Dream 18: Top-Rated Golf Courses You Can Play

Ocean Ridge PlantationDream 18: Top-Rated Golf Courses You Can Play

The 18th hole at Leopard’s Chase Golf Links in Ocean Isle Beach

It’s always nice to have some reliable guidance when selecting which golf courses to challenge. As the golf experience is a subjective one, opinions may differ greatly, even within the same foursome.

The North Carolina Golf Panel annually attempts the formidable task of naming the state’s top 100 courses, providing a generally objective overview that can serve as the basis for your course selection. Members judge courses on their individual features and merit, then measure them against other layouts to derive a fair, impartial ranking.

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 panel’s 2017 top courses you can play:

  1. Pinehurst No. 2
    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
    Southern Pines
    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 1996, 2001 and 2007.

  3. And part of the same resort is another Ross gem, Mid-Pines Golf Club (see the fifth-place ranking).

  4. Pinehurst No. 8
    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.

  5. Pinehurst No. 4
    You’ll discover plenty of history and tradition on No. 4, which was created originally by Donald Ross in 1919. But the course essentially was made new again in 2000 as Tom Fazio paid tribute to Ross and Pinehurst with a major reworking. It’s both picturesque and daunting, with more than 140 pot bunkers dotting the landscape. However, most players consider it a required challenge when in the neighborhood.

  6. Mid Pines Inn & Golf Club
    Southern Pines
    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.

  7. Linville Golf Club
    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. Pinehurst No. 9
    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.

  9. UNC Finley Golf Course
    Chapel Hill
    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 one-shot lead, the 18th will definitely command careful attention.

  10. Duke University Golf Club
    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. Dormie Club
    West End
    PGA great Ben Crenshaw and North Carolina-native Bill Coore have teamed up to create some of the most memorable courses in modern times, and their efforts at Dormie Club are no less than spectacular. This is a design gently arranged on the land rather than carved from it, with a vividly natural look and feel that already seems timeless. Intended as a walking course, caddies and forecaddies are recommended, though carts have been made available.

  12. Bald Head Island Golf Course
    Bald Head Island
    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).

  13. Leopard’s Chase Golf Links
    Ocean Isle Beach
    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.

  14. Scotch Hall Preserve
    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.

  15. Tiger’s Eye Golf Links
    Ocean Isle Beach
    And 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. Mid South Club
    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.

  17. Pinehurst No. 7
    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.

  18. Grandover Resort (East)
    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.

  19. Bryan Park Golf & Conference Center (Champions Course)
    Browns Summit
    A highly regarded public course and always a player favorite, the Champions Course is considered a Rees Jones masterpiece of design with enough bunkers, humps and hollows to keep you thinking – plus seven holes that border scenic Lake Townsend. Graced with four stars by Golf Digest, the course hosted the country’s best amateurs in the 2010 U.S. Public Links Championship.

Just outside the Golf Panel’s top 18 are a handful of other top-quality venues that also are available and deserve consideration, including:

Lonnie Poole Golf Course at N.C. State University

The Currituck Club

Thistle Golf Club
Sunset Beach

Cape Fear National Golf Club

Gary Carter is an Asheville-based travel writer (and real estate broker) who covers a range of topics for magazines and online publications.


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