Just a few miles from the hustle and bustle of Pinehurst is a golf destination that feels a world away from the Home of American Golf.
The Country Club of North Carolina is a private community, located just a big traffic circle away from everything in Pinehurst and Southern Pines. The club, which hosted the 2021 US Junior Amateur in July, features two courses: the Dogwood, an Ellis Maples design that opened in 1963, and the Cardinal, which was a Robert Trent Jones project that opened originally as a third nine in 1970 before being expanded to a full 18 in 1981. Willard Byrd was part of both courses' architecture, too.
A residential community surrounds the two courses, with the houses well off the playing corridors and largely out of view. As part of the community, 26 homes are available for rent by members, most of which call CCNC a second or third club.
With many members in the Raleigh and Charlotte areas, CCNC is a respite. The club has slightly more than 800 golf members, with 40 percent of them considered local to the Pinehurst area. The remainder of the membership is in broader North Carolina or has a national membership, which only requires the member to live outside of North Carolina.
While Pinehurst is a six-hour drive from my home in Maryland, it was a mere two-and-a-half hours from Myrtle Beach, S.C., which is where my wife and I left to check out CCNC. Members and homeowners have their own lane through the gated entry, and we were greeted by the staff with everything we needed to get in and get settled at our rental home for the night, the Deuce. AirBNB and VRBO have made renting homes for golf trips easier and more accessible than ever, and having these houses as options at CCNC really makes it feel more like a member is welcome to stay, sprawl out and enjoy a slower pace for a while.
The hospitality continued with the people at CCNC -- from both staff and members. To a person, members all said hi to me and my wife, not knowing we were just visitors. The staff were welcoming and went out of their way to answer our questions and help us out. Southern hospitality is real, but the ethos of extending an olive branch to people in the community was refreshing.
We arrived for a late-afternoon tee time on the Cardinal course, and it was steamy. That's North Carolina in August. However, while the many great golf options in the area were packed with players, we saw but a handful of golfers on the Cardinal. We were able to move at whatever pace we wanted, and, given the heat, that pace was rapid.
Both the Cardinal and Dogwood courses represent a different era of championship golf, and they now prove an enjoyable contrast to what players will play outside the CCNC gates. Weaving through statuesque Carolina pines, the Cardinal emphasizes placement off the tee to set up approach play. The fairways are fairly generous, though they narrow substantially in spots where long hitters might try to push their advantage. The putting surfaces are a good size, on the larger end of the scale for the time period in which they were built. However, Jones and Byrd used smaller surfaces to challenge players on shorter par 4s and coming into par 5s -- with the expectation that shorter irons should be executed with more precision and that bold second shots into par 5s cannot be played with impunity.
In particular, the par 5s are the star of the Cardinal course, offering a variety of looks. The second hole plays to a wide landing area, with an emboldened golfer arriving at their ball to see a downhill second shot to a long, narrow green flanked on the right and back sides by a water hazard. The ninth hole is more demanding off the tee, and the fairway snakes right, then left, before arriving at the accessible green. The 11th hole is wide open and offers a simple challenge: get your approach shot over water and onto a wide green. Finally, the 15th hole is perhaps the best of the four par 5s, ideally setting up for a cut off the tee and another cut into a green cut into a sloping hillside that leads down to water for errant shots landing left.
There are some stout holes, too, including the par-4 sixth hole, which plays 454 yards from the 1-up tee with a slight dogleg featuring a nemesis bunker on the inside of the curve. The 16th hole is 445 yards, with a semi-blind tee shot and second shot, requiring the golfer to have the faith to hit exactly where they know they have to go.
The Cardinal course comes back to the 1960s-era clubhouse, which is modest but has great views of the first and 18th holes. It's also home to a casual eatery that is a great place to settle up after a fun day. The Dogwood course, however, finishes just in back of the main clubhouse, which has been updated during the pandemic to offer a modern décor. The Dogwood Bistro offered fine dining, including tremendous steaks. The menu even boldly offered a rack of elk ribs, which was perhaps a little too adventurous for me that day. From our table, we had lake views that extended onto the terrace and firepit areas.
My wife and I both enjoyed our meals -- I had a perfectly cooked filet -- and local brews from the tap. The service was great, and there was a good atmosphere that welcomed a more casual vibe at the bar while abiding those who wanted a fine-dining experience.
With CCNC located in Pinehurst, members can easily go into town if they wish and experience the wealth of golf in the Pinehurst-Southern Pines-Aberdeen region. However, the club's courses and other amenities give members everything they could want in one of the most golf-rich areas of the country. For golfers looking to spend more time in one of the great golf-centric places on earth, Country Club of North Carolina can offer a home-course feel with golf, food service and community fitting of a top-tier private club.