Southern Pines Golf Club
North Carolina, United States of America
This profile is highly personal and biased as Southern Pines Golf Club has been my home course for over twenty years. It is the only place where I have stood on a first tee 1,000+ times. I have always returned home happier and more relaxed than when I left. Sure, some of that is the charm of golf but a lot of it is the allure of this particular property and its holes.
As to the course’s history, no one better than Chris Buie to lend perspective. He has been my constant playing partner here, as well as the author of books on Pinehurst and Donald Ross. He grew up in the 1970s and 1980s playing Southern Pines and provides the following historical context:
Southern Pines Golf Club started out like so many others. There was a stretch of land not far from the town center and the locals decided to give it a go. Importantly, they enlisted the aid of a pair of Scotsmen, MacNab and Peacock. Both were Donald Ross proteges and the course, though rudimentary, was off to a good start. The 9-holes (golfers at the time played a par three from a tee left of today’s fourth green down to a green near the forward tee on fifteen) stayed that way until the man himself rolled all of seven miles over from the twin village. There were endless acres of hills and knolls on sandy soil some called Norfolk loam. The tumbling landforms galore truly comprised a dream canvas and Ross went to work, turning the holes in different angles, to change up the golfing propositions – right to left, left to right, side hill, uphill, downhill, longish, shortish and so forth – all meted out with an innate sense of rhythm.
At its core, we have a 100+ year old Ross routing that he did relatively early in his bourgeoning career, well before Mid-Pines and Pine Needles for instance. The kicker is the rolling, sandy land, arguably the finest canvas in Moore County upon which a course has been built. Every hole goes up or down at least twenty feet and yet the golfer never complains of hilliness. It epitomizes what it means to be in the Sandhills of North Carolina. The green to tee connections are tight and the course is a walker’s delight. Homes brush against the course at the fourth and fifth holes only, otherwise, the golfer is cocooned in nature.
I first played here in 1997 at a friend’s suggestion. I had never heard of it and came to learn that the Elks organization owned it. As per its charter, the Elks spend their money on the good of the community, not advertising its golf course. I moved to Southern Pines in 2000 from Australia, in part because I knew I could afford to join here. Golf has always been part of my D.N.A. and the opportunity to play this course regularly had enormous pull. Better yet, the course was generally empty after 5pm, which is when I play 90% of my golf. Over the long summer months, it was readily possible to tee off at 5:30pm and comfortably make 18 holes in 2 1/2 hours carrying my bag. The Elks Lodge and clubhouse weren’t architecturally impressive (nor was the range) but that didn’t matter. I was here to play golf.
From 2000 to 2020, the course was good enough to play again and again and be content, so magical is the Ross routing over the land. Plus, the pacing was excellent as the holes benefited from the classic Ross give-and-take. Take the stretch from the second through the sixth. The second is a reachable par five to a severe green and while many strong golfers get near it in two, getting down in two is another matter. This par 4 1/2 hole is followed by a downhill 200 yard one shotter and an equally tough uphill 400 yard two shotter. Standing on the fifth tee, you might be feeling a bit bruised, but Ross then throws into the mix another three shotter that can be reached in two if the golfer can turn his drive right to left and have it bound down the hill. The ‘give’ of this potential birdie hole is followed by Ross’s ‘take’ at the sixth, which is the course’s longest two shotter at 440 yards. And so it goes for the rest of the round, with tough holes sprinkled among more ‘gettable’ ones. Hope persists throughout the round, which is a neat attribute that too few modern courses enjoy. The Ross routing and his pacing of the holes were the undoubted star and provided the backbone for enjoyment over frequent rounds.
To be clear, the course had obvious flaws, especially to Ross aficionados. An architect had re-done the greens in the early 1990s and too many featured distinct tiers. Though non-Ross in appearance, the modernized greens did afford interesting hole locations. From a design perspective, the most woeful shortfall was its non-existent fairway bunker schemes. Indeed, the majority of the holes didn’t have a single fairway bunker and the ones that did were often shallow, small saucers, poorly positioned, and out of scale with their surrounds. Without doubt, the challenge off the tee was confined to how the holes fell across the land. While that is certainly a foundation for good golf, hitting anywhere in the fairway sufficed and few clever playing angles presented themselves.
The saving grace was the green placements. Typical of a Golden Age course, as the player approached the greens, the challenge stepped up several notches. Ross’s greens occupied the high spots, which made for challenging approaches. Deep greenside bunkers exacerbated the requirement for good iron play.
