The 2012 North Carolina Golf Panel list of the best 100 courses in the Tar Heel State has been recently published, and, not unexpected, Pinehurst No. 2, for the18th consecutive year, is #1. What may be surprising to many golf enthusiasts and holders of golf mystic and lore is that the much celebrated Donald Ross design was not a unanimous selection by the members of the Panel for the top spot.
How do I know? No. 2 is only the third best golf course in North Carolina on my ballot. At my top is Grandfather Golf & Country Club in Linville. Second on my ballot is Elk River Club in Banner Elk. There may be other Panelists who didn't vote No. 2 in the loftiest of positions. But, what do I and maybe those few others know? Pinehurst No. 2 with its magnificent history, especially its hosting of US Opens and many other great professional and amateur tournaments, is worthy of the top spot. It's a great golf course, one I've played much of my more than 53 years of enjoying the game.
As a native of Sanford, just 30 miles from Pinehurst, when learning golf as youngster from my golf professional uncle and my golf enthusiast parents, I had the opportunity on many occasions to play No. 2 as well as the other numerated layouts. That was when there were just five courses at the famed resort, which was much less of a corporate conglomeration than it became with rising greens fees, a modern clubhouse that took away from the traditional charm of the place, and the friendliness of a locally owned passion for the game. I loved each and every course there. I especially loved the uniqueness of the sandy, love-grass-filled rough instead of the tree-line to tree-line grass of different cuts.
While Pinehurst Country Club remains a big business and a huge draw for corporate golf and group fun-filled outings, it has undergone a transformation back to its roots in that it is no longer held by golf-factory businesses. And in the past couple of years, under the direction of the golf course design firm of Coore & Crenshaw, No. 2 has been re-born near to its original state of play, taking out lots of green grass, and adding back the clumpy love grass and its charm. Who am I to say it, but I will: Pinehurst No. 2 is worthy of the top spot. However, in its current state, I've not had the chance to play it so I'm not sure what it offers today. When I do return, it may well move up on my list. Hint, hint...
Golfers have preferences for the style of golf courses even though when compiling our list, members of the NC Golf Panel are asked to consider course "conditioning, routing, design, strategy, memorability, fairness, variety and aesthetics," as explained by Kevin Brafford, executive director of the Panel, in a short article in the magazine Business North Carolina, revealing this year's list. But, sometimes, the style, the designer, of the course filters into the objectivity of the voter.
For instance, the 23rd-ranked course this year is Old Town Club in Winston-Salem, a wonderful layout designed by Perry Maxwell in 1939. Several years ago, the first time I played Old Town, which I ranked this year as the 19th best, I was shocked when a member of our foursome said he didn't like it at all. "It's Mickey Mouse!" he said, meaning every word. Much to the chagrin and disappointment of my cart partner and me, the Golf Panelist, several years our senior, went on to say that the older style golf courses were not his flavor. We wondered what golf world he lived in but agreed that he had the right to his opinion no matter how wrong he was and remains.
Older-style golf courses are my flavor, though I also appreciate some of the more recent designs. I love Donald Ross courses much more than, say, Tom Fazio courses, which I also enjoy, of which there are 18 wonderful layouts in North Carolina including Nos. 4, 6 and 8 at Pinehurst. But, after many years of the privilege of playing there, I've really come to overly appreciate those two particular mountain layouts at the top of my list: the Ellis Maples-designed Grandfather, and the Jack Nicklaus designed Elk River.
Maples learned the design trade from Ross and much of that course has the Ross flavor; Nicklaus designs courses around the land provided and makes the most of it. He especially did that at Elk River. Part of the lure of these two courses is the location. Grandfather weaves along the base of its namesake mountain with brooks and streams a plenty running through it. Everything breaks towards the mountain. Or is it the other way around? Elk River is somewhat two courses in one with about half of the course somewhat flat but strategically designed and the other near half built on the side of a mountain. The 14th hole, played from the back tees, is one of the most picturesque you'll find. Both Grandfather and Elk River are tough; both are beautiful; both are worthy, in my humble opinion, of the top two spots on my list.
There are lots and and lots of great courses in North Carolina which natives still feel is the premier golf state. I believe you can take the top 20 on the NC Golf Panel (NCGP) list, toss them in a bag, pull names out one at a time and come up with a reputable ranking. My top 20 contains 16 of the Panel's top 20 but not in the same order. Three of my four not in the NCGP top 20 are in the NCGP top 26. I also put the Country Club of Asheville in my top 20 though it shows up at #81 on the NCGP list. The Country Club of Asheville was built in 1928, is a Ross design, and did not show on the 2011 list primarily because, I believe, very few of the members of the Golf Panel have played it. A strict requirement to completing the ballot: you can only vote for courses you've played. Honor system is key.
For instance, Wade Hampton Golf Club, another Fazio design, in Cashiers is #19 on the 2012 list but doesn't show up on my list and on the list of other members of the Panel. I've driven past it a couple of times but never played there. If more Panelists played Wade Hampton, it would probably be ranked higher. I take the playing of a course criteria a step further. I played the Country Club of North Carolina Dogwood course when it first opened in the 1960s but never again until last fall. It showed up on my ballot for the first time for the 2012 list at #6, the same spot on the NC Golf Panel list.
I'm not an expert, but I think I have a good eye and idea of what makes a good golf course and golf experience. While I may not place Pinehurst No. 2 as North Carolina's best golf course, it's hard for anyone to argue with my top choice. On the North Carolina Golf Panel list, Grandfather, my top choice, is #2; Elk River, my second selection, is NCPA #8.
Here are my top 10 golf courses in North Carolina with the NC Golf Panel ranking in parenthesis and the designer listed:
1. (2) Grandfather Golf & Coutry Club: Ellis Maples
2. (8) Elk River Club: Jack Nicklaus
3. (1) Pinehurst No. 2: Donald Ross
4. (5) Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club: Donald Ross
5. (13) Linville Golf Club: Donald Ross
6. (6) The Country Club of North Carolina (Dogwood): Willard Byrd/Ellis Maples
7. (9) Forest Creek Golf Club (South): Tom Fazio
8. (12) Pinehurst No. 4: Tom Fazio
9. (15) The Country Club of North Carolina (Cardinal): Byrd/Maples/ Robert Trent Jones/Rees Jones
10. (7) Charlotte Country Club: Donald Ross
Here are the other top 10 on the NC Golf Panel List with my ranking in parenthesis and the designer listed:
3. (14) Quail Hollow Club: Tom Fazio
4. (20) Old North State Club: Tom Fazio
10. (15) Pinehurst No. 8: Tom Fazio