Playing golf on Saturday is a hard enough sell to the wife, let alone getting away for a long weekend golf trip. Luckily, my wife is pretty cool and I probably get more rounds in per year than most guys. Still, some of my favorite rounds come each year when I take 15 other guys to Pinehurst for our annual Ryder Cup trip. The fact is, golf trips are AWESOME!
“Camp for Grown ups”. This is how Ford Plantation was described to me by more than one member of this exclusive Georgia Country Club. Located in Richmond Hill, Ford Plantation is home for about 250 fortunate families. However, on this given weekend it was also home to 17 media yokels including yours truly. Yep, I was getting the chance to play the newly redesigned Pete Dye creation and spend some time socializing with the members of the club.
Driving into Ford Plantation you get the sense that you have travelled back in time to the old South. A long winding road flanked by trees filled with Spanish Moss ends at an imposing but not overbearing clubhouse. Having no idea what to expect, I made may way up the stairs to the dining room where I would get my first glimpse of the back nine that is the postcard for Ford Plantation. Through the back windows I was treated to views of fairways, tall grass and lakes for as far as my eye could see. A true links style course in Georgia, who would have guessed.
Unfortunately, I would have to wait an hour as my tee time was not till 2pm. With time to kill, I enjoyed a tasty lunch in the open dining room. After making short work of my chicken salad sandwich I headed to the driving range where I warmed up next to Gene Sauers (no,he did not recognize me). I would come to find out that Gene often comes to the club where he presumably steps back to the 7400 yard tees.
After demolishing the pyramid of golf balls I was met by the two members I would be paired with. First up was to load my bag on the cart. Since this is a private course, most members have their own cart and in the case of my host, it was rigged with fishing poles and a net on top. He also had a fire extinguisher bolted to the side but I will hold that story for another time. Sensing my curiosity, Bill explained that the rods were just in case he wanted to take a break from making birdies in order to catch a few fishies. Seriously, I am definitely missing out on the good life!
That day we would only play nine holes (the back nine) but it was a great warm up for the next day when I would get to play the entire course. Since this review is not just about the course, let me start by making a few observations about the membership.
The two gentlemen I played with were likely incredibly successful (I would later learn one has run for Governor and the inventor of the Chile mine rescue capsule). However, during the course of our nine holes (and a few post-round cocktails), what I mostly learned was that these guys really love their club and have an absolute blast each and every day. No tee times required… just show up around 9am any morning and get paired up for a friendly round . . . that’s how they roll at the Plantation.
While I know everyone was being super nice to me for this media event, I never got the sense that they were anything but genuinely fun people. Case in point, when we finished our nine we headed to the bar for “one beer”. Turns out, there were 8 other members who were having “one beer” and the next thing you know… well we all know how that goes. While I would have preferred to spend the rest of the evening on a bar stool yakking with my new friends, duty called and I headed to the oyster roast (yeah, life was tough that day).
Typically, my knock on shellfish is that there is no way you can get enough to actually make a meal. Apparently, the cook was out to prove me wrong as there seemed to be no end to the buckets of oysters he would pull off the open fire.
Alright, you get it, the food is awesome, the members are super cool, the facilities are top notch… what about the golf?
Pete Dye gets it right:
Imagine you joined an exclusive country club only to find out that it closes for two days every time it rains a few inches. I don’t know about you, but I would be slightly annoyed. Apparently, so were the members at Ford Plantation, which is why they voted to chip in some dough and self-fund a redesign of the course under the direction of Mr. Pete Dye and Tim Liddy.
The basic problem with Ford Plantation was that the drainage was so awful that the grounds crew became the bucket squad. So the first priority would be to build high-end pump systems that could move the water off of the course. Additionally, they needed to makes changes to the topography so that the land actually helped with the drainage. So with marching orders in hand, Pete Dye and Tim Liddy set to work restoring Ford Plantation.
The front nine is pretty traditional with large trees bordering the fairways and lakes on most holes. Some of the big changes to the front nine included adding long bunkers next to the lakes which helps to save the Pro V1 from the water. Dye also moved some bunkers and of course redid the greens. Speaking of greens, all of them are amazing. Perfect in fact. They roll so true is is hard to actually play the proper break as they just seem to hold the line forever. And they are fast. Not crazy stupid fast but fast. Despite feeling more at home on the front nine, I found it to be more challenging since the fairways were narrower and greens seemed harder to hit. The front nine is also where you will see some of the homes of Ford Plantation. Not in play, mind you (no dreaded white stakes), but just off in the distance.