Ultimately, in 2019, the Elks sold the course to Kelly Miller and the Pine Needles Resort. This was the break that the course deserved: It needed to be run by a golfer for golfers. The property is so special and Ross’s routing so good, that it would have been a shame if the course just limped along ‘as is.’ Miller had always been a fan of the course’s bones and waited for the right opportunity. In the meanwhile, he had struck up a relationship with architect Kyle Franz, first hiring him at Mid Pines in 2013 and then Pine Needles thereafter. Franz’s work at Mid Pines was viewed as one of the country’s best restorations that year and the world will appreciate his talents when the U.S. Women’s Open is contested at Pine Needles in 2022. For his part, Franz initially worked in the area in 2010 at Pinehurst No. 2 for Coore & Crenshaw and had subsequently made it his home, living off the eighteenth tee at Pine Needles.
In December 2020, Franz and crew started work. Miller wisely requested that they focus their early energies on the holes around the clubhouse, as Miller was keen for them to paint a picture of what the rest of the course would look like. From the get-go, more sandscape and short grass emerged. Essentially, the golfer was going to be presented with many more sandy obstacles with which to contend while simultaneously, being given more fairway area around which he could skirt such hazards. When done, no doubt would exist that Southern Pines lay in the heart of the Sandhills.
Matt Smallwood, Eamon Sullivan, and the Three Amigos (Rosendo Rosas and brothers Eleuterio and Juan Velasco) are the backbone of Franz’s crew. They were ‘all hands on deck’ from the get-go. Additionally, Franz brought in other extremely talented shapers to assist along the way, including Dan Proctor and Benjamin Warren. Pine trees were felled so that the playing corridors could be widened and before long, something wonderful started to emerge over the winter months. The course’s greatest weakness – a paucity of obstacles that made you think from tee to green – was swiftly eradicated. A variety of sandscapes were teased from the ground. Some are bunkers and others are hard pan areas that don’t lend themselves to a typical explosion shot. Still, they all need to be avoided. Over ten acres now exists of exposed sand and yet, the amount of fairway grass increased by 25%. As the scale of the course expanded, numerous, thought-provoking playing angles emerged. Hitting driver is not an automatic decision anymore as opportunities abound to get yourself into regrettable lies. Regardless, little time is wasted searching for golf balls. It is the best of all worlds.
As an interesting side note, the club owns a third nine that lays fallow and grasses, even cacti, were imported from it and handplanted. What is really impressive was how aged the new sandscapes appeared from the start. For example, the sandy features in the three photographs below were less than one year old when the pictures were taken! Franz’s prior ten years of working in Moore County and the team that he assembled served him very well when it was show time.
For sure, the glamour part of the overhaul was the tee to green aspect. However, the real guts of the project came in June, 2021. It was time to shut down the course and rebuild every putting surface. At this point, expectations were sky high and yet, re-introducing a set of greens more in keeping with Ross was no mean task. Happily, the eighteen putting surfaces that emerged might be the star of the entire project. They will never be recognized as such as it is much easier to fawn on the sandscapes and the mesmerizing long views but the putting surfaces are equally things of beauty. Fourteen of the eighteen feature false fronts, signifying just how many Ross had perched up on some landform. Many of the greens feature soft sides. To be clear, these are Franz’s interpretations of Ross greens. In 1914, Ross left the course with eighteen sand greens and it wasn’t until the mid-1903s that Angus Maples grassed them. The plan was never to faithfully restore the Maples putting surfaces.
Between the soft sides, false fronts, and the way some greens tilt to the rear, many more balls ‘de-green’ than ever before. That is certainly something that Ross embraced with the greens at Pinehurst No. 2 being in a class by themselves in that regard. At Southern Pines, the golfer is asked a host of interesting questions throughout the round by this new set of greens. Learning where the best misses are is a process – and proving to be an interesting one at that.
Holes to Note
First hole, 375 yards; This opener encapsulates how far the design came in 2021. Before, there were two small bunkers, left and right of the green – and that’s it. No other sand from tee to green and the fairway was linearly presented and artificially narrow within the spacious confines of pines. Little thought was required from the tee and the player reached for driver every time as only the most wayward tee ball could find trouble. Now look at it!
