An Expert Guide to Golf Courses in North Carolina

Published on 03/14/2023 · 11 min readLooking for a new place to golf in North Carolina? Look no further! Golf Expert Timothy Jones gives his top recommendations for courses across the state!
Timothy C Jones Jr, Golf Expert
By Golf Expert Timothy C Jones Jr

Photo by Dean Ricciardi

North Carolina has over six hundred golf courses, and, on an annual basis, ten to fifteen are ranked within the Top 100 golf courses in America. Pinehurst’s No. 2 course is probably the most iconic of North Carolina’s courses. It has even hosted the most golf championships in America. Starting in the North Carolina Sandhills region, in the 1900s, Donald Ross designed some of his best golf courses, and Pinehurst No. 2 might be the best. That says something when you consider Ross designed roughly 400 golf courses in his lifetime, with many still in existence and in high demand today. Throughout the years, Pinehurst No. 2 experienced highs and lows, and in 2010 Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw completed a major restoration. Coore and Crenshaw restored the firm and fast Bermuda turf with the surrounding native sandscape, which now plays as a waste area instead of a hazard or penalty area. In doing so, Coore and Crenshaw returned the golf course to its original scale and contour. The green sites became the focus again, and with the original intent of the design reestablished, strategy and position again are valued and rewarded for those playing at the highest level of the game.

Moving out toward the western part of the state, into the Blue Ridge Mountains, another Donald Ross design stands out. In this instance, the shapes and contours of the golf course are shaped by mountains instead of sand. Roaring Gap Club was once referred to as “Pinehurst in the Mountains” by the original owner and president of Pinehurst Resort, Leonard Tufts, who created Roaring Gap Club as his private mountain escape. This is a shorter golf course that protects with elevation and slope; your strategy and shot-making will need to be spot-on when attempting to score. There is not a bad view on the property, yet it’s a stark contrast from the Ross designs amongst the sand and the southern yellow pines of the eastern part of the state. Pinehurst No. 2 and Roaring Gap Club are two iconic examples that display the variety found across North Carolina’s courses.

Being from Virginia and having North Carolina as a southern neighbor, the Tar Heel State has always provided two things: beach vacations and golf courses. I would be remiss in writing this if my favorite golf course in the state was not mentioned. Old Town Club in Winston-Salem is a Perry Maxwell design built in the 1940s, at the end of the Golden Age of golf course architecture. Maxwell is also known for Southern Hills in Oklahoma (host of the 2022 PGA Championship) and Prairie Dunes in Kansas (considered one of the best-designed Links-style golf courses in America) only a few years prior. Old Town Golf Club is everything a golf course should be—pure golf where natural land creates the routing of the golf course. Every golf shot evokes a different emotion in the game. The routing of the golf holes tells a story, and walking off the 18th hole, the golfer only wants to start another journey!

It doesn’t matter the price, where it is located, if golfers are wearing hoodies, or if the clubhouse is a shed; it only matters that the golf course imprints upon the mind, telling the story of a great golf round! There are endless options in North Carolina and there is truly no wrong path to take when playing golf in the state.

Best for a Day Trip: Tobacco Road Golf Club

  • Price: $75 to $250 (season and time dependent)
  • Lodging: Major hotel chain options within 10 miles of the course in Sanford, NC.
  • Weather: Playable conditions throughout the year. Small chance of light snow or frost impacting play in the winter months.

Leave Roanoke, Virginia in the early morning and arrive at Tobacco Road Golf Club by late morning. Ball in the air! Finish the round, then buy some merchandise from the Pro Shop. Can’t beat the shirt or hat with the outline of the late golf course architect, Mike Strantz, shaping bunkers with a spray paint can. Those that worked with him or for him, on the few courses he designed, all spoke of his personableness and talent.

Tobacco Road is FUN and different, more than anything. It is a firm and fast swale of Bermuda turf, oozing creativity and offering rewards for taking on a challenge. The theme that stands out with all Strantz golf courses is that of visual intimidation. Landing areas are consistently camouflaged by slopes and or elevation. One golf hole might require a tee shot to a blind fairway. The next might require a short approach shot into a blind green site. Stranz created golf courses with a wilder style, yet golf holes on his courses would not look out of place on the famous Links designs of Ireland or Scotland.

Best for Beginners: Wilmington Municipal

  • Price: $15 to $50
  • Lodging: Tons of options in and around Wilmington. Stay on the beach if possible! Golden Sands Oceanfront and Shell Island Resort are both fantastic beachfront options!
  • Weather: Playable conditions throughout the year.

Wilmington Municipal is the definition of a “Hidden Gem.” Yet another Donald Ross design in the state, this time, the course is on the coast. Ross’ style can be seen in the bunker shapes and green sites throughout the golf course. The consolidated square property leads to a routing that naturally encourages golfers to walk while they play their round—tee box to green site to tee box to green site. Wader the nine holes on one side of the property and then play the nine holes on the other side of the property! Wilmington Municipal is one of the best values in golf. And if the golf course wasn’t good enough, it is also home to the First Tee of Greater Wilmington. First Tee is a nonprofit that aims to impart life skills to children through the game of golf. It started a little over twenty years ago and now has locations and chapters throughout all fifty states!

