The Ross Trifecta
A new direction for an old gem
By Lee Pace
Despite the oft-told and entertaining story of Pinehurst founder James Walker Tufts commissioning a golf course in 1898 after learning that guests had brought their own clubs and balls and were hitting little rubber spheres in the dairy fields to the aggravation of the cows, evidence exists that golf was already being played elsewhere in the Sandhills.
Southern Pines was incorporated in 1887, and in 1895 the Piney Woods Inn opened on high ground northwest of the little town. The grand hotel built in the late Victorian style stood four stories high with ornate turrets atop the four corners of the structure and could accommodate 250 visitors. It offered golf, tennis and fox hunting for recreation, and a newspaper account in 1896 noted: “The golf links at Piney Woods start off immediately at the hotel. They consist of a nine-hole course — some fine natural hazards. The turf is firm and hard and kept in good condition.”
By 1906 another course was in operation on land to the south of the train depot and downtown. The evolution of Southern Pines Golf Club is a bit spotty, but the high points of a skeleton chronology include: nine holes open 1906; nine more by 1912; modifications in 1914; a third nine opened by 1924 with plans later in the decade for nine more (never executed amid the Great Depression); and sand greens converted to grass by the late 1930s.
The design and construction were supervised by Donald Ross, the Scottish golf majordomo ensconced in Pinehurst. By the end of the 1920s, Ross had seven courses operating in the Sandhills — four at Pinehurst Country Club, one at Mid Pines Inn and Golf Club (opened 1921), one at Pine Needles Lodge and Golf Club (1928) and Southern Pines.
A thread linking the three courses in Southern Pines is the flow of the land. Anyone who is a regular walker at any of the Southern Pines courses can attest to the strain of the fourth and 10th fairways at Pine Needles, up to the second and 14th greens at Mid Pines, and a half dozen holes at Southern Pines.
“The hills are rugged little mountains, giving all the charm desired to a climb or a walk in the pursuit of the game or in a ramble among the pine woods, where walks and roads and springs and forest foliage suggest the primeval,” read a passage in a 1920s print advertisement produced by Southern Pines Golf Club.
“Downtown Southern Pines is flat because it was located where the railroad ran, and it needed to stop on a flat part of the ground,” says Southern Pines resident and avid golfer Ran Morrissett. “But you get outside that little area and you start seeing quite a bit of land movement. Honestly, I think Southern Pines is the best block of land in Moore County. Think of these three courses — Mid Pines, Pine Needles, Southern Pines. Think of the land movement. To me, it’s the best topography in the area.”
Southern Pines Golf Club has existed for more than a century, first under the auspices of the town, then after World War II a Connecticut businessman named Mike Sherman (who employed a young accountant named Julius Boros), and finally over more than half a century The Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, one of the world’s largest fraternal organizations.
Walter Hagen and Sam Snead played an exhibition there in 1924. The women’s Mid South Open was held there in the 1930s and ‘40s with Patty Berg, Estelle Lawson Page, Babe Zaharias and Helen Hicks among the competitors. But the course over much of its recent life has existed in relative anonymity as the Elks have had neither the financial nor management capital to elevate it to its potential.
“Quite honestly, the Elks have no business running a golf course,” says Chris Deanes, Exalted Ruler of the Elks. “We’re a volunteer organization that focuses on charity and giving money away. Running golf courses is not what we do.”
Which is why the news that the Elks have turned management and ownership over to the umbrella company that owns Pine Needles and Mid Pines is cause for celebration in the golf community. Kelly Miller, president and CEO of Pine Needles and Mid Pines, proposed to buy or lease the course as far back as 2005 to no avail with various other stabs ever since.
“It’s been a long chase,” says Miller, who first came to Southern Pines in 1984, when he married Peggy Ann Bell, daughter of Pine Needles owners Peggy Kirk and Warren Bell. “I have fond memories of playing Southern Pines years ago. We had a group of guys who played various courses around the area. Southern Pines was one of them.
“I’ve always thought it a wonderful golf course,” he continues. “It’s one of the best routings in the area. It has great topography and a set of par-3s that are unmatched anywhere. The club has a lot of fascinating history, and I think it’s a perfect fit for us.”
Pine Needles has been in the Bell family since 1953, and the Bells have been partners in owning Mid Pines since 1994. Miller and partners took over the keys to Southern Pines Golf Club effective July 1, 2020.
“We’re happy the course is going to a family that understands the golf course management business,” says Deanes. “Kelly and his partners truly appreciate the essence of the course and are committed to preserving it.”
Miller says an 18-month course improvement plan is being developed that might include any of the following: design tweaks from architect Kyle Franz, who has supervised restorations at Mid Pines (2013) and Pine Needles (2018); resurfacing the greens; and rebuilding the bunkers and cart paths.
News of the transaction struck a chord across the golf universe on social media.
“A massive addition!” enthused Ryan Hub. “I can’t wait to see what management has in store for Southern Pines. Extremely fun course with some awesome greens that will only get better with the new management.”
“This is fantastic news!” said Jake Weaver, a South Dakota golfer. “Southern Pines deserves ownership that ‘gets it.’ I can’t wait to get back and see it like it was meant to be.”
“The opportunity to do something magical here is immense,” said Tate Adkins, a Winter Park, Florida, golfer. “The restoration work at Pine Needles and Mid Pines was exceptionally well-executed. Massive fan.”
Morrissett and Chris Buie are regulars at Southern Pines and have sung the course’s praises online (Morrissett is co-founder of Golfclubatlas.com, a site devoted to course architecture and history) and in print (Buie is author of histories on both the Southern Pines Golf Club and Donald Ross).
“When in the Pinehurst area, head straight for this beauty — you will leave more invigorated than when you arrived,” says Morrissett.
“The fact that Ross was able to forge not only fascinating individual holes but a masterful collection was an impressive feat,” says Buie. “As the course measures under 6,400 yards, it is playable to virtually all. Yet even at this length the sharp players find it curiously resistant to scoring. And it is amusing to see the college teams which regularly pass through puzzling over this while wandering back to their vans.”
There is not a flat hole on the course, and level lies are found mostly on the tee boxes. The par-5 fifth requires a draw, the par-4 eighth and 10th demand a cut. The pins can be tucked in nefarious spots on the canted greens. The course can play 300 yards longer than posted because of numerous uphill carries. And the fact that the ninth hole doesn’t return to the clubhouse vouches for the routing being as good as the land offers; there was no artificial demand to route two separate nines.
And there is little real estate and no pretension.
“You have those brush-ups with the homes on four and five, but otherwise you are secluded in nature,” says Morrissett, who has taken numerous guests to Southern Pines over the years who have been nonplussed by the modest infrastructure but then wowed by the layout. “Even people surrounded by great golf in New Jersey and New York ‘get’ the relaxed atmosphere and low-key vibe the course evokes. It’s just a different experience.
“I swear to God in its own charmingly befuddled way, it reminds me of playing in the United Kingdom, where it’s nothing to do with the club experience or the bar or the men’s locker room. It’s all about changing shoes in the parking lot, a quick hello to the pro and then off to the first tee.”
Morrissett and Buie are devotees of the “golden hour” at Southern Pines, pegging it at 5 p.m. and finishing by dusk. Morrissett applauds the vision and golf chops of the new owners — with one caveat.
“My worry is this little relatively undiscovered gem gains in popularity to the point you need a traffic cop at 5 p.m.,” he says. PS
Author Lee Pace has written about Pine Needles and Mid Pines clubs in his book Sandhills Classics, first published in 1996 and updated in 2009.