As the cold, grey days of winter ticked by in Pittsburgh in January, I stared out the window of my home office at snow that just refused to melt and counted the days since I'd last swung a golf club. I played my last round of 2021 on New Year's Eve at Applebrook Golf Club outside Philadelphia -- a fantastic Gil Hanse design. And as the third week of January became the fourth, that round felt like it was long in the distant past. I needed to get away from the snow for a couple of days. I needed to go somewhere I could see green grass and hit the sticks again. I was itching for golf ... and suddenly, as if Mark Zuckerberg were reading my mind, there was an ad in my Facebook newsfeed for golf packages at Pine Needles and Mid Pines in North Carolina. North Carolina doesn't experience winter like we do in Pennsylvania, but there are no guarantees of good weather in January and February. Still, the package price was attractive. So I decided to take my chances and book a short trip in early February.
The Pine Needles Lodge and Mid Pines Inn sit basically across the road from one another, just a few miles away from Pinehurst. They, along with Southern Pines Golf Course about 10 minutes to the south, are owned by a single management company, and it's tough to beat their golf packages that offer up access to all three Donald Ross-designed courses.
I quickly discovered that the accommodations at Mid Pines don't have any of the majesty of the Carolina Hotel at nearby Pinehurst Resort; the exterior presents well, but the interior could use a major renovation ... and an elevator. I wasn't there for the beauty of the hotel room, though; I was there to play a couple of terrific golf courses. And on that front, the property delivered.
My first round of the trip was at Mid Pines, basically just a long walk from my hotel room. There I met some of the friendliest golf course staff I've ever encountered. The starter greeted me as I took my clubs out of the back of my car. He met me in the parking lot with a golf cart and rode me down to the pro shop, explaining that they were on a frost delay and giving me the lay of the land -- directions to the driving range, advice on which breakfast sandwich to buy if I wanted a bite to eat while I waited, and a friendly reminder to play to the middle of the green on every hole once I got my round going.
Inside the pro shop, I found locals waiting for their tee times and more friendly staff who could not have been more accommodating. The locals debated, for my benefit, the merits of the three courses I'd be playing during my stay. And the consensus was that the place was blessed with an embarrassment of riches. It's ironic, the pro shop staff told me, that what he considered the worst course among the three is the one that will be hosting its fourth Women's U.S. Open this summer. Pine Needles, he said, just has space for spectators that Mid Pines and Southern Pines don't have, but he and the locals in the shop agreed that Mid Pines and Southern Pines offer superior golf experiences, particularly following the renovation and restoration work on those two courses led by architect Kyle Franz. In 2013, Golf Magazine honored the work Franz had done at Mid Pines, calling it the Best U.S. Resort Renovation and Restoration of the Year.
Mid Pines currently ranks No. 93, No. 41 and No. 45, on Golf Digest's, Golf Magazine's and Golfweek's top 100 public course rankings, respectively. The course is pure Donald Ross fun, measuring 6,732 yards from the blue tees. That's generally a bit long for me these days; I'm usually more comfortable playing a par-72 course in the 6,400- to 6,500-yard range, but with the white tees measuring just 6,166 yards, I opted to play back. So, all yardages mentioned in this blog will be from the blues.
Hole No. 1, Par 4, 401 Yards
The first hole is a quintessential North Carolina sandhills golf hole and a perfect introduction to what's to come as you play the rest of this course. The tall pines and pine straw beds that line this straightaway par-4 frame the hole from tee to green and make the hole feel tighter than it really is.
The tee shot on the first plays down hill, and the approach plays uphill to a well-guarded green with deep bunkers front left and right.
Fortunately, a well-struck wedge made for a perfect start golf in the new year for me on this hole.
Hole No. 2, Par 3, 190 Yards
I knew I loved this course by the time I finshed playing the second hole. Long, uphill, with an undulating green and deep bunkers beckoning to any errant tee shot, this hole offers up all kinds of opportunities for disaster. There's even water short and left for those who really mishit their tee shots.
As the starter had warned me, the smart play on this hole would have been to the middle of the green. In this case, that would have left me a nice uphill putt for a possible birdie. I didn't hit it there; I went left of the green and had to scramble for a par. But I can see that center-green was definitely the right place to try to land my tee shot.
Hole No. 3, Par 4, 437 Yards
First thing, first ... that's a lot of water to look at as you stand over your tee shot. It really shouldn't be in play if you make decent contact with the ball, but it's easy to imagine someone topping a shot (or three) into the lake as they attempt to get off this tee. In reality, though, a tee shot of even 185 yards or so should easily clear the water here.
The hole bends a bit to the right; it's not a dramatic dogleg, but for longer hitters, a baby fade played down the left side of the hole and cutting back toward the center might be the perfect play. Those who find the fairway will discover that the green on No. 3 is one of the more recpetive greens on the course, likely in effort to balance out the fact that most players will be playing long irons, hybrids or fairway woods for their second shots. There are bunkers left and right, but the mouth of the green is wide, and the green itself pitches from back to front, providing a backstop for low, running shots to help hold the putting surface.