The back nine is a totally different experience. As you stand on the tee box you feel like you can hit it anywhere but also have no idea where to hit it. Thankfully our hosts provided us with a little direction, although they too are still learning the course. What I really like about the layout is that it continually provides new challenges depending on the wind and weather. With so many options you never get locked into playing the hole a single way.
Obviously the views are outstanding. Wildlife is abundant and the sun dancing off of the water provides endless opportunities to take in the landscape. Plus you can always take a break and do a little fishing.
So what did I think?
Clearly I loved the course but it is odd in the sense that both nines are so different. Good and bad as they say. Good in that you get two experiences, bad in that you don’t feel like you are playing one course. I asked a few members what they thought about the contrast and they agreed it added to the experience. They also noted that if you just want to squeeze in nine holes you can choose the side that fits your mood.
But what else is there to do?
Ford Plantation is not just a golf course. It is a community that offers a wide variety of activities and social events. For example there is a large equestrian facility (we saw 6 horses trot by as we teed off on #10) and marina. There is also fishing, shooting and other naturalist activities. Plus, I get the sense that there is a lot of social activities that are widely attended by the membership.
As you would expect, the staff is top notch. It starts with Director of Golf Course Maintenance, Nelson Caron, who I firmly believe spends 22 hours a day thinking about how to make the course better. I would not be surprised if he is up at 3am each morning checking the greens and making notes. In the Pro Shop, Ryan Skipton makes it his priority to provide the members with the best golfing experience possible. This includes organizing tournaments such as the “hook and slice” (part fishing / part golfing event) and traveling with them on overseas golf trips.
Sure I know that the members were on their “best behavior” for the media event, but I truly got the sense that everyone really loves to spend time at Ford Plantation. Why then would they invite 17 members of the media to tell the world about there secret paradise? Well, as it turns out they are looking for a few new neighbors. Unfortunatley my W-2 won’t cut the mustard yet but maybe one day… one day.
If you would like to learn more about Ford Plantation you can visit their website.
Since you’re using the Internet to read this I’m sure you’re familiar with the game “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon”, where you see how quickly can you connect Kevin Bacon to any other actor in the world. I think that I can connect Kevin Bacon, star of Footloose, to Mike Stranz, designer of Tot Hill Farm in Asheboro, North Carolina:
- Kevin Bacon was directed by Clint Eastwood in “Mystic River”.
- Clint Eastwood got his start playing cowboy Rowdy Yates in Rawhide.
- There’s a picture in the clubhouse at Tot Hill Farm of Mike Stranz sitting on a horse, wearing a cowboy hat, as he surveys the property that would eventually become Tot Hill Farm.
Thanks for playing, you can now forget that I ever mentioned Kevin Bacon.
From the porch it looks peaceful
What’s important is the connection between “Cowboy” Mike Stranz and Clint “Dirty Harry” Eastwood. I don’t know if these two gentlemen ever met, but after a day at Tot Hill Farm I’m positive that Mike Stranz and Dirty Harry share a philosophy: “A man’s got to know his limitations.”
Tot Hill Farm has a fearsome reputation. Voted the 7th hardest course in America in 2007, Golf Digest gave it 4.5 stars in 2008 and 2009 and named it to their coveted list of Best Places to Play in 2010. Ask anyone who’s played there and you won’t get a tepid opinion – the consensus is that you may love Tot Hill Farm or you may hate it, but you aren’t likely to forget it any time soon.
I’m thinking flop shot
That’s fitting, because Tot Hill Farm isn’t your average golf course. For starters, it plays just 6,500 yards from the tips. That’s practically a pitch-and-putt course by today’s standards, but I doubt that many will walk off the 18th green wishing for more length. In those 6,500 yards, Tot Hill Farm makes you use not only every shot in your bag, but something even more rarely called for in many designs: self-restraint.
If you watch any professional golf you’ll hear commentators talk about a “good miss”. A recurring theme during Master’s Week is that “you have to miss it in the right spot.” At Tot Hill Farm it’s very rare for there to be a good miss. Nearly every hole offers you several places to safely hit the ball, but if you don’t hit it to one of those places, my advice is not to waste time looking for it. At many golf courses you can hit toward targets – if you’re a little short or a little long that’s okay, it’s a chip and a putt. At Tot Hill Farm you have to hit to targets. If you’re a little short or a little long, it’s a drop and at least one extra stroke on your card.