Best Views: Balsam Mountain Preserve and Black Mountain Golf Course

  • Price: Balsam Mountain Preserve is private with limited stay-and-play options; Black Mountain Golf Course is $15 to $50.
  • Lodging: Balsam Mountain Preserve guest availability is limited; Black Mountain Golf Course is less than a 30-minute drive to multiple options in Asheville.
  • Weather: Cooler temperatures than the eastern part of the state, especially at elevation in the morning and late afternoon. Frost delays and snow will impact play in the winter months.

This is mountain golf at its best! Balsam Mountain Preserve is an Arnold Palmer design that plays in near-perfect course conditioning, each golf hole peacefully moving through the mountains shot by shot.

Black Mountain Golf Course is another Donald Ross design worthy of note. Black Mountain Golf Course sits at the base of the Black Mountain Range and is owned and operated by the town of Black Mountain.

If you decide to play at either of these options, stay in Asheville and stop into a brewery or two. Additionally, there is fantastic hiking, fishing, and access to many other outdoor activities in the western part of the state that are worth checking out.

Most Challenging: Pinehurst No. 2

  • Price: $350 to $500, plus a required caddie fee.
  • Lodging: Resort-style options in and around Pinehurst Resort. You can’t go wrong booking directly through Pinehurst Resort, NCGolf, or Tobacco Road.
  • Weather: Playable conditions throughout the year. In the winter months, there is minimal impact from frost or light snow.

There are only a handful of golf courses in the world that play as tough as Pinehurst No. 2. Ross’s famous layout is lengthy, firm, and fast—a non-stop test of golf skill and mental fortitude. The set of eighteen greens is beyond difficult, and de-greening and four-putting are a reality. There is a reason why caddies are required on this golf course!

It is seventy-six thousand yards from the back teeing areas, all a pure golf challenge right out in front of the golfer. While challenging, the course is also an entertaining test of golf. Sometimes being pushed is a good thing, right?

  • Price: $75 to $500, plus required caddie fees on certain courses.
  • Lodging: Resort-style options in and around Pinehurst Resort.
  • Weather: Playable conditions throughout the year. In the winter months, there is minimal impact from frost or light snow.

A golfer can’t go wrong with all the golf options in and around Pinehurst Resort. This area has a rich golf history and what seems to be a never-ending option of great golf courses. This includes Pinehurst No. 4, Pinehurst No. 8, Mid Pines, Southern Pines, Pine Needles, Dormie Club, and Country Club of North Carolina, of note. Tons of money has been pumped into this area, not only to improve the golf courses but also to build and grow the entire town of Pinehurst.

Pinehurst Resort was established in the early 1900s, with Donald Ross acting as a club professional, superintendent, and course architect, among a few other positions. At the time, the rest of the golf world thought the concept of building past Pinehurst’s No. 1 course was crazy. Building beyond Pinehurst’s No. 2 was nuts. But of course, Donald Ross had other ideas, and the golf courses continue to stand the test of time.

Most Affordable: Lonnie Poole Golf Course

  • Prices: $25 to $85
  • Lodging: Tons of options in Raleigh. I would suggest staying in the city center, where there are chain hotels or, if you are willing to spend a little more, there are options such as The Umstead or Hotel 83.
  • Weather: Playable conditions throughout the year. In the winter months, frost and light snow can impact play.

I’m throwing you a curveball on this question! Instead of finding the trendy municipal or the off-the-beaten-path “Hidden Gem,” drive right into the heart of Raleigh. Lonnie Poole Golf Course is home to NC State’s golf team and features a thought-provoking, player-friendly routing. It’s an Arnold Palmer design that is kept in great condition by the Turfgrass program students of NC State, who maintain the golf course to a high standard and provide incredible value. The Lonnie Poole Golf Course is an open playable golf course that sits slightly below the surrounding backdrop of the Raleigh skyline. This is one of the best college golf courses on the East Coast!

Best Solo Spot: Crystal Coast Country Club and The Currituck Club

  • Price: $50 to $150 for Crystal Coast Country Club; $75 to $200 for The Currituck Club.
  • Lodging: Crystal Coast Country Club has multiple options in the beach town next door to Emerald Isle; The Currituck Club has multiple options in the beach towns south of Kitty Hawk and Kill Devil Hills. In-season increased rates impact cost in both areas.
  • Weather: Playable conditions throughout the year.

On the southern coast, out on Bogue Banks Island, the Crystal Coast Country Club in Pine Knoll Shores provides quality respite from being on the beach the entire vacation. The golf course was designed by Maurice Brackett in the early 1970s.

A few miles north from Outer Banks, up the North Carolina coast, through the tiny town of Duck, into the beautiful beach town of Corolla, sits The Currituck Club. The golf course was designed by Rees Jones in 1996.

At either of these golf courses, plan to be on the course early or late in the day. The pace of play will improve during these times and all the colors of the beach come out. Playing golf with the smell of saltwater and a coastal breeze constantly blowing is special. Moving golf shots through coastal marshlands is the highlight. Grab a cold drink from the beverage cart. Cheers!

There is a reason why North Carolina has been and continues to be a golf destination going on one hundred years: the endless options and variety of golf courses are matched only by a handful of other states. In conclusion, Old Tom Morris, architect of The Old Course in Saint Andrews once responded with this when being praised for his design work, “For true success, it matters what our goals are. And it matters how we go about attaining them. The means are as important as the ends. How we get there is as important as where we go.” Golf is a beautiful game, no matter the course that is being played. Take a moment to look around and enjoy the challenge in front of you. No two golf shots are the same, especially when playing in North Carolina. Reach out to your Curated Golf Expert for more advice on golf trips!

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