A reborn Southern Pines is Donald Ross at his best and my favorite course of 2023

Southern Pines Golf Course

Renovations at Southern Pines have brought original Ross features to the fore.

Pete Phipps

In the Sandhills region of North Carolina, a golfer could lose track of all the Donald Ross designs with conifer-themed names. That, anyway, is what happened to me. Over the years, having three-putted my way from Mid-Pines to Pine Needles to Pinehurst Nos. 1, 2 and 3, I figured I had played every piney Ross project in the area that mattered.

Spoiler alert. I figured wrong—though, in my defense, I was not alone. During that same period, a lot of other people looked past Southern Pines Golf Course.

The course, which sits just down the road from Pinehurst, on land as compelling as any property in the region Ross ever touched, combines a lofty pedigree with a prized location. But it lacked the magnetism of its local competition. For decades, it passed as a Sandhills sleeper.

Management didn’t seem to mind.

From 1951 to 2020, Southern Pines was owned and operated by the local Elks club, a community-minded fraternal order that otherwise had little involvement in the game. Marketing a course wasn’t part of the Elks’ mission. Nor was preserving a Golden Age design.

Time wore on, and you know the story. Southern Pines retained great bones, but its flesh grew shaggy. Trees shrouded views and crowded playing corridors. Greens and bunkers lost their shape and contour. The course became a picture of slumbering potential. 

You just had look to see it.

Kelly Miller was someone who did. 

In 2020, Miller, an amateur golf icon who heads the group that owns both Mid-Pines and Pine Needles, purchased Southern Pines with ambitions to refine it in the same way that he’d upgraded his two other courses: he hired the architect Kyle Franz to renovate the grounds.

By the time Franz finished, in late 2021, Southern Pines had been returned to its rustic beginnings, with reborn greens and bunkers, rugged sandy wastes, and wider, firmer fairways that allowed the ground game and invited different angles of attack.

On the afternoon I played it, in perfect weather and gauzy, autumn light, Southern Pines looked sprung from a heathland dream, its rumpled terrain cast in sun and shadow, with purple native grasses popping all around.

The course tips out at less than 7,000 yards but bundles all kinds of fun into the package, with drivable par 4s, reachable par 5s and a fantastically varied collection of par 3s. Strategic choice abounds. You can run it low or fly it high. The greens, though less imposing than the notoriously penal turtlebacks at Pinehurst No. 2, are a wildly entertaining challenge, with false fronts and flared edges. An enticing test throughout.

The appeal of Southern Pines is all the greater for its lack of fancy extras. If you prefer a lavish clubhouse fronted by valet service, this is not your kind of place. You park in a dusty lot, pay at the pro shop and carry your own bag a few paces to the tee. It’s golf without the fuss, on a sandy, pine-lined canvas, just as Donald Ross intended. And a must for any golfer looking to round out a ‘best of the Sandhills’ list.

Josh Sens

Golf.com Contributor

A golf, food and travel writer, Josh Sens has been a GOLF Magazine contributor since 2004 and now contributes across all of GOLF’s platforms. His work has been anthologized in The Best American Sportswriting. He is also the co-author, with Sammy Hagar, of Are We Having Any Fun Yet: the Cooking and Partying Handbook.