North Carolina’s top-ranked golf courses in the Triangle,
the mountains, and the coast.
By Tim Peeler
There are more than 13,000 golf courses across the country, but no state offers the unique variety that North Carolina’s 534 courses have on the coast, the mountains, or the rolling hills of the Piedmont.
Yes, our state has hosted the men’s and women’s U.S. Open, the PGA Championship, the Ryder Cup, and multiple USGA championships, not to mention various PGA, LPGA, and senior tour stops in locations around the state.
But it’s hardly just a spectator sport.
North Carolina’s vibrant golf industry employs some 37,000 people and adds $3.75 billion to the state’s economy through direct, indirect, and induced output, according to a 2016 study. It annually adds equals parts to the state’s manufacturing, real estate, and tourism sectors.
Yet it’s hard, really, to put in perspective how the best courses in the state stack up with each other.
There’s no way to compare the grandeur of Grandfather Mountain Country Club when the mountain laurel is blooming with Pinehurst No. 2’s history and championship tradition in the Sandhills, or with the stark beauty of watching a sunrise at Bald Head Island Golf Club while standing in a sandtrap bisected by the deep trail left by the tail of a wandering alligator.
Here in the Triangle, golfers have their choice of highly rated courses by famed designers Donald Ross, Tom Fazio, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, and others. How in the world can you compare Raleigh Country Club’s elevated greens that Ross made as part of the final golf course design in his illustrious career with the downtown Raleigh skyline view Palmer incorporated into N.C. State’s Lonnie Poole Golf Course?
How do you choose between Prestonwood Country Club’s three courses, the Governor Club’s two, or the freestanding excellence of Ross’ design at Hope Valley Country Club in the heart of Durham?
Hensley didn’t just rely on fellow writers, however. He involved businessmen and women who knew North Carolina, and two of the state’s biggest golf legends, Peggy Kirk Bell and Billy Joe Patton. There are scratch golfers and high-handicappers on the panel, with the only membership requirement being a passion for the game.
First published in North Carolina Magazine, the highly anticipated annual offering has appeared in the April issue of Business North Carolina since 2006 and has been managed by Kevin Brafford since Hensley handed over the reins in 2000. Brafford, who in addition to serving as the golf panel’s executive director is also the growth strategies director for the North Carolina Zoo Society and a member of the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame selection committee, has grown the invitation-only golf panel to include about 150 active members.
“Our members love the game and its prominent place in the sports landscape, and they have an appreciation for course design,” Brafford says. “We ask panelists to rate courses considering a number of factors, including routing, flow, strategy, fairness, memorability, and the variety of holes.”
Through various full-panel outings and individual play around the state, members of the panel submit their ratings for best overall course and several subcategories annually. Durham’s Old Chatham Golf Club, designed by Rees Jones in 2001, tops the 2018 list for top courses in the Triangle, followed by the Raleigh Country Club, MacGregor Downs Country Club in Cary, Prestonwood’s Highlands course, and the Governor’s Club in Chapel Hill.
All three of the university courses—North Carolina’s Finley Golf Course, the Duke University Golf Club, and N.C. State’s LPGC—are among the top 12 courses in the area.
While the state’s golf industry suffered a downturn in the recession of 2008—longtime clubs like Cheviot Hills in Raleigh, Wake Forest Golf Club, and Crooked Creek Country Club in Fuquay-Varina all shut down—the sport, and the real estate opportunities it often creates, is on the rebound.
“Like in real estate, there was a market correction,” Brafford says. “But the golf industry has changed, the economy has rebounded, and the future looks good for both.”
Author and writer Tim Peeler lives in Cary and is an original (but currently inactive) member of the North Carolina Golf Panel.
Best 3-Day Golf Getaways all within an easy drive and open to the public!
1. Pinehurst No. 2, Pinehurst No. 8, Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club (Sandhills)
2. Currituck Club, Kilmarlic Golf Club, Nags Head Golf Links (Coastal)
3. Crow Creek Golf Club, Leopard’s Chase, Thistle Golf Club (Coastal)
4. Cape Fear National Golf Club, Compass Pointe Golf Club, Magnolia Greens Golf Plantation (Coastal)
5. Boone Golf Club, Linville Golf Club, Mountain Glen Golf Club (Mountains)
6. Legacy Golf Links, The New Course at Talamore, Southern Pines Golf Club (Sandhills)
7. Beaufort Club, Carolina Colours Golf Club, Cutter Creek Golf Club (Eastern)
8. Duke University Golf Club, Finley Golf Course, Lonnie Poole Golf Course (Triangle)
9. Bryan Park Champions, Oak Hollow Golf Course, Tanglewood Park Championship (Triad)
10. The Golf Club at Ballantyne Hotel & Lodge, Highland Creek Golf Club, Olde Sycamore Golf Plantation (Charlotte)