PINEHURST, N.C. - Walking into the pro shop at The Carolina, the first thing you notice is assistant professional Herb Pike behind the counter with a bit of a perplexed look on his face. Its not that he isn't happy to see you - The Carolina is a favorite among local golfers - it's just that he has the right to be a little confused.
After all, he works at a golf course that is as well maintained and manicured as any you'll find in a similar price range. The nearly perfect Crenshaw bentgrass greens and delicately overseeded fairways smack of upscale, daily fee golf. Yet, the empty parking lot, temporary trailer style clubhouse, and patches of on-course construction hint of a course that has either just opened, or ran out of money.
According to general manager Tom Graber, The Carolina's contrasts are simply market forces at work. One party owns the golf course, another party the land around it, and neither party has seen eye-to-eye over the past four years since the course's opening as to who is improving what.
After you play The Carolina, this bantering between millionaires will become as meaningless as an XFL game. This Arnold Palmer designed layout on the periphery of the epicenter of American golf attracts golfers from as far away as Charlotte (105 miles) and Raleigh (70 miles) with its pristine conditions and text book sand hills layout.
"Character-wise, the sand hills offer great topography and great turf conditions," says Graber. "One thing I feel is different here is the use of natural wetlands. It creates a different look while players are out there because there are no homes out there. Right now you have the pleasure of being out there au-natural."
But The Carolina is more than just a home-free golf excursion that won't set you back three bills. On the scorecard, there is a nice little quote from Arnie himself, espousing the course's traditional virtues. While it isn't exactly Donald Ross, you won't find the excessive mounding, bulkheading, or tricky gimmicks that characterize many of today's modern layouts.
"I think of a modern golf course with a lot of mounds, railroad ties in bunkers," says Graber. "I think this course is borderline. It is right in front of you, and uses the natural contours of the land. Palmer did a great job of just using the land that he was given."
The only exception to Palmer's deference to the God-given talents of the land is the course's greens. If the enormous, severely undulating putting surfaces are a natural part of the landscape, then the all-mighty must be a deadeye putter in the fashion of Brad Faxon.
Three putting is not just a possibility on most holes, it is almost desirable. There is not one flat putt on the entire course, and even two and three-footers aren't gimmies. Graber says that the severity of the greens is something you might expect to see out of 1980's Jack Nicklaus, and not 1990's Palmer.
"The owners had input with the Palmer design group about how they wanted the greens contoured," Graber says. "If you go right up the road and play (Palmer's) Plantation course, the greens are flat. We try and have our starters explain some of these things to the players, to be very descriptive about the things they will see on the golf course."
What you will see on the golf course is a collection of memorable holes that are visually pleasing, and as challenging as you want to make them. The course starts out with a blind, downhill par 4 that will test your ability to aim, right from the get-go.
The Carolina wastes little time in flexing its muscle, as it serves up a 575-yard par 5 second hole that is simply not reachable in two shots from the tips. The entire front nine makes use of marshlands and natural grasses to give the course a true sand hills feel.
Graber says there are a number of holes on the course that best exemplify what Palmer was trying to accomplish with his traditional routing.
"They say that the sixth hole is kind of the signature hole," he says. "The golfer has to cross the wetlands twice on the same hole. There are several holes that give me the flavor of The Carolina. I think about six, the 10th, the 13th and the 17th. These are good driving holes and the next iron shots are really important."
The par 4, 441-yard sixth hole may be considered the signature hole, but the par 4, 420-yard 17th hole can challenge that title any day. This scenic and challenging two-shotter has everything a sand hills golf hole is supposed to have: a gorgeous view from the tee box, a flat landing area with subtly mounded bunkers flanking the fairway, and a sandy waste bunker protecting the green.
While a couple of par 4's may vie for signature hole rights, Graber says it's the par 5's that really make the course.
"They each have their own character, Graber says. "From the gold tees, three of the four are accessible in two for a low handicap player. They don't beat the players to death, but if you want to back up and play them from the back tees, they will give you all you want."
Average players, however, will appreciate The Carolinas par 3's, all of which enable you to pull a mid to high iron from the middle tees, and simply enjoy the hole.
"Another thing I really like about the course are the par 3's," says Graber. "They are all medium length holes with a lot of character. You don't have to pull out a three wood to play them."
Back in the pro shop, Pike is lining up dozens of tee times for what is supposed to be a sunny, balmy tomorrow. The perplexed look of the early morning has turned to a late afternoon smile, as the tee sheet is almost full. Now seems like the perfect time to ask him what the single most important club in the bag is for succeeding at The Carolina.
"You gotta drive it in the right places, so the driver is big," Pike says. "The putter is second I would say. You are going to miss some greens, so I would say the short irons are important too."
Driver, putter, short irons all of a sudden, the perplexed look returns.
Airport Road, P.O. Box 1042, Pinehurst, NC 28370
Tee times: 1-888-PALMER2
Slopes: 142, 134, 122, 116, 117.
Ratings: 73.2, 71.6, 69.8, 67.3, 68.6
Green fees: Winter $49, Spring $89, Summer $59, Fall $84.
Twilight rates available. Rates include cart and a sleeve of Titleist DT's.
Foxfire Golf and Country Club is affiliated with The Carolina through the management group, Golf Matrix. Foxfire offers a number of affordable golf villas, and golf packages that include reduced rates at all Carolina Collection courses (Beacon Ridge and Woodlake). For more information on rates and packages, call 800-736-9347, or visit the website at www.foxfiregolf.com.
Practice Fac.: B
Club House/Pro Shop: D (temp)
Pace of Play: A
Overall Rating: B+
Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.
There are many stay-and-play options in the Baltimore/Washington, D.C region, but none can match the combination of upscale amenities at a reasonable price, the private-course conditions, the diversity of courses and the Interstate convenience of Turf Valley in Ellicott City, Md.
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