The good miss here is – don’t
But if Tot Hill Farm is harsh, she’s also fair. If you’re willing to be honest about your game you can navigate the course with remarkably little fuss. After an atrocious start, hitting driver off the planet on nos 1 and 2, I settled down, accepted my limitations, and ended up bunting my way around using mostly my hybrid and mid irons, escaping this 132-slope maze with the same score I’m happy to card at my 119-sloped home course. My playing companion had more faith in his driver (and justly so), and was able to parlay that into a slightly better score, but since I would never play him straight up, I’m counting it as a moral victory.
In a few days the Eldorado Expedition went into the patient wilderness, that closed upon it as the sea closes over a diver. Long afterwards the news came that all the donkeys were dead. I know nothing as to the fate of the less valuable animals. They, no doubt, like the rest of us, found what they deserved.
-Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
There’s a fairway out there. Trust me.
Tot Hill Farm was built long after Mean Joe Conrad wrote the book that would become Apocalypse Now, but as you make your way from the first tee down the winding maze into the forest canopy of the front nine I wouldn’t blame you if you felt the urge to keep looking over your shoulder. Somehow golf carts seem like the wrong conveyance – pack mules would fit right in.
I’ll spare you the gory details of a hole-by-hole description (you can see an excellent flyover here) and hit the highlights. The front nine feels like Stranz wanted to get some work done while he waited for the bulldozer to get there. It’s rare to see a golf course that looks as though it’s always been there, but the front nine at Tot Hill Farm looks as though someone was cutting trees one day and came across a golf course.
Well I’ll be darned – a golf course!
Nearly every hole on the front nine features a significant elevation change, you’ll know that you’re headed back toward the clubhouse when you start back uphill. Water is everywhere on the front, and not the kind of benign water that sits quietly out of the way, waiting to swallow bad shots on normal golf courses. This water is like a psycho ex, it will not be ignored and it demands to be considered when you select a shot. Finally, to keep things interesting, there are granite outcroppings scattered about, just waiting to send a misdirected golf ball on a new and random trajectory. And at Tot Hill Farm, all of the random trajectories end somewhere you don’t want to be.
My favorite thing about the front nine is the complete lack of development. There may have been a little here or there, but none that grabbed your attention. The course flows through the woods with a sense of belonging, it reminded me of being a kid and following a creek just to see where it went.
Easy hole, just hit it between the creek and the mountain
The back nine puts the “farm” in Tot Hill Farm – a bit more open, ponds replace some of the creeks. The forest gives way to beautiful homes that continue the theme of fitting in to the surroundings rather than sitting on them. An added twist on the back is that you’ll end up driving through several tunnels, including one that’s below the level of a lake, featuring a warning that it may flood rapidly (“What happened to Steve?” “Drowned in a golfing accident.”)
Yes, that’s a tunnel. There’s light at the end, I promise
We played Tot Hill Farm on a Wednesday after three days of heavy rain, so the grounds crew was playing catch up. Even so the course was in very good condition, the fairways were well-kept and the bentgrass greens were very receptive. Green speed was moderate, which I think is appropriate for the well-defended greens. There are very few holes at Tot Hill Farm that encourage you to hit a long iron at them, but the ones that do will hold the ball – if you can get it there. Putts rolled true, putting a premium on skill in reading the greens.
The practice amenities are comprehensive and well thought out. The fact that the driving range features a significant elevation change is a nice touch. I wish I’d had time to use it before we teed off, overestimating my yardage gain when hitting downhill cost me several strokes over the course of the day.
Just a smooth 7 – if you’re bailing out
The clubhouse is not opulent, but packs a good selection of necessary gear and souvenir equipment into a minimal amount of space. You’ll want a yardage book. Trust me.
No review would be complete without a mention of the grub. Tot Hill Farm has more of a “snack bar” arrangement than a grill room, although why anyone would want to eat inside when they could sit on the clubhouse’s expansive porch and watch the hopeful start off and the survivors struggle home is beyond me. Selection for this type of arrangement is very good, and my chili dog was an excellent example of the breed – not veering into the frou-frou world of the “gourmet hot dog”, but not a piece of roller jerky either.
