6,354 yards, 129 slope from the Blues

Just about 15 minutes down the road from Pinehurst in Southern Pines of all places is Southern Pines Golf Club. Originally a nine hole course built in 1906, Donald Ross expanded it to eighteen holes and made a lot of other changes in 1914. An additional nine holes were built about a decade later, which was called the Cardinal Nine. Yet there is no mention of Donald Ross being involved in that nine holes, Irving Johnson appears to have drafted the design plans while Frank Maples was the superintendent during construction. Like many of the courses in area, it started with sand greens but converted to grass in the late 1930’s. In 1951, the Elks Lodge Incorporated of Southern Pines purchased the club from the Town for just under $60,000. The Elks operated the course for the next few decades. While the clubhouse burned down in 1967, it didn’t bother the Elks all that much; they had built a new one and the old one was scheduled for demolition anyways. The course remained without significant change until 1989, when renovation work was performed on the greens, which included tiers and mounding that were a much bolder tone than the subtlety Ross incorporated with the movement of the hills. Movement of the driving range meant changes to the Cardinal nine holes, which was eventually closed in 2004 when the Elks began experiencing budgetary difficulty. The course soldiered on as a low key, affordable classic that was adored by locals. The Cardinal nine faded and the original eighteen holes remained a beloved relic in need of rejuvenation and restoration, the Elks eventually sold their interest to the management company that owns and operates Mid Pines and Pine Needles in 2020. Now part of a Southern Pines Donald Ross triumvirate, the course will get an injection of new capital, which includes significant work going on right now.

This review is essentially outdated even as I am writing it, as the course is currently undergoing a full restoration by Kyle Franz. Kyle was involved in the Number 2 restoration, as well as projects at both Mid Pines and Pine Needles, and just completed such work at Raleigh Country Club last year before starting here. His work will include lengthening, expanding the greens (as well as restoring them back from the work done to them in the late 1980’s), removing close to 700 trees, revamping bunker character and re-building the transition par 3 hole that went from the Fourth to the Fifteenth to create a nine hole loop using holes 1 – 4, the transition hole, then 15 – 18. I can’t find anything on bringing back the Cardinal nine at this point.

Initially, this was why I had not scheduled a round here, figuring I would return once the restoration was completed, but we finished our round at Number 2 early enough that even after a leisurely lunch, I had ample time to mosey on over and play the course. Save for a few gracious groups waving me through on the first few holes, I had the course to myself. The peaceful solitude made possible from the majestic pines, the juxtaposition of this course with my morning round at Number 2 was very educational. While I was taken with a mesmerized intense focus at Number 2, there was a more relaxed rhythm here among the hills. The terrain was indeed starkly different. Here, the hills are much more prevalent, the fairway slopes much stronger and steeper. More water and forced carries but nothing severely demanding. Both feature superb routings but here, one can immerse in the natural surroundings more and let the guard down a bit, all for the sake of a relaxing yet engaging round on very well designed holes. After the round, I was relieved and glad I was able to get the round in before the renovation. I’ll be able to compare the before and after but also appreciated the serenity of that late afternoon round as the course was in its own twilight, about to transform into a glorious heralded version of itself where tee times will be much tougher to come by and the woods will enjoy a lot more company. It was good to acquaint myself before all the excitement began.

If anything, this review documents what existed just before such transformation. As I’m wont to do, I’ll return to see the changes and get in some comments here and there. Still warm enough from the morning round, I skipped any kind of range or putting session and literally stepped to the First tee. Having just played one of Ross’ best a few hours prior, it was time to take in another of his classics. Instead of the polish of Number 2, I sensed all the trappings of a charming, older, slightly run down yet well designed classic, beloved by the locals. I felt right at home as I watched the ball from my tee shot parade down the hill towards the green. Apparently, it too was excited for another go.

The First is a 372 yard par 4 (from the Blues). Starting off downhill, the tees are placed towards the left, which creates more of a left to right bend in the hole. The fairway runs into the pushed up green that has a bunker on either side of it next to the entry point and runs back to front.

The First
The green, from the right

The Second is a 491 yard par 5. The gentle opener is behind us. This par 5 starts with a blind tee shot to an uphill fairway and appears narrower than the last. The fairway finally crests and plummets downhill until shooting back uphill to the green. The green side bunkers are more elaborate, the green more undulating. We are now awake.

The Second
Approach shot territory
Looking back

The Third is a 198 yard par 3. Going back downhill, the longer par 3 has plenty of room short, yet then your recovery is uphill. The bunker on the right side is deep but even those on the left are larger and craved into the hillside below the green. The trees on the right are out of place and look like they were placed there to shield tee shots from coming over to the Fourth tee. I’d anticipate this configuration being changed. The green moves with the hill, left to right and back to front. Well varied starting sequence.