Second hole, 565/490 yards; A stellar example of how different tees drastically impact a hole. Franz quite cleverly created the room to add a new tee in the property’s far corner, stretching the hole 75 yards in length and turning it into a true three shotter. From this new back marker, a 240-yard drive hits into the upslope of the far hill, stunting much roll-out. A three wood or hybrid is then required to carry a diagonal hazard ahead, leaving the golfer with a ~ nine iron approach. Meanwhile, played from the white markers, a totally different scenario unfolds. One’s tee ball carries the crest of the hill and scampers forward some 40 yards. Indeed, the golfer can darn near reach the same diagonal hazard that a hybrid was required to carry for one’s second from the back tees. From there, he has a downhill stance/lie from ~210 yards to an uphill green. Getting a clean strike on a ball from a downslope is always tricky. Franz removed a deep right greenside bunker, and golfers can conceivably play a draw onto the open putting surface. From either tee, the hole is fascinating and that is repeated at several other holes too (namely the fifth, tenth, eleventh, and fifteenth) whereby the blue and white markers yield wildly different holes. Bottom line: have fun mixing up the tees. One of the great mistakes that ‘card and pencil’ golfers make is slavishly playing from one set of tees. Their fixation with entering a score for handicap purposes trumps the fun gained by experiencing holes from different starting points.
Third hole, 200 yards; How an architect approaches visibility is telling. Some holes like the second, fifth, sixth and thirteenth offer blind drives over hillcrests. Fortunately, Ross felt no compunction to alter the land to provide ‘better’ optics; Too many modern architects would cut a ‘v’ through them, and thus make the dual mistake of depriving such drives of mystery while also making them more artificial in appearance. Other holes, in particular its set of par threes, offer well defined targets where it is evident what the golfer must do. Standing on the elevated tee, the golfer soaks in the view of the entire putting surface. The green contours created by Franz are some of the course’s finest.
Fourth hole, 400 yards; Measuring 6,600 yards from the back markers, some golfers mistakenly think they will have an easy time of things. Combine the number of times that drives hit into hills with the number of overtly uphill approach shots, and Southern Pines plays longer than the score card suggests.
Fifth hole, 535 yards; We now enter the portion of the property where Ross extended the course in 1913/14 and the manner in which he captures a twenty-five foot drop in elevation at the 240-yard mark from the tee is terrific. Can the good club golfer hit a draw on this slight dogleg left to allow have his/her tee ball to receive a turbo-kick off the downslope, thus bringing the green within reach in two? The appeal of trying to hit the proper shaped tee ball never wanes and leaves one wondering (marveling!) how Ross managed to string hole after hole together whereby the landforms influence play in alternating ways. Sure, Southern Pines enjoys great topography, but that natural advantage could have been readily squandered in the hands of lesser architects.
Sixth hole, 440 yards; A study of Google Maps reveals a series of wetlands and lakes bisects the property. The original architects stayed away from the low-lying areas, but Ross hopscotches the golfer over it twice, both coming and going. The first time occurs off this tee, which Ross put right beside the lake so that only a topped tee ball could possibly find it. As opposed to the last hole which elbows left and downhill, this one swings right and uphill. The art of shaping tee balls thankfully exists at Southern Pines. Even after a perfect power fade, the golfer is likely left with something close to a hybrid. Again, full marks to Franz for how he and his team recontoured this green. Before, the entrance to the elevated putting surface was too abrupt. Balls hit from ~200 yards would routinely hit the bank – and be rebuffed. Considering this is the course’s longest two shotter, that is un-Ross like and not good architecture. Franz lowered and floated the front of the putting surface out more into the fairway. Now, many more players experience the thrill of seeing their long approach climb onto the putting surface. In fact, having a ball do so is one of the most rewarding moments of the day. This is another prime example whereby the golf has been dramatically enhanced, even while playing within the same corridor.
Seventh hole, 200 yards; Historian Chris Buie is a particular fan of this one shotter, musing how Ross surely must have been bewitched by the rim of this 150-yard bowl and invested plenty of brain power in figuring out how to include it in his final routing. Back in 2010, three dogwoods existed at the bottom of the crater but Franz made sure to reinstate the rugged character that Ross sought.
Eighth hole, 385 yards; Both stunning and charming, this slight dogleg right needs to be approached with caution. A driver is not necessarily prudent as finding the fairway is vital with peril lurking on either side. Rapturous applause to Ross for the manner in which he routed the hole along the spine of a hill. Drives missed right kick sharply toward the (now visible) lake while drives pulled left are shunted into the pines. The eighth green is equally neat as the left third is protected by a bunker but it features a bowl contour, allowing the smart golfer to ignore the bunker and let the slope of the green feed the ball down toward the left hole locations. This was arguably the best green from the work done in the 1990s and Franz followed its themes.
