The good thing about being a golfer in the South is that you’re close to some of the best golfing in the country. Here are some Southeastern courses worth checking, not only for the links but what else these clubs and resorts have to offer.
Alabama: almost heaven for golfers
Some of the nation’s best golf is in Alabama. Ross Bridge outside Birmingham and Grand National in Opelika are each part of the popular Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, and Golf Digest editors selected both last year as the top golf resorts in the Southeast. They also have named the Ross Bridge course one of the toughest in the nation, being “impossibly long with enormous greens and bunkers” and the kind that “Trent would be building if he were still alive.” Renowned golf course architect Robert Trent Jones (he went by Trent), who died at 93 in 2000, designed and redesigned courses on every continent except Antarctica, and was fond of bragging, “the sun never sets on a Robert Trent Jones golf course.”
The Trail in Alabama was among his last projects, and he considered it his final masterpiece. Accolades began pouring in shortly after the first 18 courses opened, with the New York Times calling it “some of the best public golf on earth” and the Wall Street Journal proclaiming it “may be the best bargain in the country.” Now up to 26 courses, the Trail boasts 468 holes at 11 locations. Many also have full-service resort hotels and spa facilities, including the two mentioned above as well as the Lakewood site at Point Clear on Mobile Bay. This idyllic coastal location is also home to The Grand Hotel, open since 1847 and listed as one of the Historic Hotels of America. The Grand Hotel is open but undergoing major renovations slated to be complete in May. The Dogwood course at Lakewood is undergoing renovations and will reopen in June. The Grand National is so popular that the Marriott hotel there is doubling its occupancy capacity with the new areas expected to be open by May.
Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail: 1-800-949-4444 (reservations); www.rtjgolf.com.
Yes, you can play Augusta (just not Augusta National)
It’s a dream of any golfer to play at Augusta National Golf Club, home to the Masters tournament the first week of each April. Unless you have very good, well-heeled connections, your odds of playing there are slim to none. Augusta National is a private, ultra-exclusive club open to members only, except for that one week each year when it allows the public to watch the pros play. But Augusta is still a golf town worthy of play year-round at other notable links. Chief among them is the course at nearby Forest Hills. Established in 1926, the club is older than Augusta National, which opened for play in 1933. Golf legend and Atlanta native Bobby Jones, the founder of Augusta National, won the Southeastern Open here in 1930, the same year the amateur won all four majors during his amazing Grand Slam season. Many other greats have competed and won at Forest Hills, a public course now owned and operated by Augusta University. The original course was designed by Donald Ross, who also designed the original Pinehurst courses, and renovated by the Arnold Palmer Company in 2004.
Augusta is a military town and the site of Fort Gordon, home to Gordon Lakes Golf Club, which is open to the public and offers discounted play for active-duty service members and military retirees. Gordon Lakes has one 18-hole course and one short course. The 18-hole course was designed by none other than Robert Trent Jones and opened in 1976. Even if you aren’t in the military or a veteran, the greens fees here are some of the most affordable anywhere.
Both courses are open during Masters Week.
Forest Hills Golf Club: 1500 Comfort Rd., Augusta. 706-733-0001; www.theforesthillsgolfcourse.com.
Gordon Lakes Golf Club: 537 Range Rd., Fort Gordon. 706-791-2433; www.fortgordon.com/programs/leisure/activities/gordon-lakes.
Pinehurst: a sandy and historic golfing paradise
Called the “cradle of American golf,” Pinehurst has a long history as a golf destination. The first course was laid out in 1897. It proved so popular they kept adding courses. Today there are nine 18-hole championship courses, the most famous being Pinehurst No. 2 where many major championships have been held since the early 20th century. Pinehurst Resort sits in the rolling Sandhills region of North Carolina. You may feel like you’re at the coast when playing Pinehurst due to all the white sand and wiregrass around you. The golf resort and adjacent Village at Pinehurst are part of a National Historic Landmark district that includes three historic hotels, all renovated and upgraded to modern standards.
In late 2017, Pinehurst opened the tenth course of its collection, a short course where the original course was laid out in 1897. Appropriately named The Cradle, the nine-hole Gil Hanse-designed course has become a favorite among regulars. Hanse is also redesigning Pinehurst No. 4, a massive project slated to be completed by next October that will open up the “sandscape” elements of the natural topography, bringing it back in line with the original vision of Pinehurst.
In 2024, the No. 2 course will once again host the U.S. Open, which it hosted in 2014, 2005 and 1999.
Pinehurst Resort: 80 Carolina Vista Dr., Pinehurst. 855-235-8507; www.pinehurst.com.
High Hampton Resort: scenic mountain retreat for golfers and non-golfers
Like Pinehurst, High Hampton Resort is its own historic district, listed in the National Register of Historic Places. A spring-through-fall family retreat in the Blue Ridge mountains of western North Carolina, it has been drawing visitors since the early 1930s to its rustic, gabled wooden lodge on Hampton Lake. Unlike Pinehurst, golf isn’t the primary draw to this mountain locale with only one course, but what a scenic course it is, cradled by stone-faced mountain peaks in Cashiers Valley. It’s one of the prettiest golf courses within close driving distance of Atlanta (2.5 hours from downtown). Realizing the potential to become more noteworthy on the radar of out-of-town golfers, the resort is redesigning its course with the help of acclaimed architect Tom Fazio to bring it up to championship caliber. If you’re looking for a golf resort that will also appeal to family members who may be completely uninterested in golf, High Hampton specializes in that, especially if you have young children. The activities are endless and the vibe for kids is more summer camp than stuffy resort. Generations of families have vacationed here. While the course redesign goes through 2018, nine holes are open for play, and there’s a new Skills Challenge area with a PGA pro on hand to help you work on your chipping, driving and putting skills.
High Hampton Resort: 1525 Highway 107 S., Cashiers, N.C. 800-334-2551; www.highhamptonresort.com.
Primland: golf by day, stargazing at night
Uniquely situated on a high, remote and rolling plateau in the mountains of southwestern Virginia, Primland’s Highland course, which opened for play in 2006, ranks among the most scenic and compelling in the South. Rather than cradled in a valley, as most mountain links are, Primland is on top of the mountain with breathtaking, long-range views at nearly every turn. It feels akin to golfing on top of the world. Award-winning golf writer James Dodson says of the Highland Course, “it’s the most rewarding modern course I’ve seen … It’s a course not designed to sell fairway homes, but for the pure experience of golf. Aesthetically and athletically, it doesn’t disappoint.” The resort on 12,000 acres also offers a plethora of other outdoor activities by day and stargazing by night. Its altitude and remoteness mean the skies are free of light pollution. Guests can observe the stars through the giant, rotating telescope at the Observatory Dome attached to the main lodge and disguised as a grain silo. There’s even a resident astronomer.
Primland: 2000 Busted Rock Rd., Meadows of Dan. 866-960-7746; primland.com.