Hole No. 4, Par 4, 330 Yards
The fourth hole offers an opportunity to score for the player who finds the fairway off the tee. At just 330 yards, most players should find themselves with a wedge or short-iron in hand for their second shot.
This view of the 4th hole gives you a sense of the kind of trouble that can derail your score; not only does the bunkering offer a challenge, but the small clumps of long, wild grass that dot the landscape around the bunkers and in waste areas all over the course can make for some very difficult lies, lost balls and dropped strokes.
Hole No. 5, Par 5, 484 Yards
The short par-5 5th hole is another scoring opportunity if you can find the fairway. The pine trees and waste areas off the tee will almost certainly force a layup to stay safe from the water left and short of the green.
Find the fairway on No. 5, and for many players the green will likely be reachable, playing slightly downhill with a wide mouth allowing access for shots to run or fly into the putting surface. Getting up and down from the sand left or right of the green could be tricky if you short-side yourself, but par and even birdie remain real possibilities if you find yourself in one of these bunkers with your second shot.
Hole No. 6, Par 5, 537 Yards
No. 6 is the second of two consecutive par-5 holes and is a much stiffer test of your game than No. 5. If the 5th was an opportunity to go on offense, the 6th definitely challenges you to play strong defense. Long; narrow; and with waste areas, wild grasses and bunkers stretching the entire length of the hole, par is a very good score on the 6th.
The approach into No. 6 demands the player control both the flight of the ball and distance. Anything short or long risks running off the green into difficult greenside bunkers.
Hole No. 7, Par 4, 383 Yards
Fairway bunkers left, right, left and right again require accuracy from tee to green on hole No. 7, an uphill par 4. Play this one down the middle, and par or better should be the goal. But an offline drive will make this hole much more challenging as the bunkering along both sides of the hole begin to make playing back to the fairway and into the green more difficult and more demanding of well-thought-out and well-executed shots.
The ideal approach is from the left-side of the fairway, taking as much of the front-right greenside bunker out of play as possible and making the green much more accessible through the air or on the ground.
Hole No. 8, Par 3, 179 Yards
I really liked the par-3 8th -- maybe because I birdied it. This downhill par-3 calls for a shot that carries to the green unless you can thread the narrow window between the bunkers short of the putting surface to runa ball into the front-left. The green is deep and angled from left to right with bunkers promising a difficult up-and-down for any ball that goes long.
Hole No. 9, Par 4, 340 Yards
No. 9 is a tough little par-4 that will require most players to either leave the driver in the bag or tee it high and challenge the trees on the right to play through the dogleg. I took it over the trees and left myself with just a 40-yard shot into this green as I cut more off the dogleg than I even intended. If I played it again, realizing what a bear it would be to play from among those trees, I'd likely try instead to hit a cut 3-wood up the left side and just keep it in the fairway, accepting a longer approach shot in favor of a higher-percentage, lower-risk play from the tee.
The green on hole 9 slopes from front to back and will make it hard to hold the putting surface with a longer iron approach. Still, once you're on the green it's one of the flatter greens on the course, which should make it easier to putt for most players.
Hole No. 10, Par 5, 514 Yards
The par-5 10th hole plays longer than its yardage, uphill from tee to green. A fairway bunker right of the landing zone for most drives could be a par killer. And densely packed pine trees on both sides put a premium on accuracy with every shot on this hole.
Deep bunkers and waste area around the green make it very difficult to run a ball into this hole, making it a three-shot par-5 for all but the longest players. Pick a proper approach distance for your layup, though, and birdie is a definite possibility.
Ran across this golfer just right of the 10th green. With that split grip, it was no surprise he was in among the trees. I appreciated that he let me play through. ;)
Hole No. 11, Par 3, 180 Yards
There's not much room for error on the par-3 11th, with sand and waste area nearly surrounding the green and not much room to get a second shot close to the hole from most locations off the putting surface, especially with a front pin position.
Hole No. 12, Par 4, 380 Yards
No. 12 sets up for a draw off the tee as the hole bends left around the treeline. Keep it far enough right to hold the fairway, though, as too far left threatens to send the ball into sand and wild grasses that could turn this into a bogey hole or worse.
Bunkers right and left guard this elevated green, so be sure to take enough club to carry to a middle pin, even if the hole is cut up front. It's going to be easier to putt back toward the hole than to play from either of the deep bunkers.