Ninth hole, 190 yards; During the Golden Age of architecture, architects had fewer restraints placed on them than their modern peers and were often free to find the routing that yielded the finest sequence of holes. In this case, Ross wasn’t forced to return the first nine to the clubhouse. In fact, over two thousand yards separates the ninth green from the clubhouse and it’s the third par three on this side. Most modern architects don’t enjoy such latitude as they are frequently handcuffed by the allowance for housing and having balanced nines that return.
Tenth hole, 385 yards; A healthy dose of commonsense exists in restorations. Remove poorly situated trees, restore width, make sure the hazards match the course’s newfound scale, improve agronomy, and recapture putting surfaces. All straightforward things. However, moments always exist where an architect can shine beyond the norm. And we see examples of that over the next four holes, in particular. Here, Franz had the idea to move the tee back and left 50 yards, changing the hole from a straightaway 335 yarder to something more interesting. Look at the 2010 picture above of the ninth hole. See beyond the green and the wall of pine trees and bushes? Franz had the inspiration to have all that removed and a new tee installed. The green to tee walk wasn’t lengthened but the hole picked up 50 yards. As made famous at Olympic Golf Club in California, the fairway is reverse camber, meaning the hole flows right-to-left but the fairway slopes left-to-right. A draw is a golfer’s friend off this tee.
Eleventh hole, 320 yards; A sensational hole, one of the best in the state and my favorite on the course. Watching its evolution over the past two decades has been fascinating. In 2000, similar to the eighth, a wall of pines separated the fairway from the lake on the right. Standing on the tee, the player couldn’t see the flag or even the green. Good golfers treated it exclusively as a three wood/pitch hole. In 2007, a management company had the good sense to reduce the forest and provide tempting views of the green/flag. Strong players resumed hitting driver from the tee and the result was as expected: a couple of eagles were made here and there, more birdies and a lot more bogeys and even doubles ensued as tee balls became ensnared by the lake on overzealous tee balls. In the summer of 2021, Franz removed all but one lone pine tree, installed some dazzling bunkers (especially a large one that ends twenty yards short of the putting surface), and pushed the green lower and closer to the lake. Countless permutations exist on how to tackle the hole – with the day’s hole location also having a final say. Before aiming for the green (be it with your tee ball or approach), just know that the left edge of the green is almost four feet higher than the right. The entire strategy revolves around that key fact.
Twelfth hole, 425 yards; Hazards on the sides of holes don’t excite or engage like ones that are directly in the line of play. How could they? Hit the ball straight and you are fine. However, cross hazards impact everyone as they must be carried. Of course, if the architects deploys them too frequently, the golfer can wear down. Finding the right balance is critical. At Southern Pines, Franz used them at each of the three shots holes and no where else, except here. In so doing here, he turned one of less memorable holes visually into one of the most handsome.
Thirteenth hole, 420 yards; Like many of the next wave of hot architects, Franz is into the history of design and has spent copious hours studying black and white photographs. One that grabbed his attention showed a mound in front of the eighth green at Pinehurst No. 2. Franz hasn’t seen too many such ones like it on Ross courses and this one stuck in his mind. As he says, ‘The appeal of such a feature is that it introduces uncertainty as so many different outcomes can occur depending on how the ball interacts with the mound. Does it hit on the upslope and deaden or hit on the other side and rocket forward? Perhaps it hits on a side and caroms in an awkward direction? Given how the terrain tumbles down to the 13th green and how important the area is before the green, I thought this was an ideal place to introduce this feature. The doubt caused by it is intended to get in the head of a good player while the weaker player isn’t going to lose a ball or be faced with a sketchy recovery from a sandy lie. ‘ So far, some players love it and others hate it and that means job well done to Franz.
Fourteenth hole, 175 yards; Despite measuring 175 yards, the final one shotter is the shortest on the course. Taken as a set, the one shotters average over 190 yards and are likely the root cause of why golfers don’t often score as they had hoped. As we saw at the 9th, Ross employs a one shotter to allow the golfer to cross the waterway in the least painful manner possible. Still, a crisp iron shot is required.
