The second round of my mid-winter trip to the North Carolina sandhills was played at Pine Needles Lodge and Golf Club, a fantastic 7,035-yard Donald Ross design that has distinguished itself as the host of three U.S. Women's Open championships, won by great champions: Annika Sorenstam in 1996, Karrie Webb in 2001 and Christie Kerr in 2007. The club hosted the second-ever U.S. Women's Senior Open in 2019, won by Helen Alfredsson, and will host its fourth U.S. Women's Open in June of this year. Even in mid-February preparations were well underway, with the staff telling me they've already begun to narrow the fairways and are keeping carts exclusively on the cart paths in order to ensure the course is pristine for the championship.
Located in Southern Pines, North Carolina -- just minutes from the world-famous Pinehurst Resort and Country Club -- Pine Needles is one of three Donald Ross Courses in Southern Pines managed by the Pine Needles / Mid Pines management company. Together, along with Mid Pines Inn and Golf Club and Southern Pines Golf Club, the three make up a single resort offering that would likely be much better known were they not located so close to Pinehurst. You can read my recent post about Mid Pines here.
Pine Needles currently ranks Nos. 73, 44 and 63 on the respective lists of Top 100 U.S. public courses from Golf Digest, Golf Magazine and Golfweek. And locals, including some of the resort staff, contend that it may be the weakest of the three courses after recent restoration work was completed at Southern Pines Golf Club -- an "embarrassment of riches," one pro shop employee called it. The knock on the course that I heard from locals is that the course winds through a housing community -- not that you'd ever really know it from the course. In fact, I don't recall actually seeing a home while I was playing. For my part, the only disappointment I can report -- aside from my play -- is that the course wasn't as photgenic in February as I'm sure it will be come spring, with dormant grass making the course look brown. But there were no issues from a playability perspective, and so it's a very minor gripe, indeed.
As I mentioned above, the course plays to over 7,000 yards from the tips, or Medal tees. I chose to play from the Ross tees at 6,435 yards, and all yardages mentioned from this point forward will be from the Ross tees.
Hole 1, Par 5, 485 Yards
The opening hole is a par-5 that bends to the right. The starter warned me to keep my tee shot to the left side of the hole or else it would bound too far down to the right, and I'd be blocked out for my second shot. Little did he know I'd been fighting a nasty hook, so there wasn't much chance of me hitting the ball anywhere but left off the tee.
From the left side of the fairway, the hole definitely opens up and offers players the opportunity to go at this green in two. After a slightly uphill tee shot, the hole plays downhill -- shorter than its yardage -- and fromt he left there is ample room to run a well-struck wood or long iron into this green.
The danger of going for the green in two -- the danger almost everywhere on this course, really -- is in the bunkers and waste areas, where not only sand but high, wild native grasses await any errant ball and threaten to turn a bad shot into two or more dropped strokes. The starter tells me they've planted more of this natural grass around the course in preparation for the Women's U.S. Open this year. So, the safe play on a hole like No. 1 may be to layup short of the bunkers and hope to stick a wedge close even if you think you can reach the green in two.
Hole 2, Par 4, 440 Yards
The second hole is a long par-4 that plays mostly downhill. Fairway bunkers right can cause you to aim more to the left than you need to in order to find this fairway, which begins to bend to the right just beyond those bunkers. And given the length of this hole, it's important to find the fairway in order to run your drive far enough down the hole to have a reasonable shot at finding this green in regulation. The perfect tee shot is likely played just off the edge of the bunkers with maybe a bit of a draw.
The second offers up a relatively large green, but a long waste bunker left and a steep drop off to the right make it imperative to hit your approach shot into the heart of the putting surface if you want to score well on this hole.
Hole 3, Par 3, 135 Yards
The par-3 third hole at Pine Needles reminded me a lot of the par-3 second hole at Mid Pines. At just 135 yards, it shouldn't be more than a simple short-iron for most players. But the green is guarded by three deep bunkers and features a false front that will send a ball hit just short rolling all the way back down toward the pond in front. There is room to safely play long, so playing for a center-green or back-green landing off the tee may be the wise play here, even if it means leaving yourself a longer birdie putt.
Hole 4, Par 4, 385 Yards
The fourth hole is one of those holes I don't play well but really like anyway. The forced carry over the water really shouldn't be an issue for most players, but the lake definitely adds a bit of visual intimidation to this mid-length par-4. And there is something about uphill holes that call for a draw off the tee that I've always just liked -- something that suits my eye. The fairway here is relatively wide compared to many others on the course, but take a bit of extra club for your approach shot. With three deep bunkers short of the green, this is a hole where it pays to be sure you've taken enough club.
