Through the Pines
A Stick's Review of Pine Needles, Mid Pines, and Southern Pines
by John Rosenstock
In the shadows of the pristine Village of Pinehurst and its famed resort lies the comfortably old fashioned and more understated town of Southern Pines. You may not find manicured croquet lawns, high end boutiques or fine dining here, but you will find a golf course triple threat that rivals any in the country. Pine Needles, Mid Pines, and the town’s namesake course, Southern Pines Golf Club, are a testament to how much truly outstanding golf you can find in the North Carolina Sandhills. Donald Ross planted his architectural flag here over a century ago due to the sandy soil and unique vegetation caused by an ancient ocean’s erosion. These anomalous conditions paved the way for an inland landscape reminiscent of the Scotsman’s homeland in the British Isles. Thus, the “Home of American Golf” was born.
My Uncle Bobby is the founder of the annual Fall Classic, which brought eight of us to the Mid Pines Inn the weekend before Thanksgiving. The event includes his brother Wendell, my dad, and other members of our golf junkie filled family tree. Bobby won last year’s edition down in Myrtle Beach at Barefoot Landing, and was looking to successfully defend. Skill levels vary, necessitating that the event be a net points championship. While handicaps might not all be super low, the golf IQ is very high in this crowd. Upon arrival and checking in, I snooped around the Inn like a kid in a candy store. Not much has changed in the last half century or so in this building, and that’s just the way they like it. After grabbing a cold beer in Pop’s Tavern, I scoped out the game room complete with billiards, ping pong and card tables which we’d enjoy the following night. Just off of that I found the locker room which was frozen in time. Non golfers might not think much about this place, but for me, it is pure bliss.
After getting settled in the hotel room, I headed just down the 10th fairway to the Camellia Villa where three members of our party would stay. Certainly nothing fancy, but it dutifully served as Fall Classic HQ for the next few days. Bobby meticulously filled out our leaderboard as teams and pairings were drawn out of a baseball cap. Meanwhile Cousin Jeff and I made our way across the living room to visit with Wendell and his bottle of Macallan 12.
"The first night of a golf trip is always so pure. No one has scar tissue from a double bogey here or a missed 3 footer there. Everyone is even par, filled with optimism and excitement for the golf that is yet to come."
Opening day arrived. I must say 75 degrees and sunny at Pine Needles is hard to beat. We took the shuttle just across Midland Road to play the host course of three previous U.S. Women’s Opens. Annika Sorenstam won the first back in ’96, and a fourth is set to be played here in 2022. A commonality amongst all courses played this weekend is that they are Donald Ross original designs, and all have undergone significant restoration work led by Kyle Franz in recent years. Pine Needles has an almost Australian Sandbelt look to it. The bunkers present a striking blend of clean sharp edges on the near side with overgrown rugged native areas often looming on the far side. I found the hearts of the greens to be much milder than I anticipated for a Ross design in this region. Conversely, the green surrounds were punishingly severe. I witnessed countless balls land on the green, only to creep and crawl and eventually gain speed, violently ramping off into a catch basin. We got Ross’d. The sandy-scaped aesthetic was a bit more manicured and refined than we would see at Mid Pines and Southern Pines. Firm, fast, and very pleasing to the eye indeed.
The only downside I found is that it is a residential golf course. Houses line many of the fairways, though some holes were set apart nicely and had nothing but long-leaf pines on either side. I normally deduct more points off in my mind when there are so many homes on a golf course, but this track is just so damn good that it’s quite easy to forget about them. After post-round burgers overlooking the 18th, it was off to Pinehurst Resort for a cocktail to go from The Deuce bar and a putting match on the Thistle Du course. We tried to snag a walk up spot on The Cradle Par 3 course but it was absolutely jammed. Sad not to get to play it but it was cool to see so many others enjoying it on that unseasonably warm night. Dinner was nearby at Pinehurst Brewing Company, I don’t think the beers knocked anyone’s socks off but the atmosphere, wings and service were top notch.
Friday turned out to be my favorite day of the trip in part due to the fact that we didn’t have to step foot off the property until dinner that evening. We awoke to much cooler temps, the high would only reach the mid 50’s for our 27 hole day at Mid Pines. Thankfully, there wasn’t much wind to speak of and the sun shined bright all the way until we holed out at quarter after 5. I had done extensive research on all the courses leading up to the trip, and I really thought Mid Pines was going to be my clear cut favorite. The parkland style routing was fantastic and certain holes such as 2, 11, 15 and 18 really stood out as weekend favorites.
However, softer turf due to recent over seeding made for less enjoyable playing conditions than we found the preceding and following day. It is a fantastic golf course, one that I could be content playing every day, but I may have just set the bar a bit too high in my mind going in. We walked 18 holes for our best ball matches, and then hopped in carts to play some captain’s choice. A beautiful sunset 9 where we were more focused on beating the dark than our opponents, thankfully my group accomplished both. Beefeaters was the restaurant of choice this evening for our famished crew in search of rib eyes and red wine. This local favorite did not disappoint.
Saturday came with a frost delay. My Dad, Jeff, and I killed some time by heading over to the infamous Track Restaurant, where we took in some harness racing warm ups before our classic diner style breakfast. Then over to the Tufts Archives so I could nerd out and do a bit of architectural and historical research on some of Ross’s finest works. It turns out Southern Pines was his third ever original design, and later that day it served as a fitting finale for the Fall Classic. The grand reopening occurred just a couple of months prior, and I dare say Kyle Franz did his most impressive and extensive restorative work on this course when compared to Pine Needles and Mid Pines. If you’re looking for a swanky golf experience, you can go ahead and skip this one. The parking lot and exterior of the building send a clear message that you better be here for the golf course, not the glam. The course itself is unapologetically rugged, and drew the most contrast amongst our group in terms of favorability.
Some considered it their favorite while others placed it at the bottom of the totem pole for our trip. It has a very distinct look and feel, with drastic elevation changes on nearly every hole. Remarkably, I heard two unrelated utterances of “Pine Valley vibes” from two gents who have played PV. One was from our group and the other was a guy in the group behind us who I ended up chatting with a bit. I absolutely fell in love with this gem out of the gate, and when we came around the bend at 7 green, well that just took it to another level for me. A stunning view of 8 and the pond to the right which also borders hole 11. If you’re familiar with golf architecture templates, you’ll enjoy three great hazard holes and at least one example of a leven, a cape, and a redan at Southern Pines. Darkness began to fall quickly after that delayed start, and we had to rush our way through the home stretch. But I’ll remember the handsome par 15th fondly, along with three strong par 4’s to close it out. A common critique of a golf course is when it starts to bleed together and all look the same. Thankfully, Southern Pines does not even begin to wander into that category.
My dad Jack took home the hardware for the weekend, earning overall honors as our family’s “champion golfer of the year.” Well played, Pops. Upon reflection on this destination, I would say perhaps one goes to Pine Needles for the history, the aesthetic and the conditioning. Mid Pines for the classically designed golf holes and timeless ambiance of the Inn. Southern Pines Golf Club for the feel of being at your favorite local muni where you can traverse uniquely rugged terrain and enjoy some exceptional views along the way. That said, I hope you don’t have to choose just one, and can get around to all three sooner rather than later. Cheers to Southern Pines, North Carolina. Don’t ever change.