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|UNC Finley Golf Course is among the top 20 collegiate courses in the country. (Jennifer Mario/TravelGolf)|
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- North Carolina golfers might be forgiven for overlooking UNC Finley Golf Course. With dozens of worthy destinations in spitting distance and most North Carolina golf press going to its neighbor an hour down the road -- Pinehurst -- it might be easy to forget about Finley, tucked next to the campus of The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Those golfers might be forgiven, but they would be mistaken.
This scenic, quiet, secluded, walkable championship course teeming with Southern charm is one that area golfers and visitors alike should make it a point to play.
If you haven't played Finley lately, you're in for a surprise. The clubhouse has just completed a year-long $3.6 million upgrade (funded with private donations) that nearly doubled its size and brought it up to the standards of the most upmarket private courses in the area. Instead of cinderblock and formica, picture outdoor fireplaces, wrap-around patios, and rich granite and mahogany finishings.
The new clubhouse, said Head Professional Mike Wilkinson, will enable Finley to host big-name tournaments and moves the course "into a different realm of customer service. Everything is first class."
But first-class facilities don't have to mean first-class prices. You don't have to be a millionaire member to play Finley, one of the few public Tom Fazio-designed courses in North Carolina.
Green fees for visitors run as low as $40 on weekdays, and $68 on weekends -- less if you're affiliated with the university. In comparison, the walk-on rate at other public Fazio golf courses in North Carolina, such as Pinehurst no. 4 and no. 8, can run you up to $230 a round.
Nor do you need to be intimidated by the challenge of stepping up to a championship course that consistently places in the top 20 collegiate courses in the country. With five tee boxes on each hole and an overall length that ranges from 4,981 yards to 7,187 yards, a defining factor of Finley is its playability for players of all levels.
The risks are there for those who choose to take them, but as is typical of a Fazio course, there's almost always a safe alternative.
"There's a way to play each hole that allows every caliber of player to enjoy and have fun," Wilkinson said.
What might strike a player at first blush is the scenery. The natural wetlands were left intact and allows the 125-acre course to blend into the environment.
Sixty-plus years of history means you'll be hitting among old-growth shagbark hickory trees, not a recently clear-cut residential neighborhood. In the middle of a busy college town, it has the feel of a quiet, secluded oasis.
Director of Maintenance Ross Fowler takes pride in the course's natural features.
"People were concerned that we'd run the animals off when we did our redesign, but it's become a habitat. We have more animals here now than we did before," he said. The UNC Botanical Gardens even offers an annual birdwatching expedition at Finley.
You won't find lengthy forced carries here; instead, the test lies in the need for accuracy off the tee box and in the large, undulating, tiered greens. A poorly placed shot will land you in one of the course's nine water features, and while the natural foliage around the ponds is lovely, pretty water hyacinth and pink muhly do little to ease the pain of losing a ball.
So what's the best strategy for scoring well? First and foremost, avoid the deep fairway bunkers. These are no easy flat fairway bunkers -- land in one and you could easily lose a full shot by having to hit out sideways.
I recommend shelling out the $5 and purchasing a yardage guide -- it gives detailed information about each hole, of course, but it also conveys the breaks on the greens -- critical if you don't want your long putt to turn into two or three long putts.
First-time players Bob Travatello and Michael Cauthen of Winston Salem, appreciated the openness of the course.
"You don't have blind shots," Travatello said. "It was nice to visually see what you needed to do before you executed your shots."
The twosome is hooked. "This has easily become one of our favorite courses in North Carolina," Travatello added.
Scenery aside, the best feature of UNC Finley Golf Course is its flexibility. Golfers looking for a gentle, pleasant round can step up to the forward tees and enjoy reaching greens in regulation -- often not an option for short hitters, and a delight for ladies who've grown tired of hitting driver, three-wood every time.
If length is your strong suit, that option is available as well, as the 498-yard par-4 15th hole will attest (pro tip: don't play the back "Tar Heel" tees unless you have serious game). Bottom line, you have plenty of tee boxes to choose from, be sure to pick the one that matches your game the best.
It's not hard to see why Tom Fazio described his redesign of UNC Finley as some of his best work, given the budgetary and political constraints he was working within. If you enjoy a scenic, walkable, challenging yet fair golf experience, Finley is worth a visit.
UNC Finley Golf Course offers a full practice facility with bunkered driving range and grass tee stations, a chipping and a putting green, youth golf schools and instructional day camps, video analysis, and comprehensive instruction.
October 12, 2012
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.
Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.
Referred to by its hosts as a "hidden gem," the greens alone at Sterling Hills Golf Club in Camarillo, Calif. make this a stone worth turning over. Located an hour northwest of L.A., it's a pleasing, quiet and generally engaging round that will appease players of all levels.
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