They should have called it “liquid courage”
The snack bar also has a full liquor license and a decent selection of adult beverages. With each of us facing an hour drive home we elected not to try out the featured Lemon Moonshine, but the next time I play Tot Hill Farm I’m going to bring a designated driver – a little of the ‘shine might just make the tee at #10 less intimidating.
Everyone we met at Tot Hill Farm from the clubhouse staff to the grounds crew was great – friendly and smiling, they made the entire round a very pleasant experience. We played on a Wednesday morning and the course was well-attended. We waited a few times for the group ahead of us and ended up joining up with the group behind us for the last few holes, but in the end we got around the course in a timely 4:25 including grabbing dogs at the turn.
Check for traffic before you tee off
At Tot Hill Farm, Mike Stranz has created an unusual challenge. Not crazy length or humpbacked greens, the challenge at Tot Hill Farm is you. Mike Stranz has designed a course that gives you plenty of rope, and dares you not to hang yourself with it. If you’re willing to take the shots that Tot Hill Farm gives you, you’re going to have a great time. If you can’t you might still have a great time, but you’re going to need more golf balls.
You can see flyovers, scorecards, and more at the Tot Hill Farm web site.
Three Guys was recently invited to come check out the Country Club of Winter Haven (in Winter Haven, FL) and play some golf. Naturally, we obliged.
Originally founded in 1923, the club has a long, storied past. Once a golf and yacht club known as the Lake Region Yacht & Country Club, it was sold in 2013 to a group of private equity members to create its current iteration. The entire property spans approximately 200 acres of land, with about one mile of said property being on Lake Hamilton. So it’s got that going for it, which is nice.
As we speak, the club is in the middle of a complete facilities overhaul and membership drive. The course was recently re-designed by Rees Jones (heard of him?) and Bill Bergin, so if you’re yawning right now and saying you played that course back when balata was in, you don’t know squat. The next phase will be clubhouse renovation, and then on to the non-golf facilities like the tennis courts and the fitness center.
When you roll up to the property, you definitely get the feeling that you are at a country club and not just a course. The long tree-lined drive reveals glimpses of fairways, some tennis courts, a pool, and of course the ever-present Lake Hamilton. The general tone of the property is that it’s been around a while . . . the mix of oak trees, pine trees, palmettos, and Spanish moss hints towards an old South Carolina plantation vibe, which is a good vibe, for those of you who remain unclear. The outside of the clubhouse is in keeping with that image, with pillars rising up to a balcony on the second floor, making you think of more a southern manor than the central Florida we had previously seen in Orlando.
To be brutally honest, I did not get a chance to hit the driving range, as my accomplice Adam is an utter failure behind the wheel of a rental car. Our colleague Mathew, however, was able to take a few swipes and said the practice area was perfectly competent. You can see the range from the clubhouse and the first tee, and it certainly has plenty of room and targets to fire at. The putting green is generously sized and gets the job done for sure, but again, call that speculation because I was too busy trying to not fall out of the cart while tying my shoes on the way to the first tee.
Three Guys, you’re on the tee!
I’ll make this simple – central Florida is flat, and as a result, this course is relatively flat. What you see is what you get, and what I saw was cool looking trees, generous fairways, and large greens that were begging for some lawn darts. The first hole is a straightforward par 4, trees on left, bunker on right about 230 yards out, approaching into a large green sloped towards the teebox. It’s a great opening hole to get your swing grooved without too much apprehension, setting the tone for what I would call a perfectly playable golf course. Each time you tee up the driver you feel like you have a reasonable chance of finding fairway, eliciting the kind of confidence that actually helps you make a good swing. There are trees lining the fairways for sure, but somehow when you find your ball over there, you might still have a decent chance of making a legit shot because it’s not really “woods” as I have come to know them (well), just individual trees plotted along the holes.
That being said, the track runs 7,021 yards from the tips, and with the wind coming in off the lake (at least on the day we played), this sucker can play sneaky long. Due to a miscommunication within the group, we played from the blues and it was a bit much for our mediocre selves (of course we were too stubborn to adjust when reality set in, primarily because we are dumb). Interestingly enough, the par 5s were still very playable from the blues, but there were a number of par 4s that had us reaching for the fairway woods, hybrids and long irons on the second shot. Take heed, do not call us wussies . . . you will find some very challenging par 4s from the blues.
The layout offers a diverse array of doglegs, hazards, and approach shots. There were few times where we were fooled by a false front, but it wasn’t direct trickery, just a result of the flat landscape paired perhaps with water behind the green messing with our depth perception. Playing the course a second time, we would be sure to trust the yardage and not get too cute.