Hole 5, Par 3, 180 Yards
No. 5 is an uphill par-3 where the ideal shot may be to run in a low ball to the left side of the green for those who are gutsy enough to try and avoid the big, deep bunker short-right of the green and the shallow greenside bunker on the left -- both of which could be the cause of a big number. The green runs front-left to back-right, and a ball played to the left side could run down even to a pin tucked in the back right. But anything that doesn't find the green will be flirting with bogey.
Hole 6, Par 4, 410 Yards
The 6th is a straightaway par-4 that simply challenges you to hit the ball straight. Find the fairway, and this hole becomes a real scoring opportunity. Miss the fairway, and you're either going to have trees or sand and wiry, long grass bushes to contend with.
From the fairway, you've got the option to play a high, lofted shot into this green or hit a low runner, with plenty of room between the two front bunkers to roll a ball up and onto the putting surface. It's not what I'd call a birdie hole, given its 400+ yards of length, but it's certainly a hole you should look to par.
Hole 7, Par 4, 405 Yards
The seventh plays slightly uphill, running parallel and in the opposite direction of the 6th. It's one of the few places on the course where you can actually see one fairway from another. The hole bends a bit from right to left -- not a true dogleg, but more of a gently turning hole that sets up for a draw off the tee.
There's only one bunker guarding this green -- to the right -- but the real danger is left of the hole. A ball that lands on the left bank, or possibly even on the left edge of this green, will kick left and down the hill into loose pine straw, cones and trees. As most players will likely find themselves hitting mid- or long-irons into this hole, the trees on either side can make this look like a particularly tight approach. Par is a good score on this hole, and bogey might not be so bad either.
Hole 8, Par 4, 355 Yards
I was invited to play through a foursome as I came to the eighth tee, and I didn't take any pictures so as not to make them rethink the decision. But from this overhead shot, courtesy of Google Maps, you can see that No. 8 is essentially a straight hole. At just 355 yards, it may be the best birdie opportunity on the front nine for players who can find the fairway off the tee.
Hole 9, Par 4, 370 Yards
No. 9 is another straight par-4. Fairway bunkers to the right are perfectly placed to collect any ball that is pushed in that direction. But play your drive down the left side of the fairway, and this hole opens up for a terrific approach into a deep, receptive green with only one bunker (left) to defend it.
Hole 10, Par 5, 480 Yards
The 10th is a sweeping dogleg left with a forced carry tee shot that needs to clear the lake and find the fairway in the distance. Attempting to cut the corner is a dangerous proposition with fairways and dense trees ready to capture any shot that doesn't make it through the bend.
The approach into the green on this par-5 has to contend with bunkers and waste area rife with long native grasses. While it may be tempting to try to get as close to the green as you can with your second shot, the smart play may be to leave yourself 100 or 120 yards into this green and hit a full wedge third to avoid the trouble that intensifies the closer you get to this green.
Hole 11, Par 4, 370 Yards
No. 11 looks fairly open from the tee, but bunkers pinching in from the right and thick, long native grass down both sides make this a tighter driving hole than it appears. The hole bends a bit to the right and plays uphill, making it play a bit longer than the yardage.
The small green makes for a challenging approach shot. This isn't exactly a turtle shell-shaped green like you'd find down the road at Pinehurst, but Ross uses false edges to make this green play even smaller than it is and put a premium on precision shotmaking. The only trouble as you approach the green is a large waste bunker, but that shouldn't come into play unless you come up significantly short on your approach. But chipping to this countoured green from the collection areas around it is no sure up-and-down.
Hole 12, Par 4, 350 Yards
The 12th hole plays up and over a rise from the tee. The right half of the fairway -- assuming you clear the one fairway bunker -- offers the better angle into the green once you get over the ridge and is the safer play as the waste area down the left-hand side comes into play. The fairway over the rise slopes back to the left, meaning otherwise good drives hit to that side can collect in the waste area and among the high grass to make this short par-4 much more of a challenge.
From the left, it's pure luck that determines whether you'll have a shot at the green or have to hack out of the grass bushes that litter the waste area. Even if you can get a club on the ball, the sand and loose pinestraw can make for a difficult shot into this green. Also, from the left, the two deep bunkers -- one short, and one greenside left -- become much more prominent obstacles to be negotiated. From the right side of the fairway, it's much easier to play a lofted shot or a low runner into this green.
Hole 13, Par 3, 180 Yards
I really like the 13th at Pine Needles. The hole sits in something of a bowl within the course, playing downhill from the tee with the terrain rising on all sides from the green. It's easy to imagine spectators gathered here, making for something of a natural arena effect during the U.S. Women's Open. The green itself is narrow and looks smaller than its square footage would likely indicate becasue of its depth. There's just the one bunker short-right of the green, but the grassy area beyond it may be the most difficult place on the hole from which to try and make an up-and-down as the green runs away from right to left. The sandy waste area on the left is potentially the easier miss from which to recover as your sand shot plays slightly uphill and will be less likely to run long beyond the hole.
