Dream 18: Top-Rated North Carolina Golf Courses You Can Play
With its wealth of golf opportunities, North Carolina can offer every player a chance to step onto a top-level course, whether it’s on the coast, in the mountains or somewhere in between.
Here are the 18 top-ranked courses open to the public, based on the North Carolina Golf Panel’s 2019 top courses you can play:
1 Pinehurst No. 2
1 Pinehurst No. 2PinehurstSee on map
The venerable Pinehurst No. 2 refuses to relinquish the top spot, having perched on high since the first Golf Panel list in 1995. The Donald Ross masterpiece accepts the challenge of any and all players, and seldom gives in, even to top professionals. In fact, No. 2 hosted both the men’s and women’s U.S. Open Championships in June 2014, which means you can test your skills on the same layout as the pros. To get the full experience and possibly improve your score, let one of the resort’s capable caddies guide you.
2 Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club
2 Pine Needles Lodge & Golf ClubSouthern PinesSee on map
Ask most members of the Golf Panel, and you’ll likely hear Pine Needles characterized as one of those special courses you wouldn’t mind playing every day. A wonderfully fair Donald Ross classic, this is a meandering trip among the pines that always delivers pleasure, but requires full attention to every shot. A favorite of female players, Pine Needles hosted the women’s U.S. Open Championships in 1996, 2001 and 2007, and will do so again in 2022.
And part of the same resort is another Ross gem, Mid Pines Golf Club (see the 5th-place ranking).
3 Pinehurst No. 8
3 Pinehurst No. 8PinehurstSee on map
Tom Fazio carved this gem out of the rolling, sandy terrain just outside the village, paying homage to Donald Ross with the characteristic swales, slopes and false fronts that mark the master’s work. Graced with the playability that makes Fazio a favorite of the average player, the course is also very walkable, another blessing in these days of lengthy layouts. Reflecting its beautiful natural setting, No. 8 was the first project in North Carolina to achieve certification through the Audubon International Signature Program.
4 Pinehurst No. 4
4 Pinehurst No. 4PinehurstSee on map
Redesigned in 2018 by renowned golf course architect Gil Hanse, Pinehurst No. 4 is a companion to No. 2, but it’s not a tribute to it. Hanse returned the original landscape to the course, making it an expression of classic Carolinas Sandhills golf with its slopes and greens locations, giving the golfer the chance to contemplate different approaches to each hole. No. 4 and No. 2 will cohost the 2019 U.S. Amateur Championship in August.
5 Mid Pines Inn & Golf Club
5 Mid Pines Inn & Golf ClubSouthern PinesSee on map
A riddle: Why did the golfer at Pine Needles cross the road? Answer: To play Mid Pines, another historic Donald Ross 1920s gem situated just across Midland Road. Though maintained impeccably to modern standards, it’s a pine-drenched stroll through history since this is a Ross design that remains virtually unchanged. Maybe not as daunting as its mate on the other side of the road, Mid Pines remains an always fair and fun test that makes it a favorite on many lists.
6 Pinehurst No. 9
6 Pinehurst No. 9PinehurstSee on map
Combine the Sandhills and Jack Nicklaus, and there’s little doubt something special will happen. Pinehurst No. 9, formerly known as National Golf Club, is the Pinehurst area's only Jack Nicklaus Signature course, which challenges players with the expected Nicklaus architecture – wide fairways, strategic bunkers and undulating putting surfaces.
7 Linville Golf Club
7 Linville Golf ClubLinvilleSee on map
Here are two good secrets to know: Golf has been played in Linville since 1895, even earlier than in Pinehurst, with Donald Ross crafting the current layout in 1924. And, while Linville Golf Club is private, play is possible when you pamper yourself with a stay at the delightful Eseeola Lodge, which has provided High Country hospitality since 1892. Golf package takes on a new meaning here, with the club and lodge named a “Best Summer Golf Destination of the South” by Sports Illustrated’s Golf.com.
8 UNC Finley Golf Course
8 UNC Finley Golf CourseChapel HillSee on map
Tom Fazio proves yet again that he knows how to produce a layout that can provide a measure of pleasure to any golfer, regardless of handicap. UNC Finley Golf Course is commonly lauded as a well-priced, fun outing, but expect Fazio to force your focus to fully appreciate the experience. If you’re nursing a 1-shot lead, the 18th will definitely command careful attention.
