Donald Ross, one through five. That’s basically the roundup for the top public-access courses in North Carolina, as the famed designer left fingerprints all across the Golfweek’s Best rankings in the Tar Heel State.
Best of all, there is a great variety among just those five. And scrolling down the list leaves plenty of other great options as well, be they original Ross designs or modern renovations on ground that Ross first shaped into golf courses.
Golfweek ranks courses by compiling the average ratings – on a points basis of 1 to 10 – of its more than 750 raters to create several industry-leading lists of courses. That includes the popular Best Courses You Can Play list for courses that allow non-member tee times. These generally are defined as layouts accessible to resort guests or regular daily-fee players.
No. 1 is, without any irony of nomenclature, No. 2 (pictured atop this story). The famed No. 2 course at Pinehurst Resort was built by Ross and opened in 1903. The native Scotsman loved the Sandhills around the resort so much that he lived there in a house, now known as the Dornoch Cottage and named for his birthplace, off No. 2’s third fairway from 1925 until his death in 1948.
No. 2 might be the best example of what have become known as Ross greens, frequently crowned with runoffs in all directions. Picture a turtle shell or an upside-down saucer – these kinds of greens demands on approach shots and even chips as players try to keep balls on the putting surfaces. The design team of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw renovated No. 2 a decade ago, returning the course to its sandy past while preserving the famed greens.
No. 2 has been the host of three U.S. Opens, with the next coming in 2024 and several more on the schedule as the U.S. Golf Association plans to move a second headquarters to Pinehurst, complete with club-testing facilities and more. Besides being the top public-access course in North Carolina, No. 2 ranks third on Golfweek’s Best Resort Courses list for the whole U.S. and is 15th on the Golfweek’s Best Classic Courses list for all layouts opened before 1960 in the U.S.
Players don’t have to look far to find the next course on Golfweek’s Best Courses You Can Play list in North Carolina. The course named No. 4 at Pinehurst Resort sits in the second spot, as well as sitting right next door to No. 2. Ross originally laid out a course on that rolling land, with six holes opening in 1913 and the full, original 18 available in 1919. The course was renovated over the ensuring decades by Robert Trent Jones and then Tom Fazio, and in 2018 Gil Hanse completed the most recent reimagining of the layout. Since then, No. 4 has jumped up the course ratings and ranks 28th on Golfweek’s Best Resort Courses list.
No. 3 in North Carolina is Mid Pines just across town from the famed resort. Built by Ross in 1921 on ground that features more elevation changes than Nos. 2 or 4, Mid Pines was restored in 2013 by Kyle Franz. Shorter and more intimate, Mid Pines is a can’t-miss course in the Sandhills region.
The fourth-ranked Pine Needles sits just across the street from Mid Pines and is owned by the same operating group founded by LPGA legend Peggy Kirk Bell. Also restored by Franz in 2017, this Ross design has hosted three U.S. Women’s Opens and will be the site for that event again in 2022. It’s a bigger layout than Mid Pines, with more length available as a championship test, and the two courses’ proximity and heritage make them a perfect target for traveling golfers.
No. 5 among North Carolina’s public-access layouts is Linville Golf Club, another Ross design that opened in 1924 about a three-hour drive west of Pinehurst.
But don’t consider those to be a complete roundup of must-see courses in North Carolina, which is ridiculously stacked with great public-access layouts, especially around the Pinehurst area.
The resort, for example, had four courses in all on the 2020 Golfweek’s Best Courses You Can Play list for North Carolina, with the course named No. 8 ranking seventh in the state and the course known as No. 7 ranked ninth.
A short drive north of Pinehurst in Sanford is Tobacco Road, ranked sixth among public-access courses in the state. Completed by the highly creative Mike Strantz in 1988, Tobacco Road offers several holes the likes of which won’t be found anywhere else – at times it feels more like a video game, trying to bounce balls off dramatic slopes to avoid hazards that scream to players, “Don’t go here.” Great fun.
And Mid South at Talamore Golf Resort, not far from Pine Needles and Mid Pines, was built by Arnold Palmer as a much more modern-feeling layout, and it ranks No. 13 in North Carolina.
Also worth noting, Franz in 2021 is working on another restoration of a Ross course at Southern Pines, improving the layout at the behest of the same owners of Mid Pines and Pine Needles. Southern Pines ranked No. 15 in North Carolina before the restoration. Sitting on some of the hilliest ground of any course around Pinehurst, it promises to be another great destination for traveling players when the work is planned to be completed in the fall of 2021.
Golfweek’s Best Courses You Can Play in North Carolina
1. Pinehurst (No. 2)
Pinehurst (16 c)
2. Pinehurst (No. 4)
Pinehurst (T88 m)
3. Mid Pines
Southern Pines (c)
4. Pine Needles
Southern Pines (c)
5. Linville GC
6. Tobacco Road
7. Pinehurst (No. 8)
8. Bald Head Island Club
Bald Head Island (m)
9. UNC Finley Golf Course
Chapel Hill (m)
10. Duke University GC
11. Pinehurst (No. 7)
12. Ocean Ridge Plantation (Tiger’s Eye)*
Ocean Isle Beach (m)
13. The Omni Grove Park Inn
14. Ocean Ridge Plantation (Leopard’s Chase)
Ocean Isle Beach (m)
15. Mid South
Southern Pines (m)
Golfweek’s Best Private Courses in North Carolina
1. Wade Hampton Club
Cashiers (No. 11 m)
2. Old Town Club
Winston-Salem (T21 c)
Cashiers (T59 m)
4. Quail Hollow Club
Charlotte (T65 m)
5. Grandfather (Championship)
Linville (T69 m)
6. Roaring Gap Club
Roaring Gap (T78 c)
7. Charlotte CC
Charlotte (T83 c)
8. Diamond Creek
Banner Elk (T76 m)
9. Eagle Point
10. Dormie Club
West End (m)
11. Forest Creek (North)
12. Biltmore Forest
13. Champion Hills
14. Cape Fear
15. Cliffs at Walnut Cove
*New to the list in 2020
(m): modern; (c): classic
Golfweek’s Best Top 30 Campus Courses
The rankings below reflect where these courses fall among the top 30 Campus Courses in the United States.
20. Duke University GC, 5.95
Durham, N.C.; Robert Trent Jones Sr., Rees Jones, 1957
21. UNC Finley GC, 5.91
Chapel Hill, N.C.; Tom Fazio, 1999
28. Lonnie Poole GC (N.C. State), 5.67
Raleigh, N.C.; Arnold Palmer, 2009
Golfweek’s Best Top 50 Casino Courses
The rankings below reflect where these courses fall among the top 50 Casino Courses in the United States.
38. Sequoyah National, 5.67
Whittier, N.C.; Robert Trent Jones Jr. 2009
Golfweek’s Best 2020
- Top 100 Best Courses You Can Play
- Best Courses You Can Play, state by state
- Top 200 Modern Courses
- Top 200 Classic Courses
- Best Private Courses, state by state
- Top 50 Casino Courses
- Top 30 Campus Courses
How we rate them
The members of our course-ratings panel continually evaluate courses and rate them based on our 10 criteria. They also file a single, overall rating on each course. Those overall ratings on each course are averaged together to produce a final rating for each course. Then each course is ranked against other courses in its state, or nationally, to produce the final rankings.