The Third

The Fourth is a 392 yard par 4. Down then up, up then down; up-up-down-down-B-A-B-A-Start. The dramatic motion of the holes starts early and often. Here, the tee shot bellows down to the fairway, which then immediately climbs up to the green. Tree lines are on either side but fairway width is good. The green is the boldest we’ve seen so far; a multi-tiered diamond shape that seems to be draped over the plateau. This seems like some of the work the restoration will mellow out a bit.

At the green looking left, you can see room for a tee to an area where two greens reside, the Tenth and Fourteenth. There seems to be enough room for an additional green, perhaps this is the space where the lost green was. Part of the restoration will be reincarnating this transition hole and restoring that nine hole loop that was there many decades ago.

The Fourth
Approach shot territory
Looking back and getting a look at the bumps and rolls of the green
A longer view

The Fifth is a 542 yard par 5. The rollercoaster continues. The tee shot is to an uphill fairway that plateaus a bit before plunging down to the green while turning to the left. A few bunkers about the green and a green that widens towards its rear. Missing left of the green is better than the right because it’s on the low side and the green has plenty of movement amongst its undulations.

The Fifth
Moving down the fairway
Short approach, from the right

The Sixth is a 423 yard par 4. A forced carry tee shot over water to a fairway that swerves to the right. Like the Fifth but more subdued, the fairway then descends and rests into the green. A wide entry point and ready to receive an array of shots into it, we are now into the recesses of the wooded sand hills and I was enjoying every second of it.

The Sixth
Approach shot territory

The Seventh is a 168 yard par 3. The green is uphill from the tee with a steep fall off on the short left side. There is room to miss off to the right and short right but the green and pin will be tempting to just go for it. Nicely set on the ridge with a great angle in.

The Seventh
Looking back

The Eighth is a 375 yard par 4. A slight dog leg right moving downhill towards the largest lake on the property. The fairway tilts to the right and a lone bunker on the right side is effective at being in the just the right place. The fairways that rest down into the greens were one of my favorite aspects of the course. This allows angles to have their rightful place in determining advantageous strategy, depending on whether you’re looking for an aerial or lower profile approach into them. This hole is a great example of that, where one can use the movement of the green to their pleasure, depending on the approach decided upon.

The Eighth
Approach shot territory
Looking back

The Ninth is a 185 yard par 3. A forced carry par 3 over water, bunkers about the front on the sides with a nice entry point remaining. A nice way to end the front nine. The tee shot must be pretty exacting to land between and past the bunkers yet there is plenty of room to miss short of the green. Commit and go on.

The Ninth
Off to the right
Short of the green

The front nine has a nice mixture of holes that use the terrain well and avoid the repetition that many designs fall into when dealing with hills either vertically or horizontally. Well varied and mindful that the terrain and pines are more than enough a lot of the time, restraint with bunkers was a great decision. I would rank them 8, 6, 5, 2, 7, 4, 9, 3, 1.

The back nine starts with the 335 yard par 4 Tenth. Circling the lake, it remains on our right side as we traverse a ridge line that tilts towards the water as we gently climb to the green. The left to right movement dominates the decisions here, as well as the green that’s pushed up a ways from the fairway all while maintaining a nice apron leading up to it. It was a hole I enjoyed immensely.

The Tenth, short approach
Looking back

The Eleventh is a 315 yard par 4. A short par 4 arching to the right, the tee shot offers a popping balance of temptation while the sensible shot is staring you directly in the face. Of course the adventure in us will want to slash away as far as possible, the green seemingly in grasp if we just cut the left side a bit. The water is now on our right once again , the fairway again moves left to right towards it, so those trying to flirt with the right side may get much more than they bargained for. The green is above the fairway and the shorter length of the hole ensures a short iron or wedge for those off the green. The back nine asserts itself with a very solid start.

A story that will interest no one but myself, No Laying Up documented their round here and there was a scene where one of the golfers slipped and almost tripped as he was walking in the pine straw down to the green. I slipped in the exact same point in the same manner, unintentionally and unaware of the coincidence at the time. That pine straw is out for blood.

The Eleventh
Short of the water
Short approach

The Twelfth is a 419 yard par 4. Moving uphill, trees line both sides of the fairway with some sandy pan underneath while a left to right roll takes hold all the way up to the green. A couple green side bunkers are one either side near the front of the green while the green itself moves from back to front. I could hear cheering in the background near the green, which I felt was odd with the solitude I assumed I was in. Looking off behind the green, there was a cross country meet going on, the runners on the abandoned Cardinal Nine that is back and to the left of the green here. Growing up with distance running and having run a few golf courses during meets, including Stanford well before I had any inkling for the game, I wondered if any of those runners knew the history of their route. I don’t know what’s in store for the Cardinal Nine, if anything, but if it remains for those to enjoy through other means of sport, then I suppose it’s an acceptable alternative to the splendid golf it likely yielded before.

