Southern Pines Golf Club
North Carolina, United States of America

This profile is a highly personal as Southern Pines has been my home course for the past twenty-one years. I have never stood on a first tee 1,000+ times, except here. What follows are observations gleaned over that period.

First thing to cover is the history of the course. Opened as a nine holer in 1906 (golfers at the time played a par three hole from a tee left of today’s fourth green down to near today’s lady’s fifteenth tee, making for a nine hole loop), Donald Ross extensive work in 1914 provided the eighteen playing corridors/holes that serve as the backbone to today’s course. Twenty more years passed before Ross’s well situated sand greens were converted to grass by Angus Maples in the late 1930s, right after he had taken the greens to grass at Pine Needles.

Chris Buie, not only my constant playing partner but the author of two Donald Ross books, grew up playing the course and provides greater detail:

 

At its core, we have a 100+ year old Donald Ross routing that he did relatively early in his career, well before Mid-Pines and Pine Needles for instance. The kicker is the rolling, sandy land – I have long contended that it is the finest in Moore County upon which a course is built. Every hole goes up or down twenty feet and yet the golfer never complains of hilliness. It truly epitomizes what it means to be in the geographic region of the Sandhills of North Carolina. The green to tee connections are tight and the course is a walker’s delight. Homes only brush against the course at the fourth and fifth holes, otherwise, the golfer is cocooned in nature.

The 17th green is in the foreground with the 1st green behind. In between the two is the 18th tee.

I first played here in 1998 at a friend’s suggestion. I had never heard of the place and later came to learn that the Elks organization owned it and they spent their money for the good of the community, not advertising the golf course. I moved to Southern Pines in 2000 from Australia, in part because I could afford to join here. Golf has always been part of my D.N.A. and the opportunity to play regularly here was an 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 appealing but that didn’t matter. I was here for the golf.

What was the course like from 2000 to 2020? It was good enough to play time and time (and time!) again and always be happy. The classic Donald Ross give and take is much in evidence throughout the round with the stretch from the second through the sixth being a case in point. The second is a reachable par five to a severe green and while many strong golfers get near the green in two, getting down in two is another matter. This par 4 1/2 hole is followed by a pair of tough holes but then comes another three shotter that can be reached in two if the golfer can turn his drive from 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 next, which is the longest two shotter on the course at 425 yards. And so it goes for the rest of the round, with the golfer given several opportunities to score well while still always being challenged.

What more do you need or want? The Ross routing provided the backbone and the John LaFoy greens that had been built in early 1990s were challenging. From a design perspective, the fairway bunkering schemes were woeful. Many holes didn’t have a fairway bunker and the ones that did were often shallow, small saucers, completely out of scale with the land. Without doubt, the challenge off the tee stemmed from how the holes fell across the land. Also, typical of a Golden Age course, as the player approached the greens, the challenge stepped up several notches. Ross’s greens often occupied the high point of the hole and in such cases as the second, seventh, tenth, fourteenth, sixteenth and eighteenth greens, deep greenside bunkers had been cut into the landforms. The course measured 6,300 yards, my annual dues were $1,200 and I had all I needed.

A couple of management companies came and went. Ultimately, in 2019, The Elks sold the course to Kelly Miller and the Pine Needles Resort. This was the break that the course had long needed, and in my opinion, deserved. The property is so special and Ross’s routing so good, that it would have been a shame if the course just lumped along ‘as is.’ Miller had always been a fan of the course’s bones and patiently waited for the right opportunity. In the meanwhile, he had struck up a relationship with architect Kyle Franz, first turning him loose on Mid Pines in 2013 and then Pine Needles thereafter. Franz’s work at Mid Pines was viewed as one of the best restorations that year and the world will appreciate his talents when the 2022 U.S. Women’s Open is contested at Pine Needles in 2022. For his part, Franz first worked in the area in 2010 at Pinehurst No. 2 for Coore & Crenshaw and had subsequently made it his home, living near the eighteenth tee at Pine Needles.

In the heart of the pandemic in December 2020, Franz and crew started work. Miller wisely requested that they focus their early energies on the six holes around the clubhouse, namely the first, second, third, sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth. Miller was keen for them to paint a picture of what the rest of the course would look like. Right from the get-go, more sandscape and short grass emerged simultaneously. Essentially, the golfer was going to be presented with many more bunkers and sandy obstacles with which to contend. Crucially, he was going to be given much more fairway area around which he could skirt such hazards. Southern Pines Golf Club was finally going to embrace its roots as being in the Sandhills.

Franz brought it very talented shapers including Matt Smallwood, Dan Proctor and Benjamin Warren. Together with his crew that includes the Three Amigos (), something wonderful started to emerge over the winter months of 2021. The course’s greatest weakness – a paucity of obstacles that made you think from tee to green – was being swiftly eradicated. As part of that, trees were felled so that the playing corridors could be expanded and that the playing surfaces would receive sufficient sunlight. Earlier risers, my wife and I liked to head to the course at sunrise with our dog and witness the progress. The energy on display before 7am was impressive. If you want to get into course design or maintenance, you need to be a morning person!