Hole 14, Par 4, 400 Yards
No. 14 is a dogleg-right par-4 that gives you the option to play aggressively, hitting your drive over the fairway bunkers on the right to cut the dogleg and shave significant distance off your approach or to play conservatively down the left in order to avoid potential trouble and accept the long second shot with which you'll be left in the hopes of saving par.
Played down the left side, you're likely to find yourself with a long-iron or maybe a hybrid into this green, which is protected by a deep greenside bunker front-right and a large waste bunker short-left of the green. For players who can bomb it off the tee and take the more aggressive line to cut the dogleg, the short-iron or wedge with which you'll be left to play your approach into the green is a real advantage and turns this 400-yard hole into a potential birdie opportunity.
Hole 15, Par 5, 485 Yards
The 15th is a terrific par-5 -- gettable, but no pushover even for the big hitters. Play your drive down the right side of the fairway as a large waste area dominates the left side of the landing zone for most players off the tee and can quickly sink your hopes of going low on this hole. The right side of the fairway also offers a better look into the hole from slightly higher elevation.
The 15th green is receptive to well-struck balls at a distance, offering a wide corridor to run a ball in to the putting surface. Sand left and right, along with thick bushes of high grass, will make it difficult to get up and down if you miss the green to either side. But this is one of the larger greens on the course with less-severe contouring than some, meaning you may find this to be one of your best opportunities to make a putt for birdie or even eagle if you can reach the green in regulation or better.
Hole 16, Par 3, 170 Yards
The 16th hole can be visually intimidating because of the forced carry over a sea of wasteland and islands of high grass just waiting to grab at your ball if you fail to carry the green. Bt, in truth, if you can fly the ball 150 yards, most of that sand and vegetation shouldn't be an issue. The real challenge is getting your ball to the putting surface and making it stay. there is room to be short of the green so long as you play to the left side. And there is room long, too, before your ball finds any real danger.
Hole 17, Par 4, 430 Yards
The 17th is a big, dogleg-left par-4 that beckons you to try to hit a bomb over the waste area on the left. As Admiral Ackbar would tell you, it's a trap! The waste area is larger than it appears from the tee with gnarly bushes of high grass that I'm pretty sure move like Major League outfielders to catch any ball hit in that direction.
This was the lie I was left with when I made my attempt to hit over the waste area in an attempt to cut the dogleg. No bueno. The smart play on 17 is to stay right, accept that you're going to have a long second shot, and play for par. Even bogey isn't terrible on a 430-yard par-4 for most of us duffers. But a lie like this can quickly lead to double or worse.
Hole 18, Par 4, 405 Yards
The 18th is a great finishing hole. It's easy to see why the USGA likes it for the closing hole of a major championship. At just over 400 yards, the dogleg-left hole plays downhill and offers plenty of opportunity for drama. It's long enough to be difficult, as players have to make choices about how much of the dogleg to try to bite off and whether to be aggressive or conservative, but it's also short enough for a player in a tightly contested tournament to play a great hole and snatch the victory away from her fellow competitors.
Trouble looms left for anyone who attempts to cut the dogleg and overcooks a draw or a hook. Regardless of the distance with which they're left, there won't be many birdies made from the sand and waste area left of the fairway.
From the fairway, however, it's an absolute green light to go at this flag with a major title on the line. Playing downhill, the approach likely won't be more than a mid-iron for most players. There are bunkers left and right of the green, and an offline shot can quickly bring bogey or worse into play. But that's what makes the hole such a great place for a dramatic finish. As Harvey Penick once wrote, take dead aim.
I really enjoyed my round at Pine Needles. I will say, having played it and Mid Pines (along with their sister course, Southern Pines Golf Club), that I have to agree with the locals I met who felt Pine Needles may be the third-best among these three really good courses. It's no surprise that the USGA chooses it to host its majors, as the course offers more room for the infrastructure necessary to contest a US Open -- grandstands, concessions, tents and suites, production and tour player support trailers. And I bet it's going to look fantastic in June, when the grass is green and lush. It's certainly a course I'd play again in a heartbeat.
One of my favorite things about playing at Pine Needles and Mid Pines was the fact that there seemed to be a million of these behemoth pine cones lying around everywhere. They were all over both courses (less so at Southern Pines), and if you found yourself playing a shot out of the trees, you had to be mindful as these things dropped around you like bombs from above. I mean look at this! These things are the size of cats! I made a point of snagging a couple of them during my round at Pine Needles. They made the trip home with me, and we're preseving them to display on the mantle above our fireplace -- a fun reminder of a couple days playing some really terrific North Carolina golf courses to break up the winter months and keep the swing from getting too rusty during the offseason up north.