms.
Pine Needles, in particular, is a golf nut's panacea. The resort's Swiss Alps styled lodge is an understated edifice with a utilitarian purpose - providing guests a cozy place to sleep just a chip shot from the first tee. The hallways of the clubhouse are adorned with enough historical pictures and plaques to make the Smithsonian blush.
"The main difference between Mid Pines and Pine Needles is the accommodations," says Bell. "The golf is comparable and you will find just as many people who like one course as the other. But Mid Pines Inn appeals guests looking for something more upscale."
Both resorts appeal to golfers with a deep appreciation of the game's traditions. On any given day, you are more likely to find golfers hoofing it around the two course's sub-6,800-yard layouts than blazing along in buggies. Peruse the pages of Pinehurst historian Lee Pace's "Sandhills Classics: The Stories of Mid Pines and Pine Needles" and you'll find that most of the course's holes have been left to their original routing.
Neither course plays long by today's standards - Mid Pines to 6,528 yards from the blues and Pine Needles to 6,727 from the championship golds. But narrow fairways, strategically placed bunkers and turtle shell shaped greens protect par from low handicappers (and in Pine Needles' case, the best female players in the world.)
As the ultimate testament to the timelessness of Ross' design work, legions of golfers make their way to Mid Pines and Pine Needles each year and firmly cement themselves on the property. The fact that the Sandhills region is home to more than 40 courses, many of which are ranked among the state's best, is often lost on these diehards.
"We have guests stay here a week and just flip-flop back and forth between these two courses," says Bell. "That says a lot about the courses and it says a lot about the atmosphere and service."
One of the great mysteries of the Carolina golf scene is how Mid Pines and Pine Needles have remained such well-kept secrets over the years. One explanation is the sheer number of resorts and courses this two-state golfing pantheon has to offer the traveling golfer. Myrtle Beach, Hilton Head, Charleston's Kiawah, Seabrook Island and Wild Dunes Resorts, and Pinehurst Resort are world class golf destinations with the facilities and marketing engines to prove it.
"The Bells' goal with Mid Pines and Pine Needles has never been to just run a successful business," says Bell. "It is all about building relationships and giving golfers the best possible product. The product here is the golf and the focus will always be on the golf."
Reading between the lines, the Bells aren't out to win a popularity contest with the Carolinas other major resorts and destinations. The irony, however, is that they already have.
Pine Needles and Mid Pines
P.O. Box 88
Southern Pines, N.C. 28388
Both Mid Pines and Pine Needles offer some of the most competitive golf packages in the Sandhills. We'd recommend the "Donald Ross" package for golfers dedicated to 36 holes a day and whatever else they can fit in between. The package includes deluxe accommodations, three meals a day, 36 holes of golf, carts, range balls, bag handling, and club storage for a two night minimum. Call (800) 747-7272 for rates and reservations.
Need to get off "campus"? Downtown Southern Pines sports an impressive collection of shops, eateries and art galleries. The Village of Pinehurst, just a 15-minute drive west, caters to upscale shoppers and offers a more low key nightlife.
Donald Ross on the playability of Mid Pines vs. the difficulty of No. 2 at Pinehurst Resort:
"Most golfers want to strike a happy medium of tastes. Wagner and Bach may be over-difficult for them to appreciate, and modern jazz may be too shallow for them to respond to. But opera and Viennese waltzes ... that's better."
Conditions: 4 (out of 5)
Par 3's: 4
Par 4's: 3.5
Par 5's: 3
Practice Facilities: 3.5
Club House/Pro Shop: 3.5
Pace of Play: 4
Overall Rating: 3.7
May 3, 2003
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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