Where I played: This reclusive gem can make your next Pinehurst golf trip even better
I am not an expert in many things.
I don’t understand geometry. I have no idea how to fly a plane. I’ve never baked so much as a cupcake in my life. If you asked me to build a bookshelf without the Internet’s help, I’d be a danger to every lumberyard and Home Depot on the eastern seaboard. But if I hold expertise in anything, it’s the fine golf courses of the North Carolina sandhills, where I’ve spent the better part of a month of my life exploring, walking, and playing over these last two years.
By the time June 2022 rolled around, I thought I’d seen everything the Sandhills had to offer. I’d taken the psychedelic journey through Tobacco Road, endured the Rossian brilliance of Mid Pines and Pine Needles, and giggled my way through the complete Pinehurst experience … twice. There was more golf in the area, of course, but was there different golf? I doubted it.
Then I received an invitation to the Country Club of North Carolina.
CCNC and Pinehurst are separated by a little more than 1,000 feet and what feels like a few solar systems. The two courses might share the same soil, but that’s…about it. On one side of the fence sits golf’s vacation mecca, where eight courses sprawl across the sand-strewn earth like the curled tentacles of an octopus, beverage carts and fellow golfers are in limitless supply, and the joy of the shared experience fills you with whatever warmth the sun hasn’t. On the other side of the fence sits the exact opposite: the Country Club of North Carolina, a neatly groomed oasis of silence, tranquility and solitude.
Through the gates at CCNC, you’ll find a genteel southern welcome from the staff and a stately clubhouse. What you won’t find are golfers, even from the practice range, which sits just a short walk from the first fairway on the Dogwood Course, the more famous of CCNC’s two 18-hole routings (the Cardinal Course, opened in 1989, is the other).
Silence is CCNC’s superpower. Even when the course is crowded, CCNC’s loudest distraction is the rustling of the pines in the afternoon breeze. The Dogwood Course’s routing ensures that interactions with other golfers come only by choice. Even the area surrounding the clubhouse rattles at a gentle hum, thanks in large part to a two-tiered design that helps funnel golfers in through the upstairs pro shop and other visitors through the adjacent ballroom and restaurant.
Shortly after your arrival, someone will point you in the direction of the first tee box, where you’ll scoop a golf cart, a scorecard and a handful of tees from the starter shack. Then, you’re off, set to wander through Ellis Maples and Willard Byrd’s work with the slowly descending sun as your only guide.
Everything is just as it should be at the Country Club of North Carolina, right down to the smallest detail. While Pinehurst revels in its authenticity, CCNC transports you into a world where grass grows in uniform mower patterns and bunker sand seemingly never moves out of place.
The front nine surprises, primarily thanks to its steady diversity. There are high, towering holes that rely on the shape of the valley below and low, flat ones spotlighted by their bunkering; an island-green par-3 enveloped by water and a par-5 splitting a chute of trees so narrow one must stave off the urge to play a 4-iron off the tee. By the time you turn to the 5th hole, you’ve lost all conception of the Sandhills as you once knew them, by the time you return to the clubhouse at the 11th, you’ve lost any clue of what’s to come.
Still, it is the back nine that burns into your memory — a glorious stretch of holes that feels like it lays out for miles before you. Strategically and architecturally, the stretch from 12-17 is the best on the course, but emotionally, it provides even more than that.
On the day we played CCNC, we caught the back nine in time for a glorious, cloud-free sunset. It was around 100 degrees at the time we teed off, but considerably cooler by the time we made it to the closing stretch. The sun cast rays of gold through the pines, illuminating the golf course in angular beams. My playing partners and I giggled as we plunged approach shots onto the putting surface, marveling at the silence and the contentment that comes with being truly alone in a beautiful place.
Eventually, one of us dared to wonder if CCNC’s true sibling course wasn’t Pinehurst No. 2, but Augusta National. Of course, he was wrong. Even the club’s most hardened member would agree there’s a considerable gap between the two courses. But in terms of serenity and quiet Southern charm, that comparison isn’t as outlandish as it seems.
The round ended and we returned without a word to the car. Finally, one of us snapped back to reality.
“Well, that was nothing like I expected.”
He was right, of course. After a month of sandhills golf, CCNC had still managed to blow my mind. But now that we’d tasted Pinehurst’s most notable private test, I found myself wrestling with a bigger problem.
I had to find a way back.