The greens are Championship Bermuda grass, and they look great and roll true. They were not any kind of spectacular fast or tricky, just good solid greens that made you feel like you were playing real golf, and they were large enough that you could feel confident firing at pins. Tough to ask for much more, and here again on the greens, The Country Club of Winter Haven allows you to have a solid, fun round of golf.
Getting into the minor details, the tee boxes are all in great shape, as are the cart paths and various signs. In other words, no points lost on the little things.
One final note I would like to make, with the help of a not-so-great picture below: Lake Hamilton is a strong presence at this course. It does not come into actual play on any holes, and for some reason it does not create the same awe that an ocean would, but there are just so many points in the round when you are looking out onto a lake thinking “money”. Our group discussed it several times . . . it’s not necessarily a majestic body of water, I think because it is not densely wooded across the shore nor does it have expansive marshes, but it’s still a big lake that you can see as you play golf – a lot. This is not a bad thing, for sure.
Right right, but how does it make you feel?
I’m not sure if this is due to me being a North Carolina dork on a Florida course, or the fact that there was water often in view and palmetto trees surrounding me, but I always had a slightly “sandy” vibe out there, like it was the kind of course that would have natural wastelands instead of bunkers.
In reality, there were proper bunkers and the fairways were green and lush, so you can chalk that up to the plantation thing perhaps. I guess my point is that it’s an open, sunny course that lends itself to a relaxed, vacation feel. And really, one can’t say enough about the trees . . . just look at the pictures! With regard to the playability that I keep mentioning, The Country Club of Winter Haven is just a great “country club” course, one you can play over and over as a member. You won’t get bored, and you won’t get overly frustrated – the course offers a great chance for golfers to play well and hit some greens in regulation without getting a headache – and if you need more challenge, just move it on back to the next teebox. And, if you need more of a challenge than 7,021 yards, congratulations . . . you just became my hero.
Keep in mind that we played in January as a little boondoggle addendum to the PGA Merchandise Expo, so I would expect the conditions to be even better in-season.
This is crazy . . .
After the round we chatted with the Head Professional, explaining that we thought it was a great track in great shape. He quickly pointed out that these fairways did not have any grass on them until something ridiculous like 2 months prior. What?! That is totally insane, especially given the great condition the course was already in. I’m thinking PEDs. Anyway, speaks volumes about this crew’s ability to pull off a renovation.
As I mentioned earlier, the clubhouse is slated for renovations in the coming months. The facility has the bones of a great clubhouse, with a large bar and dining area and an equally as expansive outside terrace. The dining area does look a bit dated however, with none of the new materials that most premier facilities currently employ. Rest assured, says management, this will be addressed in the renovations and the clubhouse will soon be at a level befitting of an elite country club.
Some of you may be familiar with the Three Guys stance on golf course hot dogs, seen here. The Country Club of Winter Haven batted a clean .500 on this point . . . the wait was agonizingly long but the end product was, well, brilliant. A dog the likes of which we had not yet seen. I’m so bummed I didn’t photograph the product of the cool grilling technique or whatever the heck they do to this thing; I was too busy cramming it into my cakehole. Easily the best high-end dog we’ve encountered in our travels, including a grilled, buttered, roll. Anyway, I don’t want to place much stock in our clubhouse experience because such big changes are on the horizon. My gut feeling, after talking with the management, is that this is an outfit that understands what aspects need to be crossed and dotted to produce a premier club experience.
The Country Club of Winter Haven offers what I believe to be a great membership opportunity to anyone that enjoys golf and a little bit of the good life. The property is one of a kind and the course itself offers a fun, solid round that can be as challenging as you need it to be by adding distance. Plus, isn’t golf always challenging? I never get that. Anyway, the club offers several different levels/types of membership, all of which can be explored at the Winter Haven website.
One of the many great things about golf is the fact no two courses are identical. However, many are fairly nondescript. Even at the premier level, there are certain “looks” that we have come to expect, and I think this is particularly true in the United States. Fortunately, this is starting to change, in part because of the work being done by master architect, Tom Doak. Unlike your average country club course, Doak is creating natural minimalistic masterpieces. One such example is the newly opened Streamsong Resort in Florida.
