College hoops, outstanding golf, and incredible Carolina BBQ – who in their right mind would pass up an opportunity for a long weekend in North Carolina? I certainly didn’t. The chance to play at two of the most revered golf courses in the nation, a college basketball game, and Tar Heels at the ‘Dean Dome’ in Chapel Hill – cue the goosebumps!
A short drive from the Raleigh-Durham airport, in the town of Sanford sits one of golf’s true works of art. Tobacco Road, designed by Mike Strantz, opened in 1998 to rave reviews. Named by Golf Magazine as the Best New Course in North Carolina, critics described it as ‘sensory overload’ with ‘drop-dead signature holes’. Tobacco Road surpasses its reputation right from the first tee. Towering sand mounds positioned to both the left and right draw your focus to what looks like a mere sliver of fairway gently resting between them. But that is not your target. A solid tee shot will easily clear the mounds, opening up to an extremely generous landing area. Such is the theme for a round at Tobacco Road.
I was fortunate enough to be paired with some locals who had played ‘The Road’ a number of times and quickly realized how important that local knowledge was to helping me manage my way around this thoroughly enjoyable test. Several holes require not only good shot-making, but a fair amount of imagination as well. There are some wonderful opportunities to exercise your ‘risk reward’ factor here. Both the short-ish par four 5th and 16th holes will tempt you where playing it safe seems like an obvious choice. You can pull out the driver, but watch out for the cavernous bunkers and extreme runoff areas that lurk greenside. Take a shortcut down the left side of the par five 4th hole, and you will have an easy hybrid in to reach the surface in two…as long as you are not fazed by the 185 yard carry over a massive waste area!
There are large expanses of waste bunkers everywhere, most colored in a deep auburn hue that is indigenous to this area. Foreboding yes, but they really capture the character of this fabulous property and frame a number of the holes beautifully.
Mike Strantz’ award winning design is worthy of its place in Golf Digest’s Top 100 courses in America. His use of the natural terrain and abandoned sand quarry is brilliant, creating spectacular golf holes out of what would appear to be virtually nothing. Some have referred to The Road as ‘quirky’, but it definitely puts fun back into the game. With extremely challenging greens that feature severe undulations, you had better bring your “A” game to ‘The Road’. This is a definite must play for anyone visiting the Sandhills region.
On route from Sanford to Pinehurst, we dropped in for a visit at the Pik ‘N’ Pig. A small, rustic BBQ restaurant located just south of nowhere, the Pik ‘N’ Pig boasts its own fully functioning airfield that allows guests to literally ‘drop in’ for some BBQ — puts a whole new spin on the meaning of drive-through! During our visit we witnessed the ‘dine and fly’ appeal of this stop via a group of customers waiting for their ride on the runway after lunch.
At first glance, the Pig ‘N’ Pig comes across a little rough around the edges, but I have learned long ago not to let appearances fool you and was thoroughly delighted with this dining choice. The flavours of the Smoked Chicken and tenderness of the Beef Brisket was unbelievable, coupled with their own signature Carolina Sauce, all made for an exceptional meal. Travelers note: insist on trying the house made Jalapeno butter on your corn muffins for something really special.
Day 2 found us at the cradle of American golf – Pinehurst. The main resort and clubhouse is home to five of the nine courses at Pinehurst, and checking in with the Caddie Master is an experience all its own. The Caddie shack is alive with organized chaos – players, caddies, clubs and carts are quickly matched and dispensed. Before you know it, you find yourself standing beside the bronze statue of Payne Stewart, immortalized in that famous victory pose from his 1999 US Open win.
In a single beat, the chaos turns to calm and comfort and feels remarkably inspirational. The mystique that is Pinehurst is perfectly captured at that moment. ‘America’s First Golf Resort’ has been the playground for the well heeled and affluent for well over a century. Its majestic buildings and grounds remind one of a different time, relaxing and gentle mannered. Pinehurst has been home to several United States Open Championships, as well as Ryder Cup and PGA Championships. It boasts architects like Fazio, Jones, Nicklaus, Maples, and of course the forefather of American golf course design, Donald Ross. The Number 2 course was designed by Ross in 1908, and is perennially ranked in the Top 100 (#9 for nearly two decades) by Golf Digest. It recently played host to both the Men and Women’s 2014 US Opens.
This masterpiece is widely regarded as one of the truest tests of golf anywhere, and today I am filled with both excitement and anxiety as I take a few warm up swings on the practice range. Standing on the vast putting green adjacent to the first tee I immediately discover just how quick they are, although not nearly as fast as what the USGA would have had them at a few months earlier.