9 Bald Head Island Golf Course
9 Bald Head Island Golf CourseBald Head IslandSee on map
Park the car, grab your clubs and jump on the ferry for the pleasurable journey to Bald Head Island, where Tim Cate transformed a classic George Cobb design into a visually stunning tribute that Links Magazine deemed behind only the restoration of No. 2 in Pinehurst. You’ll wind your way over dunes, around lagoons, along the ocean and through a maritime forest in a setting so undisturbed the local wildlife is close at hand (just don’t toy with the gators).
10 Duke University Golf Club
10 Duke University Golf ClubDurhamSee on map
Take a magnificent layout created by one of the deans of American course design, Robert Trent Jones, combine it with a loving restoration by son Rees Jones, and you have an outstanding facility known as Duke University Golf Club. Unique elevation changes and mildly rolling terrain amid mature trees provide nuance on every shot. Adding to the property’s ambience is the gracious Washington Duke Inn.
11 Leopard’s Chase Golf Links
11 Leopard’s Chase Golf LinksOcean Isle BeachSee on map
Leopard’s Chase is another Tim Cate showpiece in what’s known as the “Big Cats” collection at Ocean Ridge Plantation. Expect the unexpected on a course that traverses more than 220 acres of natural coastal terrain resplendent with native grasses, and culminates in an 18th hole with an elevated green guarded by a spectacular waterfall splashing over coquina boulders.
12 Scotch Hall Preserve
12 Scotch Hall PreserveMerry HillSee on map
Billed as a collaboration between Arnie and Mother Nature, the Arnold Palmer Signature Course at Scotch Hall plays as beautifully as it looks. There’s an orderly flow to the holes over rolling topography that borders the historic Albemarle Sound. And Arnie made certain any member of his army will have a pleasant experience here, no matter the skill level.
13 Mid South Club
13 Mid South ClubPinehurstSee on map
Arnold Palmer issued a straightforward challenge to players at Mid South Club, with few visual tricks and a mixture of risk/reward from virtually every tee. Like the man, this is a course on which to hitch up your trousers and charge. A favorite of locals and considered one of Palmer’s best designs, the private Mid South is worthy of making the effort to get on via an area golf package.
14 The Cardinal by Pete Dye
14 The Cardinal by Pete DyeGreensboroSee on map
In order to increase activity on this course, McConnell Golf announced in early 2019 that The Cardinal would become semiprivate, meaning nonmembers can play on a conditional basis. With two lakes, wooded glades and windy streams, The Cardinal is a challenging test for golfers, and the par-70 course – which was redesigned in 2007 – features a 12th hole that Dye himself calls the hardest par 3 he ever designed.
15 Tiger’s Eye Golf Links
15 Tiger’s Eye Golf LinksOcean Isle BeachSee on map
While you’re at Ocean Ridge, you also should test your skills on another of Tim Cate’s big cat manifestations, known as Tiger’s Eye. The greens, often guarded by water and/or sand, are considered reminiscent of Pinehurst with fast-paced undulating surfaces. Precision shotmaking and a reliable short game come in handy when attacking this tough cat.
16 Pinehurst No. 7
16 Pinehurst No. 7PinehurstSee on map
When designer Rees Jones describes it as “one heck of a course,” it’s a pretty good indication that No. 7 at Pinehurst is worthy of your time. This is perhaps the most dramatic layout at the resort with rugged terrain and looming trees creating enough natural obstacles to minimize the need for heavy bunkering. Doglegs and uphill approaches to elevated greens contribute to the suspense and give No. 7 a different and refreshing essence compared to most of its resort brethren.
17 Lonnie Poole Golf Course
17 Lonnie Poole Golf CourseRaleighSee on map
Located on NC State University’s Centennial Campus, the Lonnie Poole Golf Course prides itself on being the only collegiate golf course in the world designed by Arnold Palmer. With beautiful views of the Raleigh skyline, the par-71 course is playable for all levels and also sports a practice range and green, a research center and a clubhouse.
18 Grandover Resort (East)
18 Grandover Resort (East)GreensboroSee on map
Grandover Resort’s pair of courses, known as East and West, are ranked annually on the Golf Panel list, demonstrating the level of quality reflected in both. Designed by David Graham and Gary Panks, the duo wind through oaks, pines and dogwoods amid the resort’s 1,500 acres. Fairness abounds, combined with hospitality and attention to detail that makes these courses always good choices for a daily double.