Cheap by nature, I am not one to think shelling out $350 for a round of golf is very prudent. In my opinion there are only a few courses that truly fit that bill. Pebble Beach is certainly on the list given its history and stunning views (or so I have been told), Pinehurst #2 would probably be another one. For my 40th, I played Pinehurst #2 and my caddie telling me “don’t worry, Tiger missed that same putt” alone justified the $340 I paid. With the rare opportunity to play TPC Sawgrass, I was going to get a first-hand look at another one of the famed courses that is a potential “bucket list” track.
My Mission: fly to Aruba, play three rounds at Tierra Del Sol Golf Resort (4.5 stars of 5 from Golf Digest,), compete in an International Pro-Am, meet interesting people, eat gourmet food, sip cocktails, take on the town, and learn why Aruba is called “One Happy Island”.
National Golf Club is a golf community that offers homes, club memberships, and “a relaxed and easy lifestyle with diverse amenities and member activities”. The amenities include a swimming pool, tennis courts, conference facilities, a ballroom, and most importantly, a golf course. A Jack Nicklaus Signature golf course, for that matter, and the only one in the immediate Pinehurst area. National is located right in The Village of Pinehurst and offers 4 tee boxes ranging from 5,378 yards to 7,122 yards. The course is semi-private, and rack rates for the public range from $175.00 in the off-season to $200.00 in primetime. If you just choked on your beverage – this is higher than average for Pinehurst, but not by much.
Well it’s a Jack Nicklaus course, so we know we’re not rolling up to a goat track. That being said, National Golf Club definitely has the feel of an actual “club” and not just a course. As you approach the clubhouse you see the tennis courts and pool off to the side, as well as some other buildings that probably have some really cool stuff going on that I don’t even know about. The clubhouse itself is enormous, and we were immediately greeted by a receptionist in the lobby when we walked in. In other words, this place is the real deal and that’s the initial vibe you get. You would think the receptionist would be for a real estate sales office or something specific, but she also seemed to serve as an overall concierge-type representative, just making sure everything is copacetic for their members and guests.
When it’s time to get in the cart and head to the range, you know you are in the epicenter of a cool course. You can see one or two tee boxes, the 9th and 18th fairways coming back towards the clubhouse, the driving range across the way, and the chipping green beyond that. There’s plenty of space, but that is not the overriding thought at first glance – it’s more that the facilities are well-maintained, the landscaping is top notch, and the course looks glorious. Fairways are lush enough to show the dark green/light green mowing stripes, which is about all it takes to get THIS GUY pumped to play some golf.
On to the vibe of the actual course itself – and this is where it gets weird. Somehow the National has struck the perfect balance between being challenging and playable at the same time. There are no holes that look easy, and on the first tee you feel pretty sure that you are about to have a rough ride if you bring out anything less than your best ball-striking. No tee shot on the course looks so wide and vast that you feel like you can bomb away with no fear, and most approach shots find a way to make you feel like a badass if you drop it on the green. But ultimately, the course is eminently playable. I never lost a ball – that’s evidence.
It’s almost like the course will play to your level . . . if you just want to knock the ball around and not embarrass yourself, no problem, each hole can accommodate a slightly squirrely tee shot and your approach to the green is always fair. If you want to flex your A game, however, the National is up to the challenge simply because there is a next level you can pay attention to, and that is the greens. National’s greens have huge undulations in them, more often than not creating tiers that will decide whether or not a birdie is in the realm of possibility. If you want to go low, you have to respect this aspect of the course . . . get sloppy and leave yourself on the wrong tier and you will now be grinding -hard- for a two-putt par. And of course, in order to be precise with your approach, a lot more considerations come into the tee shot as well.
The Driving Range and Putting Green:
The driving range is great – certainly large enough to allow you to swing away and the balls are all new and in good shape. What’s most noticeable about the driving range (besides the big buckets filled with sweet, sweet range balls), is the large number of different flags dotting the terrain, allowing you to hit a number of different clubs to an actual flag. A sign in the middle of the teebox row lists the daily yardages to each flag, which sounds ho-hum, but given the fact that like 1 out of 20 courses are able to provide this no-brainer luxury, the National range earns high marks for it. There is a separate chipping and pitching green off one end of the range, and it provides plenty of landing space as well as well-maintained turf to chip from. Same basic idea at the putting green, which is located closer to the clubhouse and behind the first tee – there is plenty of green to work with and plenty of different looks at holes.