First, let me say that any opening tee shot can be very intimidating. The first hole at #2 has a generous landing area and great targets for visualization. But this is Pinehurst, and the adrenalin is on high. My opening volley thankfully finds the middle of the 1st fairway, and we’re off! It is time to relish the moment and meet the challenge.
The fairways here are carved out of waste areas that seem endless, and although they are framed by towering Carolina Pines, those trees are not really in play. There is little or no rough to speak of. The hardpan waste areas are fair to play from, but there are numerous clumps of native wiregrass and pine needles dotted throughout that will grab your ball. The course itself was in magnificent condition, its pristine beauty evident everywhere in stark contrast to what was viewed during the Opens. (Note: The USGA had wanted to recreate the firmness and coloration of what the golf course was like in its original state before modern irrigation and agronomy practices).
The greens were perfect…and diabolical. Ross’ signature turtle-back design comes into play on every one, and the ball will run off if your spin is not controlled leaving nasty pitches back to tiny targets. The severe undulations require you to play away from the pin and consider the roll out to keep the ball below the hole, or even on the surface! Even with my Caddy Nick’s outstanding green reading and recommendations, I found myself in a 3-putt situation way too often.
Ross’ jewel stands the test of time. His use of the natural terrain is spectacular, and has very little changes in elevation so walking the course is a unique pleasure. Every hole here is worthy of a postcard. I was totally immersed in the aura and legend, and soon my quality of play was irrelevant. Do not get me wrong, I still managed to score fairly well, but that did not seem to matter. I was playing at Pinehurst, walking where legends walked and playing the game we all love at its finest.
A visit to Pinehurst is not complete without a stroll through the clubhouse. The history of golf in the Americas is captured in the hundreds of photographs and articles that adorn the walls. There are a variety of dining options in the main clubhouse including the Donald Ross Grill, aptly named for the course designer, who also served as Head Professional and Grill Manager during his tenure at Pinehurst. While I thoroughly enjoyed the Tin Whistle Cobb Salad, I must admit my favourite meal was definitely the Lobster Crab Cake Sliders with papaya slaw that I enjoyed fireside later that night in the Ryder Cup Lounge.
Tough to top the experiences of the last two days, but Day 3 takes me in a whole new direction. Having never been to an NCAA basketball game, I was not sure what to expect. I have been a basketball fan for all of my adult life, and specifically a North Carolina fan. Wanting to partake in the essential Carolina basketball experience, a stop at the Original Q Shack for pregame BBQ was a must. I immediately discovered why this unassuming little restaurant is so popular. The rib and pulled chicken combo was mouth watering; the ‘His’ (Carolina style) and ‘My’ (Texas style) sauces were outstanding; and the atmosphere was sensational. The community style seating outside on the patio with some of Carolina’s avid fans, and a really great selection of local and imported micro-brews really topped it off. North Carolina is home to over 100 breweries and an annual beer festival each April, so these are a must try when visiting the Tar Heel State.
Walking into the Dean Smith Center for the first time is awe-inspiring. The remarkable history of Carolina basketball envelops you with numerous reminders of all of the National Championships won and banners hanging alongside Michael Jordan’s retired jersey. The buzz and excitement is electric. Watching the stadium swarm with what seems to be all alumni, you really feel part of the team. The student body lining up for first come-first served seating in the Student Only section, and the back and forth banter and challenges with the band seated in the opposite corner adds to the excitement. The game turns out to be very one-sided for the home team, and the raucous crowd could not be happier.
Leaving the stadium post game, we are treated to a wonderful surprise. On game nights, the streets in and out of the stadium are essentially closed, but the ‘Tar Heel Express’ (a cavalcade of city buses) is ready to take you to any number of drop-off points for a nominal charge. The five-minute ride found us on Franklin Street for a quick bite at a campus favourite, Sup Dogs. Here you will get a real sense of what college life is like at UNC. For under $6 you can enjoy a specialty dog and fries and pay only a dollar more for an extra dog. As an added bonus, a pint will only set you back $2. My ‘Firehouse’ dog was awesome, with a mixture of chilli, hot sauce and peppers. The crowd at the restaurant was celebrating the big win, and although it was loud, it certainly was not obnoxious – great fun for everyone.
Following a memorable evening, a short stroll along campus streets found us at the historic Carolina Inn, our home for the night. Set amidst storied buildings, the Carolina Inn is in the heart of Tar Heel territory. As one of the only hotels on campus, it is no wonder why this 90-year old property is a favourite among alumni who return every year to cheer on their alma mater.
Overall, this three-day getaway to North Carolina was unforgettable to say the least. With some of the best golf anywhere in the world, truly unique food experiences and the excitement of college sports, I can’t wait to get back and enjoy a little more Carolina dreaming on the Tar Heel Express.