The North Carolina Golf Rating Panel, a group of regular players with a few professionals thrown in, is out with its update list of the best public golf courses in the golf-rich Tarheel State. I would say they left off a few but the bigger head scratcher is the rankings themselves, with a few iconic courses a little too far down the list.
First, the highlights. The Sandhills area comprising Pinehurst and Southern Pines swept the first six positions on the list, with – no surprise – Pinehurst #2, the Donald Ross masterpiece updated a few years ago by the team of Coore & Crenshaw at the very top, followed by Pine Needles, Pinehurst #4 and #8, Mid-Pines and Pinehurst #9. Pinehurst #9 is the former National Golf Club. The Mid-South Club, also in the Sandhills, logged the #10 position on the list. The rest of the top 10 includes the high-altitude Linville Golf Club at #7, University of North Carolina’s Finley Golf Course at #8 and Bald Head Island Club at #9.
All in all I have played 21 of the 50 on the list over the last 20 years. Therefore, take these quibbles with a grain of salt since I have not played 29 on the list, but a few of those in the bottom 30 deserve a much higher ranking. For example, Tanglewood Park Championship course in Clemmons, near Winston-Salem, is a Robert Trent Jones Sr. masterpiece, good enough to have hosted the 1974 PGA Championship, when Lee Trevino nosed out Jack Nicklaus by a stroke. (Bit of trivia: Richard Nixon resigned the Presidency on the Friday of the tournament.) I played the course with my dad and brother a few years before the PGA and then again a dozen years ago. The imaginative routing, the bunkering and the changes in elevation were impressive. My friend and fellow blogger, Brad Chambers, played it last month and wrote a review at OffTheBeatenCartPath.com.
I know that Tobacco Road, Mike Strantz’ most attractively chaotic contribution to a portfolio of unique golf courses, is not to everyone’s taste, but surely the stamp on the memory of anyone who plays it is worthy of a higher position than #40. And weird or not, it is more memorable than Compass Pointe (#29) in Leland, an easy-going yet less than dramatic layout, or the Currituck Club on the Outer Banks, whose beautiful eastern vistas of the Atlantic Ocean are neutralized by the rows of condos that line some of its fairways. Just last year, Golf Digest rated Tobacco Road #13 on its “best courses in North Carolina,” and that list included private courses as well.
I would also rank Cape Fear National (#27), the course inside the Brunswick Forest community in Leland, the equal of Leopard’s Chase (#13), Tiger’s Eye (#20) and Thistle Golf Club (#21), and even competitive with Bald Head Island and its #9 ranking (although, full disclosure, I have not played Bald Head since it was renovated a half dozen years ago).
I also had to look a few times to see if I had missed Strantz’ other Tarheel contribution, Tot Hill Farm in Asheboro, also reviewed by my friend Brad Chambers (click here). It didn’t make the list but is certainly the equal of any of the bottom 15 or so on the Panel’s list. And the Grove Park Inn in Asheville, home to the famed Donald Ross layout in the mountains, should qualify as a "course you can play" but it is not on the list.
Despite these minor flaws, the NC Golf Panel's list is a great guide to those who want to play almost two months of excellent golf in a state that spans the ocean and highest mountains in the east. In terms of states for the widest possible range of golf courses, North Carolina ranks near the top of any list.