Fantastic. The greens are in perfect shape – they look great and roll true. Several greens jutt out into water, and these areas are bordered with a very appealing stone wall, giving the course that “extra-touch-of-class” edge. One thing we noticed throughout the round was that the greens were a bit slower than we expected, especially since we generally associate fast greens with great courses and these greens were in such good condition that it was hard to grasp that they weren’t super-fast. I have to say that we kinda figured out the reason for this on our own, but really it took until we asked the Pro for us to nail the answer – the undulations! If the greens were any faster, they would be way too difficult, as so many putts are navigating ridges and tiers. In other words, the greens are the speed they are by design, which hints at the kind of effort that goes into creating a positive golf experience at National.
Another note about the greens that speaks more to layout – there are so many holes at the National where the green looks flat-out glorious from where you stand in the fairway. This seems to be a bigger deal to me than most folks, but I do not enjoy when a green is just at the same level as your feet and you just see the flag coming up from the grass. This is never the case at National Golf Club – each approach shot has a nicely framed green (whether it be by water, rocks, etc.) that calls on you to dial in a nasty wedge shot . . . if you execute, you feel like you just posterized your game. Jeez I hope that makes sense.
And lastly, yes, there are huge undulations in these greens. Nobody in our group was really firing at pins on this day, and as a result we had a lot of “please don’t be awful” putts; less excited about the prospect of draining it than we were just hoping to stay within two-putt range. We carded two birdies on the day, one was a short putt after a stuffed iron and one was an absolute prayer that rode a ridge just right. If you are on the right tier, you can stroke it into the hole like anywhere else, but if you aren’t on the right level of the green, you’re not even thinking about making the putt.
To that end, I should note that National’s yardage system is deadly accurate to accommodate those looking to go low: you are given a pin sheet with exact yardages from the front of the green to that day’s pin placement. So the marker on the fairway tells you how many yards to the front, center, and back of the green, and then for the sharpshooters, you can look at the pin-sheet and get an exact reading. Again, if you want to be a player, National is up for the task.
Good stuff, including the mowing stripes I mentioned earlier. We played in mid-May, so my impression is that fairways were at about 85%, and they still qualified as lush. On most holes an errant tee shot would land you in the pines . . . the branches of National’s pines start pretty high up, so the real challenge was less about navigating trees from jail and more about making good contact in the pine needles. That was a bit harder than I expected at first, simply because there are spots where there is a LOT of pine straw under the ball, not the usual dusting with dirt below.
Fairways were set up fairly for tee shots, never so wide open that it seemed like cheating, but never unfairly punishing either. There were a few tee shots where you thought there was a tree or a waste bunker that was going to cause some trouble, but once you hit the ball, you realized that it wasn’t quite as in play as it looked. A cool concept, we thought, especially in comparison to the opposite phenomenon. Again, gives you the feeling of challenging but is ultimately playable.
The course utilizes waste bunkers at a decent clip – not on every hole, but they are out there. You are allowed to ground your club in these waste areas, and the Pro told us that for tournament setups they will actually use blue stakes to identify waste areas vs. normal bunkers, thereby eliminating any Dustin Johnson moments. Another well thought-out item at National.
The sand was consistent in all of the bunkers. The area had just gotten pummeled on and off by rain for about two weeks, so the sand was not fluffy but we felt that this was reasonable given the circumstances. This is speculation, of course, but I’ve got to believe that the sand is high-caliber under normal conditions, just given that it is a Nicklaus course and how in control of the facility they seem to be at National.
Like most Pinehurst area courses, the clubhouse at National Golf Club is big. They have conference rooms and a formal restaurant upstairs (as well as a receptionist), and downstairs you’ll find the pro shop, locker rooms, and bar/restaurant. The pro shop is legit, with enough relevant clubs for sale that it does not appear they were just appeasing a formality. The bar area is large and very nice – there is a separate ice machine and drinking water faucet for golfers to use if they don’t want to wait for bar service – genius! The bar is big and surrounded by large glass windows that look out onto the course, and just outside is a huge patio with a stone fireplace, etc.
I’ve always been a tough sell on golf course food (see Golf Course Hot Dogs), but I’ve noticed that Pinehurst is much like a ski resort in that the establishments simply do not mess around with shabby food. National lived up to this standard. Good burger, good BLT, steak fries(!), and a good selection on the menu. Bonus Item – if you buy a 6-pack of beers, they throw in a free sandwich! I think someone at National went all “Inception-like” and raided my dreams.
