Of course they call it the Home of American Golf. How could they not?With architectural bloodlines that run as thick as Brunswick stew, including the likes of Donald Ross, Robert Trent Jones, Rees Jones, Tom Fazio, Mike Strantz, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Dan and Ellis Maples, the Pinehurst area's forty-some layouts add up to a golfer's nirvana. But driving into Pinehurst on highways bordered by sand, over the distinct rolling hills and among the cotton fields and pine forests, you would never expect to happen upon this golf oasis. Then, arriving in the Village of Pinehurst, you would swear you had stepped back in time. People are hospitable and life is slow, managing to retain the utopian mix of southern gentility and Main Street New England charm on which the place was founded. It all started in 1895, when James Walker Tufts bought a patch of North Carolina pine forest for one dollar an acre with thoughts of creating a health resort for wintering New Englanders. Frederick Law Olmsted, the famed landscape designer of Central Park, laid out the winding, tree-lined streets of the Village proper, and Ross arrived in 1900 to complete course No. 1, bringing golf into the fold. Spring and early fall are the peak seasons, but the courses are open year-round and y'all are always welcome.
Not only is the topography of the Sandhills unique, but Pinehurst just feels like the epicenter of American golf. When you practice on the famed Maniac Hill and walk through the hallowed halls of the Pinehurst Resort Pro Shop, the history of the place--the North and South Amateurs, the U.S. Opens--overwhelms you, and makes you feel more connected with this grand game. And its great golf courses have been built for the most part without modern design pyrotechnics--just sweeping hills, pine trees, scrub oaks, water and sand. Start with the ethereal No. 2 and keep smiling. These are the best of the best:
Pinehurst No. 2
Pinehurst Resort; 800-487-4653. Yardage: 7,252. Par: 72. Slope: 138. Architect: Donald Ross. Green fees: $295 (Pinehurst Resort, Pine Crest and Magnolia guests only).
T&L GOLF Rating: *****
There is a reason Donald Ross considered this course his masterpiece: It is as true a test of golfing skill as you'll find on earth. The fairways are relatively wide open and flat, boosting confidence, but the smallest mistake will leave you under the pines, in a trap or with an impossible chip shot to a marble-fast green. Bunkers and waste areas are in all the right places, and the crowned and false-fronted greens are like giant dented baseballs. Take a caddie for the full effect, and don't feel deflated when he tells you to play from the whites to have more fun--he's probably right. No. 2 can be frustrating, but as with other great championship courses, part of the joy of playing it is a physical connection to tournament shots forever burned into our minds, such as Payne Stewart's final putt on the eighteenth.
Pinehurst No. 4
Pinehurst Resort; 800-487-4653. Yardage: 7,117. Par: 72. Slope: 136. Architect: Tom Fazio. Green fees: $205 (same restrictions).
T&L GOLF Rating: ****1/2
No. 4 has been molded by some of the greatest architectural minds of the last century: first Ross; then Robert Trent Jones, who retouched it in 1973; and finally Fazio, who got the go-ahead to totally revamp the design last year. Fazio added more than 140 pot bunkers and tweaked the fairways to form a visually stunning and championship-quality course. The scenic and psychic crux of the course comes on the par-five thirteenth and par-three fourteenth. In the spring, you enter an amphitheater of azaleas in bloom and are faced with two lake holes that can either make a good round excellent or send you spiraling into golfing oblivion. And beware the green on the passive-looking first: It's as severely domed as any on No. 2.