Hidden Golf Gems in the PiedmontHickory Metro Convention and Visitors BureauRock Barn Golf & Spa in ConoverThere’s nothing golf pilgrims enjoy more than uncovering a hidden gem – a course that is special because of its history, design, location or general demeanor, but not well known by the masses.It’s difficult to believe a course that hosts an annual Champions Tour event would qualify as a hidden gem, but the Jones course at Rock Barn Golf & Spa near Hickory is definitely one. Most players think they like to test their skills against the best players on the PGA Champions Tour, regardless of whether you’re north or south of age 50. But chances are slim to none you’d ever survive a qualifying round, because although those guys may be graying, they’re still really, really good. And the unfortunate truth is that most of the tournaments are played on exclusive courses inaccessible to the average golfer.However, at Rock Barn you can challenge the same holes that annually confront a stellar Champions Tour field on a layout styled by the internationally respected Robert Trent Jones Jr. The graceful design takes full advantage of the rolling terrain with elevation changes, towering trees and abundant water providing plenty of suspense.The course ranks as a favorite of the competitors on the Champions Tour and receives high marks from everyone else who ventures out on it. The North Carolina Golf Panel, for example, ranks the Jones course in the top 20 of its annual Top 100 list of the state’s best and in the top 10 among mountain links. Not to mention that Rock Barn’s other course is a tidy Tom Jackson creation that also guarantees a great time.Similarly, the always well-regarded Championship course at Tanglewood Park near Winston-Salem was host to the 1974 PGA Championship won by Lee Trevino and the 1986 USGA Amateur Public Links won by PGA Tour player Billy Mayfair. This is a layout that might bring out the champion in you or leave you shaking your head.Mill Creek Golf Club in Mebane, located between Burlington and Durham, is always in good shape and is a treat for all players. This course is a beauty, meandering through natural areas that contain creeks and streams that used to fuel an old grist mill that remains on the property today.Keith Hills Country Club in Buies Creek, between Fayetteville and Raleigh, has two layouts, but you want to focus on the older one. With large bent grass greens and rolling fairways in a picturesque setting on the Cape Fear River, this Ellis Maples design might be THE hidden gem in North Carolina.Yes, both Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill are perennial basketball powerhouses, but these two universities also can offer up top-notch golf facilities. The impeccable design of the course at Duke University Golf Club reflects the belief of its creator, Robert Trent Jones Sr., that the holes were there just waiting to be grassed over and enjoyed. Over in Chapel Hill, Tom Fazio provides an enjoyable links layout at UNC Finley Golf Club where the risk-reward aspects are reasonable in keeping with the designer’s commitment to playability for everyone.If you venture toward Pinehurst, the locals might let you in on the secret of Southern Pines Golf Club, a creation of the venerable Donald Ross, where it’s not the length but the required shots that guarantee fun.And if you’re in need of a golfing thrill ride, you need look no further than Tobacco Road Golf Club where the late, great Mike Strantz let his imagination run wild. Often named among the toughest courses in the country, most players who’ve braved it will clue you in that it’s intimidating visually but offers a good time and test.