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As you might expect from a place that bills itself as the "Home of American Golf," Pinehurst, N.C., takes the game seriously. That's why USAir, which until recently flew into Pinehurst, instructed its baggage handlers that if they ran out of room in the cargo hold they should leave luggage - not golf clubs - behind.
That's why "Golf Cart Crossing" signs seem to outnumber stop signs in and around the golf communities interspersed with the areas 40-plus courses.
And that's why a stay at Pinehurst reminded golf pro Tom Watson of a quote he once heard: "Golf is not a matter of life and death to these people. It's more important than that."
Most locals say that's a slight exaggeration. But there is a single-mindedness about the game in Pinehurst that tends to set it apart from other top golf destinations.
"Golf is such a part of the everyday lifestyle here," says Jim Streckfus, golf pro at the Country Club of Whispering Pines. "I think golf comprises a much larger part of the area's consciousness than any other destination - possibly with the exception of St. Andrews."
In 2000, Golf Digest magazine rated Pinehurst the third-best golf destination in the world - behind only hallowed St. Andrews in Scotland and Pebble Beach in California. More recently, it declared that Pinehurst offered the best golf in the nation.
"There are other places with great golf, but it's just one part, not all-consuming," says Pat Corso, president of The Pinehurst Companies, which operates the Pinehurst Resorts and its eight golf courses. "No one is committed to its traditions and passion for the game as this resort community."
Most of the courses in the Pinehurst area - known locally as the Sandhills - are in southern Moore County in south-central North Carolina. The games top golf course architects are all represented here, including Donald Ross, Rees and Robert Trent Jones, Arnold Palmer, Tom Fazio, Gene Hamm, Ellis and Dan Maples, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player.
The spiritual core of the area is the Pinehurst Resort - the world's largest golf resort - and Pinehurst Village, a charming turn-of-the-century town. The village was founded as a health retreat in 1895 by Boston soda fountain magnate James W. Tufts and designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, whose projects included New York City's Central Park.
The village looks much as it did more than 100 years ago, with its winding, tree-lined streets combining New England simplicity with Southern charm. When the azaleas, magnolias, dogwood and camellias are in bloom, its beauty is dazzling.
Golf, which draws about 750,000 visitors a year to the area, is the main attraction. But tourists also are lured by its history and tradition, its mild climate and a serene beauty punctuated by its shimmering longleaf pines and rolling hills.
Some golfers also are drawn to Pinehurst's refreshing lack of ostentation.
Although there is more wealth in Pinehurst than there was 10 years ago, it's not "showy money," says Tom Stewart, a former golf pro and owner of a golf memorabilia shop in Pinehurst Village. "It's more important what your handicap is than how much money you have."
Pinehurst was put on the golf map by Ross, a golf course architect lured to the area in 1900 from Dornich, Scotland. He built the first four Pinehurst courses over the next 20 years and went on to design more than 500, becoming one of the most influential golf course architects in the history of the game.
He redesigned the original course before building the first nine holes of legendary Pinehurst No. 2 - consistently rated one of the top 10 courses in the world and the site of Payne Stewart's dramatic 12-foot putt on the 18th that gave him the 1999 U.S. Open title over Phil Mickelson. Stewart's triumphant fist-pump gesture is now immortalized near the 18th green with a life-size bronze statue.
Ross considered No. 2 to be his true masterpiece. Like many courses in the Pinehurst area, the fairways are open, but the greens are crowned and typically protected with false fronts and large bunkers.
A ninth Pinehurst course - deferred because of the impact of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the economy and tourism - is expected to be ready when the U.S. Open returns to Pinehurst in 2005, Corso says.
To play its courses, you must be a guest at the resort or be staying at one of the many houses and condos available for rent that have golf privileges.
Unlike many other courses in the region, the Pinehurst Resorts aren't for those on a tight budget. Pinehurst 2 has the second-highest green fees in the nation - $320 a round - and three other Pinehurst courses cost more than $200. Off season, you can play any of the other four outstanding layouts for $125.
Other courses worth trying if money isn't an issue include Pine Needles, a Ross-designed course that hosted the U.S. Womens Open in 1996 and 2001, and will host it again in 2007; Mid-Pines, the only Ross-designed course in the area whose holes are in the same location as they were when the course first opened, in 1921; and Pinewild, a 36-hole layout.
Most courses in the Pinehurst area are affordable and open to the general public. The best times for bargains are winter and summer, when 18 holes and a cart can be had for under $40.
Excellent package deals are available through many of the area's nearly 20 hotels, and reduced rates are available for seniors. Most courses offer substantial discounts for 2 p.m. or later tee times and coupons abound. Many courses also allow you to walk, reducing fees even further and giving you full benefit of the fresh air and exercise.