The Twelfth
Approach shot territory
Looking back

The Thirteenth is a 400 yard par 4. Back down we go, the Cardinal now to our right beyond the tree line. The trees assert their presence a bit more here than the last and the tee shot really must be a precise one to take advantage of the downhill fairway. There are no bunkers around the green; only contours and the hillside. The drop off behind the green makes for a thrilling approach where the mounding complicates a seemingly safer ground shot, yet the movement and hillside make aerial shots precarious. Lots of fun to be had.

The Thirteenth
Approach shot territory
The front of the green

The Fourteenth is a 175 yard par 3. A forced carry over water to a green that moves form left to right. The green is one that was changed from its original Ross shaping and those who smartly play up the left will tempt the bunkers on that side as well as some mounding and tiers of the green. Lots of room for the shot as we’ve seen with the other par 3’s but a good deal of accuracy is needed to scare the pin. A good yin and yang template for par 3’s in general.

The Fourteenth
From the short left

The Fifteenth is a 481 yard par 5. Straightaway, Ross actually had the tees up a bit and to the right, making this more of a dog leg right than it is now (or was). As we have seen, there aren’t a whole lot of fairway bunkers and that holds true here. The main defenses are the contours and the trees, but I imagine the trees will be gone in several areas when I return. The green is above the fairway and made for some interest in the approach while I enjoyed the green and its gentle subtlety amongst larger creaking swales.

Moving up the fairway
Looking back

The Sixteenth is a 316 yard par 4. A short par 4 moving uphill with a little left to right curve. No fairway bunkers but a couple near the front of the green to guard against the long hitters and instill variety with the approach. I had another a-ha moment here with my swing, as my iron seemed to show me how to hit it. It suddenly felt so natural and from this point on in the trip and even to this day, the shorter irons have been a joy. I often think of my approach into this green, from the left side of the fairway.

The Sixteenth
Approach shot territory

The Seventeenth is a 418 yard par 4. A downhill fairway canting right to left and yet again there are no fairway bunkers. The long green side bunker on the left, however, signals to the golfer that an approach from the left might be best, so using the fairway tilt off the tee makes sense. The entry point of the green switches directions and moves left to right off that bunker, so those deciding to come in off the ground will likely find the right side more accommodating. Simplistic presentation, yet versatile as can be.

The Seventeenth
Approach shot territory

The Eighteenth is a 350 yard par 4. Uphill all the way, we climb the same hill we delighted in bounding down at the First. The tree line on the left is directly ahead of us while the fairway is off to the right. We need the ball to clear the left tree line yet get as close as possible to the green due to the incline, so the line off the tee needs to serve these dueling needs. The green sits high above the fairway, a sudden ascent, with two large deep bunkers on either side at its front. The First tee is steps away from the final green, once again looking down on the course, while sounds of the clubhouse make their way to you.

It was great to get acquainted with Southern Pines and we agreed that our next visit would be under different circumstances yet enjoyed it all the same.

The Eighteenth
Approach shot territory
Just short to get perspective on just how much the green rises from the fairway

The back nine does not start back at the clubhouse, but rather continues in the depths of the woods. A strong starting sequence that never lets up with its interest and variety, melding with strong terrain that could have got away from lesser designers. The collection of par 4’s were spectacular and really stood out. I would rank them 10, 17, 11, 13, 18, 16, 15, 12, 14.

Generally, Southern Pines is a well designed classic that some how brings a clever subtlety to hilly terrain. There are no flat holes here yet one is more focused on using the contours and movement for their shots more than awkward lies and searching for more level ground for a comfortable shot. It’s also easy to fall into a rote with the hills, leaving greens perched on hills or drop shots from elevated tees, but here we stay close to the ground most of the time and so much attention is paid to the angles and terrain movement with the placement of entry points and a scant bunker or two that the constant hills and slopes never feel like a penance. Removal of trees is surely a priority here, as wayward tee shots quickly meet some tragic consequences where it seems the terrain could actually make those a lot more interesting. I actually enjoyed the greens even though they had been changed, so I’ll be interested to see how their larger size and shapes impact the approaches. The lack of fairway bunkers seemed like wise restraint but perhaps many were removed by the Elks as a cost saving measure, as part of the restoration will be building the type of bunkerscapes Franz utilized at Mid Pines.

As my first foray in Southern Pines, the juxtaposition with the Pinehurst courses is terrific. Southern Pines is more rustic with a general evergreen mountainous feel to it and it became evident very quickly the two areas thrive in different yet complementary geography despite their proximity. I was glad at my fortune of having played Southern Pines before its transformation and to experience the area sooner rather than later.

Pro shop/Clubhouse: A modest room in the clubhouse with a few shorts and hats, along with this room adjacent to the locker room, overlooking the driving range I believe.

Practice Area: I skipped all of it to get on with the golf but they have a range and putting green. I suspect there’s a short game area as well, lurking around some where. Also, I think the current project will enhance the practice areas as well.