If you're looking for a throw-back of a golf course, one that takes you back to a style before railroad timbers, target fairways and greens, seaside marshes, and residences that border fairways, one that takes you back to the inner city where land area is tight yet the results are huge, you need to play the Carolina Country Club in Raleigh NC. Unfortunately for the golfing public, it's private, very private.
Located just a few miles west from the heart of North Carolina's Capital City and inside the proverbial (as well as the actual) highway belt line surrounding Raleigh, the Carolina Country Club (golf course), a prestigious old-Raleigh facility, was built in 1910 but today should win the hearts of golfers of all abilities. It sits next to busy Glenwood Avenue which for years was the primary East-West travel route through Raleigh and is surrounded on three sides by Country Club Hills, primarily developed in the 1950s. (It's somewhat of an exclusive neighborhood but not gated. Former US Senator John Edwards lived there until he decided to build a new home outside of Carrboro/Chapel Hill NC.)
There's not a lot of public information on Carolina Country Club, and that's the way the membership wants it, or so it seems. Even the website offers only a few photos of the elegant and stately clubhouse. More information can be found on other golf sites, but not a lot of details. One of the unique things about Carolina Country Club is that no one seems to know the name of the original golf course architect. Many years ago, two fires on two different occasions took out two clubhouses and lots of the course records, including original drawings of the neat, hilly layout. A most recent renovation was handled by John LaFoy.
It's just a guess, but after playing the course and after studying a course layout, the initial nine was constructed first by itself with the second nine coming a few years later. This theory is supported with the front nine located in the center of the property and close to the clubhouse and with the second nine wrapping itself around the first nine and primarily along the outer property line. And, every hole, with the exception of a couple of par 3s, have changes in elevation from tee to green.
A study of the card and one playing round will easily tell you why Carolina Country Club is known as the "toughest short course you'll ever play." There are three sets of men's tees on the par 71 course. (The ladies have one set and play it as a par 72.) The longest course is from the Black tee markers and is only 6,304 yards long. So, based on total yardage, one might think of Carolina Country Club as short and easy. But, it doesn't take long to realize it's 70.8 rating and 133 slope is a bit tougher than it seems.
There are five par 5 holes, starting with the first hole, the only par 5 under 500 yards long. The 475-yard opening hole is downhill and bends very slightly to the left with a creek running across the fairway less than 100 yards from the green. A good drive gives the long hitter a chance to make it home in two, but the green is elevated with a small opening to the green between a sand bunker in front and to the right of the green. The average player will hit short of the creek. The other par fives are lengths of 542 yards (6th hole), 515 yards (10th hole), 506 yards (12th hole) and 516 yards (18th hole). Maybe on a dry, hot summer day when the Bermuda fairways are giving plenty of roll, longer hitters could get home in two on the downhill No. 10, or on the others with two big shots, but approaches to these par 5s also are well-guarded with sand bunkers around elevated and multi-tiered greens. Every green on the course is that way: multi-tiered with lots of sand bunkers. Because of the length of the par fives, a good tee shot is required. There's ample room in the landing areas, but I was erratic from the tee on the par 5s and was three over par on those five holes totaling 2,554 yards of the course's 6,304 yards.
There are the six par 3s with lengths of 192 yards (2nd hole), 228 yards (4th hole), 182 yards (8th hole), 158 yards (11th hole), 196 yards (13th hole) and 190 yards (17th hole). Standing on the tee of each par 3 gives you a false sense of length. They seem shorter in some ways but play awfully long. With considerable length, I hit a strong 5-iron on the 2nd hole, a solid and well struck 4-wood on the 4th, a good 7-iron on the downhill 8th, an 8-iron on the 11th (considered the signature hole with its island green), a 5-iron on the 13th, and a 6-iron on the 17th. In each case, with the exception of the 13th where I nearly shanked the tee shot, I was pin high or slightly past the pin, but poor putting placed me three-over par on the par 3s which total 1,146 yards in length.
There are seven par 4s and only two of those are over 400 yards: the 414-yard, 9th hole which is uphill and plays more as if it is 430 yards long, and the 450-yard, 16th hole, the No. 2 handicap hole on the course. (The 228-yard, par 3, 4th hole is considered the toughest.) The remaining par 4s--308 yards, 334 yards, 360 yards, 382 yards, and 356 yards--need little more than a 4-wood off from the tee, but a driver can be used with accuracy. Each has well placed sand bunkers in the fairway. I was five over on the par 4s and 11 over for the day. 82.
A neat characteristic of this throw-back style course is where various tees and green come together. For instance, the 2nd green, 3rd tee, 17th green and 18th tee are within a few yards of each other. The 3rd hole and the 18th hole actually share a teeing area. The same type of complex brings together the 3rd, 5th and 15th greens with the 4th and 6th teeing areas. The designer of the course also placed tees somewhat behind previous greens. For instance, after putting out on the 15th green, the Black tee players find the 16th tee even with a spot about 40 back down the 15th fairway. There's no chance of a ball hit from the 16th tee finding the 15th green. This happens several times throughout the course.
Time of year has a lot to do with opinion of a course. This time of year, the standard Bermuda fairways and tees are over seeded with rye grass, but the excellent maintenance crew keeps it tightly cropped. The bent gress greens are soft and very receptive to approach shots. The four-wood I hit on the 228 yard par 3, 4th hole, hit pin high and stopped about 10 feet past the hole. I didn't mind the course condition whatsoever though I would enjoy playing it in the summer when the Bermuda is dominant and the greens are probably a bit firmer. By the way, the sign in the golf shop said the greens were at 9 on the Stimp meter, but just as Carolina Country Club is known as the "toughest short course you'll ever play," those 9s were running about 11 or 12, or so it seemed. Very smooth and very fast, just as greens should be.
While the architect is unknown, there are a lot of Donald Ross characteristics as the course uses the natural terrain but similarities stop with the multi-tiered greens. Most have a front shelf which is lower than the back of the green with a sudden elevation change in between, and some greens have three tiers with the middle tier actually lower than the front and back. However, unlike typical Ross greens, there are no false fronts, and putts rolling from the higher level to lower level will remain on the putting surface.
On the North Carolina Golf Panel's list of Top 100 Courses, Carolina Country Club does not show up. It's only because very few, if any, of the Panel's members, until this week, have played the course. My guess is it will make the 2007 list and debut very high. I know I'll give it a good rating. It's a gem of a course, one I definitely would play every day.