The tee to green aspect of the project was definitely the glamour part. If you are into construction, the greatest blessing and gift is to be given sand as a medium in which to work. It happens rarely but this was one such opportunity. A variety of bunkers and sandscapes were teased from the ground. The club has a third nine (that lays fallow) and grasses, even cacti, were imported from it to the course. What was really impressive was how aged these new sandscapes appeared right from the start. The four photographs below show sandy features that didn’t exist one year ago!

Trying to count how many bunkers were added is a fool’s errand  as that requires making a distinction between a bunker and a sandscape. Lots of hard pan areas were uncovered/created that don’t lend themselves to a typical bunker explosion shot. Call such areas what you will, they need to be avoided. Roughly ten acres exist of exposed sand. How these areas will be presented over time will be interesting. Hopefully, they will keep their rough hewn, unmanicured appearance. The amount of short fairway grass increased by over 30%, so if you end up in a sandy lie, you deserve what you get!

The trickiest part of the project came in late June, 2021.  It was time to shut down the course and rebuild the greens. At this point, expectations were sky high and yet, blowing up the LaFoy greens and re-introducing a set that would be more in keeping with Ross’s work was no mean task. Happily, the eighteen putting surfaces that emerged might well be the star of the entire project, at least to me. They will never be recognized as such as it is so much easier to dwell on the sandscape and the mesmerizing long views but the putting surfaces are a thing of beauty. Fourteen of the eighteen feature false fronts, signifying just how many Ross had perched up on some landform. Many of the green feature soft sides. When combined with the false fronts, the golfer’s best interests are often served by playing to the middle of the green and then putting out.

For example, look no further than the first green. Originally, it was bunkered left and right by two small pits. The hole is In twenty years, I recall Sand had splashed out of the left for so long that One example occurs


Holes to Note

First hole, 370 yards; An appealing opener, with everything laid out below for the golfer to see, as the hole tumbles downhill. The green rises in the back right third and the effect is to create tough but interesting hole locations. As good as this hole is today, apparently it once featured one of Donald Ross’s most interesting greens: Any ball hit on the right third was almost assured of being gathered into a right greenside bunker, either that or rolling well back into the fairway. Why the original Ross green complexes were modified remains a mystery to the author but John LaFoy was called in twice, in 1988 and again almost a decade later. LaFoy deserves credit for such vexing green complexes as the second and eighth of today but conversely, he is responsible for the clumsy use of mounds that are poorly integrated into their surrounds as at the sixth and thirteenth.

The prospects from the elevated first tee appear inviting and the golfer is keen to get out on the course.

Second hole, 565/480 yards; One of the great mistakes the card and pencil set make is playing from one tee. Why not mix things up and play from different tee markers as you see fit? This hole is a stellar example in how landforms impact tee shots. Franz created a new tee that stretches the hole to 585 yards. From this back marker, a 240 yard drive hits into the upslope of the far hill, thus stunting its roll-out. A three wood or hydrid is required to carry a long diagonal hazard up ahead, leaving the golfer with a ~ nine approach. Playing from the white markers, a totally different scenario unfolds. Now, one’s tee ball carries the crest of the hill and scampers forward some 40 yards. In fact, the golfer, darn near can reach the same diagonal hazard that a hybrid was required to carry for one’s second from the in the far back corner. From there, he has a tricky downhill stance/lie and but the green on the far hill is within reach. Getting a clean strike on a ball from a downslope is always tricky. Franz actually removed a deep right greenside bunker and now the golfer can conceivably play a draw onto the open putting surface.  and Fortunately, Ross felt no compunction to alter the crest of the hill to provide ‘better’ optics. Too many modern architects would cut a ‘v’ through it, and thus make the dual mistake of depriving the drive of some mystery while also making it more artificial in appearance.

From the newly installed tee in the back corner of the property, this central hazard requires a carry of 230 yards, no mean feat as it plays uphill and is frequently into the prevailing wind.

Though reachable from certain tees, the golfer will have to do so by hitting from a downslope to a sharply uphill green.

Third hole, 200 yards; In regards to visibility, a game at Southern Pines offers the best of both worlds. Some holes like the second (as we saw), the fifth, sixth and thirteenth offer blind drives over crests of hills. Other holes, in particular its set of par threes, offer well defined targets where it is clear what the golfer must do. In this case, the golfer standing on the elevated tee soaks in the view of the entire putting surface. After a few rounds, it becomes evident that the object is to stay below the day’s hole location as the this green features some of the most pronounced back to front tilt of any on the course. Though the task is straightforward, judging and executing a shot of this length is not. This one of the more respected holes in Moore County. The front green flag is anything but simple as the green is at its most narrow there and anything played long leaves a quick downhill putt.

Fourth hole, 395 yards; Measuring around 6,550 yards from the back markers, some golfers mistakenly think they will have an easy day of things. Combine the number of times that drives hit into hills (and thus kill any significant bounce forward) with the the number of overtly uphill approach shots, and Southern Pines plays longer than the score card suggests.


Fifth hole, 535 yards; Southern Pines enjoys great topography but that natural advantage would have been wasted if Ross had not captured the rolling nature of the property in all sorts of different ways and manners. Here at the fifth, the fairway abruptly falls thirty feet downhill in the 245 yard range from the tee, just where the hole bends slightly to the left. Good club golfers delight in trying to hit a draw and have their tee ball get a big kick forward off the downslope. If successful, the green is in reach in two.

In contrast to the green at par five second, the green here at the fifth is set below the golfer and is an extension of fairway.

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