Fifteenth hole, 425 yards; In the 1990s, an architect created a new tee ~ 100 yards from the fourteenth green and turned this hole into a straightaway 500 yard three shotter. The add length ‘window-dressed’ the scorecard by making the course longer than 6,200. To the author, this hole is more interesting from Ross’s original tee, which is a mere twenty paces behind the prior green. From there, it plays as a tough 425 yarder as it doglegs to the right and climbs to an elevated green. Requiring the golfer to hit a long approach fits well and adds to the variety of the two shotters on this side. It also perfectly complements the next hole, which is a drive and pitch.
Seventeenth hole, 430 yards; With sixteen and eighteen as short two shotters, Franz brings the knives out at the penultimate hole, bunkering it both left and right off the tee. Though the hole itself is straight, the fairway cants right to left, making it a prickly one to hit and hold. In a dream world, the golfer plays a fade off the tee to gain the preferred angle into the green, and a draw into the green. Still, the real focus is finding the fairway off the tee and arguably, the two toughest tee shots come at the final two holes.
Eighteenth hole, 350 yards; A short, two shot finisher has worked at Prestwick, North Berwick and The Old Course at St. Andrews for over 150 years. Yet, when the game crossed the pond, few and far between courses closed with such holes. Indeed, there may be as many good finishing one shot holes in this country as there are short par fours. More is the pity that this type of 3 1/2 par finisher lost out in such droves to 4 1/2 par finishers. That’s okay, it helps this former Elks course stand out in the memory bank while other courses blend together. Franz’s tee to green bunkering scheme is one of the best on the course. The inside of the dogleg is amply defended from overly greedy tactics while the ‘pièce de résistance’ is a fairway bunker added on the outside. Completely surrounded by fairway, this bunker engulfs drives ‘missed’ straight. Now the club player doesn’t automatically reach for the driver. A tip of the hat to owner Kelly Miller for pushing for its creation. Adding to the puzzle is a knoll 240 yards from the tee in the middle of the fairway that routinely yields awkward stances for one’s approach. On countless occasions, the golfer sticks his wedge into the upslope and his uphill approach comes up woefully short. The expected birdie rarely materializes but the golfer leaves the course thinking about doing better on a return visit.
Southern Pines reopened in September, 2021 after Franz’s work and quickly became a darling on social media. Be it from drones or from ground photos as seen in this profile, the course is extremely photogenic. And why wouldn’t it be?! You have a Ross routing with holes hitting the rolling landforms in a variety of appealing ways and layered on has been a massive sandscape that is authentic to the region. A monkey could take good pictures (!) but you are here for the golf and each player decides for himself/herself if the course plays as well as it looks. My biased vote is yes it does, in large part because of the interior green contours that Franz installed.
One last thing that Franz did was build a ’19th’ hole, a par three that leads from the fourth green to the fifteenth tee. In theory, it harkens back to the course’s roots of being a nine-holer. Alas, the course is now so popular that the opportunities to cut over to fifteen aren’t normally available! Still, the newly created one shotter is a fine hole and it allows the grounds crew to take a single hole out of play from time to time, as required.
Those seeking or fixated by playing a ‘championship’ golf course of 7,000+ yards should seek elsewhere. Southern Pines fits in the mold of the 6,600 yard charmers found around London where green-to-tee walks are at a minimum. Swinley Forest, West Sussex and Woking exemplify such clever routings and the Brits have long embraced the virtues of courses where distance accounts for little and charm and character everything. Like those courses, Southern Pines is a dream for those that consider walking a fundamental aspect to the sport. Your feet never hit asphalt and the longest green to tee walk is from the sixth green to the seventh tee, which is sixty-five yards uphill.
Free from outside intrusions save for some single story condominiums down the fourth and fifth fairways, Donald Ross’s tight routing insures that relaxing afternoon rounds can be walked in three hours. Golfers never quite post the score that they hope, but they remain eager for another crack to do so. Along those lines, a personal favorite story occurred in July, 2001. David Eger (the then reigning North-South Amateur Champion and Senior PGA Tour player) managed two under par at Southern Pines when the day before he was four under at Pinehurst No.4, which measured 900 yards (!) longer. And we walked Southern Pines in one hour less time.
Southern Pines shares with U.K. courses another attribute: it is an ideal winter course. The sandy soil drains well and good playing conditions generally exist year around. Regardless of the time of year, when in the greater Pinehurst area, head for this beauty and see if it casts its magic on you as it has on me for two decades – and counting! I would be shocked if you were disappointed.