Hole No. 13, Par 3, 232 Yards
The long par-3 13th is sneaky-hard. The smartest play may be to try to run a shot into the right side of the green or even to lay up short just to avoid all of the trouble that surrounds this hole. The shadows from the pines play tricks on the eye, and you can't necessarily tell from the tee just how the elevation changes on this hole. Tug a shot left, over the left-front greenside bunker, and you risk your ball bounding down the hill behind the trees, crossing the cart path and being lost forever. And even for those tee shots that find the green on this hole, par is not a foregone conclusion with subtle and not-so-subtle undulations designed to make putthing on this hole a real challenge.
Hole No. 14, Par 4, 361 Yards
I didn't play the 14th well, but I really like the hole. For a straight par-4, it requires a lot of thought about how and where to play from the tee. Standing on the tee, you feel like you're pressed up close to the trees on the left side, forcing your eye to look right. But any tee shot to the right half of the hole will run down into the trees and waste area right of this severely sloped hole. A draw will help you to hold the fairway, but the best angle to approach the green really is from the right side. I'm not sure I figured out exactly what the right shot shape is to properly place the ball for the approach to this green, but I left thinking that if you could play a straight ball up the left side of the fairway from the right side of the tee box, it would run down to just the right part of the fairway. Maybe next time ... once I figure out how to hit a straight ball!
Classic Donald Ross, the 14th green promises to send anything around the edges back into the fairway or, worse, into one of the bunkers that front the green.
Hole No. 15, Par 5, 542 Yards
Despite being the longest par-5 on the course, the 15th is likely to be reachable for a significant number of players as it plays downhill from tee to green and offers a relatively wide-open runway into the putting surface for well-struck, long, running approach shots. A draw played down the right side of the hole off the tee, especially on a dry day, will run a long way.
Avoid the bunkers well short and left and above the green to the right, and the long, slightly elevated dance floor is among the most receptive on the course. Balls left short or left-edge will be rejected back into the fairway, but there isn't tremendous danger in either case. This isn't an easy hole, but it shouldn't play much harder than par for the player who can manage to get on or near the green in two.
Hole No. 16, Par 4, 440 Yards
Not my only birdie of the day, but definitely the best hole that I played tee to green, the 16th is designed for the player who can hit a long draw. It was one of those times when I step onto the tee and can just perfectly visualize the shape and trajectory of the shot I want to hit ... and then somehow manage to execute it.
Following the downhill drive, the approach plays uphill to a partially obscured green as the bunker face front-left rises above the putting surface. It's a brilliant bit of deception, fooling you into believing there isn't much room at all between that bunker and the pin. To the right of the bunker, the false front threatens to send balls hit short back down the slope, making for a difficult up-and-down. I managed to drop a mid-iron just over the bunker, leaving myself about 15 feet for birdie. There were members of the grounds crew working around the green, and I appreciated their cheers and applause when I curled the birdie putt into the hole.
Hole No. 17, Par 4, 391 Yards
This course calls for all the shots. After the big draw on 16, the 17th calls for players to hit a fade off the fairway bunker on the left side of the hole. My shot began perfectly but never cut, and I found myself with a difficult lie on the edge of that bunker.
Playing out of the sand and waste areas around Mid Pines isn't impossible. The fairway bunkers don't have man high faces, and so long as you're lucky enough to avoid the wild grasses that grow in and around the sand, you can recover if you can get the clubface squarely on the ball.
Big bunkers front-left and right of this elevated green make it important to hit a high ball into this hole, especially from the left side of the fairway. From the right, it is possible to play a running shot into the green, but holding the putting surface may be difficult as the green slopes left to right and front to back.
Hole No. 18, Par 4, 411 Yards
The 18th at Mid Pines is a really terrific finishing hole -- a long-ish par-4 that plays uphill on the approach shot, the hole invites players to try to bomb it off the tee. But find the fairway or your chance at par could evaporate before you even leave the tee box. The fairway bunker on the right must be avoided as it is one of the few on the course that does have a high-enough face to make reaching the green difficult or impossible. And the density of trees and high grasses in the waste areas right and left of the hole make recovery more difficult on 18 than on just about any other hole on the course.
From the fairway, the hole offers a beautiful look at the outside of the Mid Pines Inn, set beyond the elevated 18th green. Take a little extra club -- a mid- or long-iron -- and play to the right-center of the green to avoid the sand that guards the left side. This green will kick anything near the edges off in just about every direction except toward the hole. A two-putt par is a terrific score on this closing hole, especially across a wide green with a number of undulations that require you to almost putt defensively.
Mid Pines was a really fantastic place to play my first round of the year and first round of this mid-winter trip to North Carolina. I was blessed to have beautiful weather for it; a week before, the course was covered in snow. I was actually surprised to find that the grass was as green as it was, which wasn't the case when I crossed the street to Pine Needles. And the course was very well conditioned for early February. Not surprisingly, it reminded me a great deal of the round I played on Pinehurst No. 2 nearly 20 years ago, and I'd love to get back to play it again.
Keep an eye out for my upcoming companion post, where I write about my round at sister course Pine Needles.