I’ll spare you the details – top notch, top noottcch! And a pro that looks and acts the part.
National Golf Club lived up to the hype in every sense. They are in complete control of their golf course and their facilities – the place brims with competence (yes, I said competence, not confidence). I would liken it to the old expensive neighborhood in town . . . sure, they’re building some new developments with brand new houses and pools’n’waterslides’n’walkingtrails on the outskirts of town, but there’s a reason the old country club ‘hood is still the king. They know how to get it done.
You can visit the National Golf Club website here.
Little River Golf Course is located in the North Carolina Sandhills just 5 minutes from the village of Pinehurst. The first thing you realize about the course is that it is huge. Set upon a former horse farm, Dan Maples had ample room to design this sprawling course on the 450 acres of land with over 200 feet of elevation change. There are 4 tee boxes ranging from 4,850 yards all the way to 7,018. We played the course in late April from the white tees which measure 6,430. The fairways are Bermuda grass with Crenshaw Bentgrass greens. Rates run between $50 for mid-week winter and peak at $134 for prime spring weekends. Beside the course, Little River has Condominiums on site and a clubhouse large enough to offer banquets, conferences and business meetings.
The Driving Range and Putting Green:
One thing Little River is not short on is land. The driving range is located just down the hill from the clubhouse and could easily fit a few aircraft carriers. Tee boxes are well cared for and there are plenty of well-marked flags. The putting green is conveniently located next to the first tee. My only knock on the putting green is that it is has a few too many undulations for my taste. That said, if you can master the practice green you will be good to go.
Big, big is the feeling you get when you pull into the course. The clubhouse is spacious, the driving range is monstrous, the fairways are wide and the acreage is almost overwhelming. For me, it makes it feel like a legit course. All of the tee boxes are in great shape, the bunkers are raked and the greens are near perfect.
The other thing I really like about the course is that each hole is unique. Moreover, the front and back nine are totally different. The front nine features a few long par fours and is more hilly, while the back nine has a couple of shorter dog-legged holes where shot making is at a premium. In all cases, the course is laid out in front of you with no tricked-up holes. With that said, there is definitely some advantages to having local knowledge as you will find some places are better to miss than others.
This big vibe rolls over to the end of the round where you can enjoy a cold beverage on the porch and gaze out over the expansive fairways. The large pond in front of the clubhouse is nicely placed to add both an immediate mental obstacle on the first hole and pleasing view from the clubhouse.
Near perfect. The greens at Little River Golf Resort are bentgrass and during this time of year are amazing. They roll very true and super fast. I love that you can read a break and have the ball hold that line. Make a good putt and it will go in . . . that’s the point, right?
We played in mid-spring so the grass was still a few weeks away from being fully grown in, but even so the fairways were plush. When you have a property as big as Little River there are bound to be some areas that or a little rough but for the most part the entire course was in great shape.
Really the only issue we had were the cart paths which were in need of repair. In the Sandhills, where pine trees are prevalent, roots will wreak havoc on asphalt paths. Clearly it has been a few years since the last paving so just be careful to warn your cart buddy before hitting some of the larger cracks.
Sand comes in lots of varieties and I am fine as long as it is consistent. The sand at Little River Golf Resort is not super fluffy but rather a heavier, rocky version that is fairly common in Pinehurst. All of the bunkers were very well maintained and had a consistent texture which is really what is important.
Like most high-end Pinehurst golf courses, Little River has a huge clubhouse. They have a well stocked pro shop and a full restaurant. Additionally, there are condos on site as well as rooms in the main building. The ambiance is welcoming albeit slightly under lit.
If you want to know what the avacado salad tastes like you’re out of luck, we all got burgers! While not “world class”, the Little River burgers and fries are solid. They also have a good selection of beer, three on tap.
Judging service from a single visit is tough as one can never know if a given day was common or not. Moreover, we played on a Wednesday which is likely less staffed than the weekends. With that said, the course did seem a touch under staffed. Getting food at the turn took a little longer than expected and there was no available Marshall to get my 8 iron I forgot on the fourth hole. That is not to say everyone was not super friendly, it just seemed to be a situation in which a few more people on staff would have helped.
If you are travelling to Pinehurst then the short drive to Little River is definitely worth it. Little River offers classic Pinehurst golf, with more forestation than many of the local courses. The greens are always in amazing shape and the scenery is both gorgeous and varied.
You can learn more about Little River Golf Resort on their website.