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Play Away: (Outer) Bank On It

It's too bad those ancestral Brits forgot their mashies and niblicks when they set sail in 1587 for what is now known as the Outer Banks. The fate of the brave New World's first settlers, on picturesque Roanoke Island, might have been different. With such superb golf ground in the neighborhood, the 117 men, women and children who would later be known as the "Lost Colony" could have been safely chasing par instead of whatever else it was that lured them into oblivion.

Funny that to this day, of the many wonders these islands in North Carolina are noted for, golf still doesn't spring to mind. After all, the Outer Banks has been home to Virginia Dare, the first non–Native American native American; Blackbeard and his mateys; the inaugural flights of the Wright brothers; and countless hurricanes and shipwrecks. It's best known for its charming lighthouses, beaches and cottages.

The low profile of the region's golf is too bad. But, then, is it really?You won't find any six-hour rounds like those at Myrtle Beach or any steep greens fees rivaling the ones at Pinehurst. So, given the hordes of vacationers flocking this way to partake in so many of the other joys of sand and sea, be glad that Outer Banks golf remains an insider's secret.

North Carolina's face to the sea, the Outer Banks is a series of barrier islands—Bodie, Roanoke, Collington, Hatteras and Ocracoke—that arc more than one hundred miles south of the Virginia border. Given the geography—a chain of shallow sounds separates the Outer Banks from the mainland—the easiest access is by bridge, though ferries are available. From the north, U.S. 158 joins Bodie Island via the Wright Brothers Memorial Bridge at Kitty Hawk; turn left for the town of Duck and the village of Corolla, and right for Kill Devil Hills and Nags Head. From the south and west, U.S. 64 leads to the new Virginia Dare Memorial Bridge and onto Roanoke Island, then to Nags Head over the Washington Baum Bridge. The closest airport is Norfolk International, ninety miles to the north.

The Outer Banks has rugged winds and pristine marshes ideal for coastal golf, so the real shocker about it as a duffer's destination is how long it took to plant the flag and how long it's managed to flap beneath the radar. The first course didn't open until 1968. When architect Rees Jones vacationed here in the mid-eighties, he didn't even think of bringing his sticks. But he never forgot what he saw. "I looked so longingly at it," he recalls. "This is the kind of land where golf was born.'"

Despite development, it still is. Dramatic dunes. Craggy shoreline. Wild sea grasses. Prickly shrubs. And the wind.

In the mid-1990s, Jones returned to play—this time with the dunes, the wetlands and the maritime forest of Corolla, in order to create the Currituck Club, the area's most prestigious golfing venue, from what was once a private shooting haven. Of the holes that dance through the dunes along Currituck Sound, number nine is the most deceptive—and the most fun. A short par four, it calls for a tee shot over marshland to a rollicking, uphill fairway. "You don't get land like this to work with many times in your career," Jones says. "There just isn't that much linksland available in America."

Which suggests how blessed by beginner's luck 1959 Masters champion Art Wall was when he set out in the late sixties to design his only course, Sea Scape Golf Links, on the ocean side of Kitty Hawk. With quintets of par threes and par fives—three of each on the outward nine—the routing is quirky and surprising from the get-go. The long opener is not only the number-one handicap hole but also requires traversing a hellish mess of sand and grass; be sure to warm up before teeing off. At first glance, the islands' second-oldest track seems neither long nor hard, but let the wind come up and it suddenly becomes a stern test.

Nags Head Golf Links, set on the edge of Roanoke Sound in Nags Head, is also prey to the whims of the breezes. Holes eleven through fourteen are strategic marvels, around bends, over water, across natural duneland. The reward is reaching fifteen, a picturesque par three on the edge of the sound. Designer Bob Moore loaded this compact gem—just 6,126 yards from the tips, but it doesn't play anywhere near that short—with blind shots over wavy fairways.

Unlike its three neighbors, the Outer Banks' oldest course, Duck Woods Country Club, just north of the bridge in Kitty Hawk, isn't a links at all. And while the mature trees around Ellis Maples's traditional parkland layout offer reprieve from the wind, there's no respite from problem solving; thanks to a network of canals running through the landscape, water enters the equation on fourteen holes. "If you can get around without losing a ball," head pro David Donovan says, "you've done something."


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