Golf in The Sandhills of North Carolina 20 Million Years in the Making!
What is it with kids that play in sand? Many of our fond memories as children involve a Tonka dump truck, a mate with a toy back hoe, and a sandbox that the neighborhood cats have yet to defile. Now that we're older we still play in the sand. We might have traded our dump trucks for golf carts and our toy guns for sand wedges but golf is our game now and sand is integral part of the game.
If there was ever a perfect marriage of a sand and golf, it would be located in the Sandhills of North Carolina. Formed from an ancient beach that receded 20 million years ago, this geographic anomaly has long been the epicenter of American golf.
Donald Ross came to the region in 1902, drawn here because it reminded him of his childhood home, Dornoch in Scotland. What he found in this rural part of North Carolina was a kid's dream; a 50-by-75-mile sand box. Unlike clay, rock and peat, sand could be pushed around by a mule and a drag pan. The native sand could be moved fairly easily to create smooth fairways that drained well. It could be molded to create mounding around greens, elevated for teeing grounds, and even a smooth putting surface. Early greens were made of sand and oil would be applied to keep dust down and help the sand matted together in order to hold up to foot traffic.
Formed more out of necessity than creativity, sandy waste areas were a byproduct of early irrigation being too costly and not robust enough to water the outer edges of a golf course to create what we now know as rough. Since there needed to be a consequence to errant golf shots, sandy waste areas with scattered wire grass and unkempt undulations was penalty enough.
In the 1970's golf course architecture moved away from native grasses and sand to wall-to-wall lab-produced playing surfaces. For 35 years we saw the "Augusta Effect" in golf course architecture and maintenance. But as maintenance budgets the tide shifted back. Sand was back. But the historic Sandhills of North Carolina had never left championship golf. The sleepy little towns of Pinehurst and Southern Pines are now more relevant than ever to golf.
Ahead of the most recent trend toward naturalism was Mike Strantz, who converted an abandoned sand quarry into a Top 100 course in America. Tobacco Road's natural sandy areas, with wispy love grass mounding, presents the golfer a stark contrast to the traditional country club. Renovations to Pine Needles and Mid Pines employed aerial photographs from the 1940's and Ross' original center lines and sandy outcroppings that were covered over by Bermuda rough were brought back.
In a move that would complete the transformation, Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore came to the Sandhills to build a new private club called The Dormie. Even after securing the 2014 Men's and Women's U.S. Opens, the Pinehurst Resort folks were not satisfied with the crown jewel of their inventory; the Number 2 course. With the blessings of the USGA, they removed 45 acres of grass and returned the perimeter of the course to its native sandy roots.
The Sandhills, with over 40 golf courses located in one rural county in North Carolina, is waiting for you to play around in the sand.
Joe Gay is PGA Director of Golf at Tobacco Road Golf Course in Sanford, N.C.