Some of the best layouts include Legacy, Little River, Hyland Hills, the Pit and Talamore, which has more sand than the Outer Banks and a llama (named Dollie, of course) available for caddying during the cooler months. Dollie, it should be noted, doesn't work cheaply; her fee is $100 per player.
If your game isn't exactly where you want it, Pinehurst and Pine Needles both have exceptional golf schools, and most courses have pros that can help straighten out your slice and teach you how to blast your way out of a sand trap - something that comes in handy in Pinehurst.
When you aren't golfing, you might want to sample Pinehurst's history. Its past can best be appreciated by strolling through Pinehurst Village, which has scores of stores and homes built before 1900. Its the nations first golf-oriented resort and community to be designated a national historical landmark.
Historical photos and displays can be glimpsed at many of the town's inns, golf memorabilia stores and the main clubhouse at Pinehurst. The Tufts Archives at Givens Memorial Library in Pinehurst has more than 125,000 historical photo negatives in its collection. It also has Olmsted's draft sketches of Pinehurst Village, and documents and memorabilia charting the growth and development of the village and Pinehurst area.
"I really don't know of anyone short of the USGA that has what we have," says archivist Khris Januzik.
The area has plenty of other diversions for those who don't golf - or prefer not to do it every waking hour - including tennis, horseback riding, fishing and antiquing.
IF YOU GO
GETTING THERE: Pinehurst is in south-central North Carolina, about 45 miles northwest of Fayetteville, 70 miles southwest of Raleigh, 100 miles east of Charlotte and 80 miles south of Greensboro. It's about an hour's drive from the Fayetteville airport and about 11/2 hours from Raleigh-Durham Airport, which offers more frequent flights. Easterners with lots of spare time on their hands can take Amtrak's Silver Service, which arrives in nearby Southern Pines at 11:46 a.m. from points north; from New York City, it's a 12-hour trip. Amtrak's northbound ramble, a redeye special, leaves Southern Pines at 3:32 a.m. Yes, a.m.
GETTING AROUND: Given Pinehurst's relative remoteness, a car is needed if only to get you to and from an airport. A car also is essential if you want to sample some of the Sandhills' 43 courses, and its restaurants. Most major rental companies operate out of the nearby airports, and in the Pinehurst area. Shop around for the best deal; prices tend to be on the high side.
LODGING: Pinehurst has a wide range of accommodations, from luxury home and condo rentals, to old inns, to budget motels representing most major chains. The Pinehurst Resort has three inns - The Carolina, The Manor and Holly Inn - and condos. A three-day, two-night package that includes breakfast, dinner and unlimited golf runs about $1,000 per person. Without golf, rates begin at $700. Pine Crest Inn offers an in-season standard room rate of $90 per person a night for a double. Budget motels offer room rates as low as $39 a night and very affordable golf packages.
DINING: The Pinehurst area offers a variety of dining options, from all-you-can eat $7.99 buffets at the Golden Corral to haute-cuisine at the Holly Inn's 1895 Room.
Start off the day with scrumptious pancakes, waffles or French toast at any of three Mac's Breakfast Anytime restaurants. Doors open at 6 a.m. to accommodate those with early tee times.
For great prime ribs, try Tripps Restaurant & Tavern; the best seafood choice is Shuckers at the Pines.
For Italian, Vitos Ristorante & Pizzeria in Southern Pines is a popular choice; its excellent veal parmesan fills the entire plate.
For atmosphere and good food, The Pine Crest Inn, which limits its menu to six nightly specials (try the
pork chops or salmon, and strawberry shortcake), and the Magnolia Inn in Pinehurst Village both are good choices. The Pine Crest also has Mr. B's bar, an institution that has drawn many of golfing's greats.
The only place in the Pinehurst area where jackets are required is Pinehurst Resort's Carolina Dining Room. (Jackets are "requested" at the Holly Inn.)
WHEN TO GO: Peak season is mid-March through mid-May, and mid-September through mid-November. Typically, North Carolina's fall lasts a month longer and its spring begins a month earlier than in the East and Midwest. It rarely snows in North Carolina, and courses remain open and playable year-round. The average daily highs in December, January and February are 54 to 57 degrees. For great weather and rate, try late May and early June, and early September.
INFORMATION: Pinehurst Convention & Visitors Bureau: www.homeofgolf.com, for accommodations, golf, activities, rates, online booking for Pinehurst Village, Southern Pines and Aberdeen area.
Sandhills Golf Association: sandhillsgolf.com, lists golf courses, golf packages and can book tee times online.
Sandhills Online: www.sandhillsonline.com, for golf, shopping, equestrian events, health care, real estate, business directory, community information.
The Pinehurst Resort: www.Pinehurst.com.