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Pinehurst still amongst best resorts in the world

Many consider this quiet town of 9,000 tucked amid longleaf pines and lightly rolling hills 90 minutes southeast of Raleigh the premier golf destination in the United States. It certainly has the pedigree.

There are eight championship courses at Pinehurst, a resort that dates to 1895 and thinks of itself -- with considerable justification -- as "the cradle of American golf." It fits in comfortably with Pebble Beach and St. Andrews as the game's tourist meccas.

Course architect Donald Ross, who arrived at Pinehurst from Scotland in 1900 and helped give the resort its enduring identity, stayed for 48 years and designed more than 400 courses in this country.

Pinehurst No. 2, Ross' first design in the Carolina Sandhills, is considered among the best layouts in the country.

It was the site of the late Payne Stewart's riveting U.S. Open triumph in 1999 and will be the site of the 2005 Open as well.

The PGA Championship, Ryder Cup matches and PGA Tour Championship have been some of other high-profile tournaments held at Pinehurst, and packages available at the resort give guests the chance to walk the same fairways and play the same humpback greens that have frustrated and challenged pros and amateurs for nearly a century.

There are three luxury hotels, led by the opulent Carolina, and enough charming shops selling pricey golf knickknacks to blow your walking-around money in an afternoon.

Spread around 2,000 acres, there are 144 holes of golf here, more in one resort location than any other spot in the world.

It's a year-round golfing hot spot, with well over 300,000 rounds played annually.

This is a world-renowned golfing magnet.

So the resort knows how to pamper its guests.

It's a place that beckons return visits if you really have an appreciation for the game and its history -- and enough cash in the vacation budget to cover the not-insignificant expenses.

But a visit to Pinehurst would be incomplete without a trip about seven miles down Route 2 to Southern Pines, a laid-back, small-package-big-surprise operation that surpasses the Pinehurst experience for some. Pine Needles and Mid Pines are two classic Ross layouts that straddle tree-lined Midland Road, each with distinctive, first-class lodging.

And they have nearly as much history as Pinehurst itself.

They are uncrowded traditional courses, both facilities owned by Peggy Kirk Bell, one of the founders of the LPGA and a noted instructor who has been rated among the top 50 golf teachers in the country by Golf Digest.

Julius Boros was the head pro at Mid Pines for years beginning in 1953; he won the U.S. Open and PGA Championship during his tenure in Southern Pines.

Mid Pines is the shorter of the two courses, which were built in the 1920s to help accommodate the overflow of golfers flocking to Pinehurst. It is tighter and more hilly than Pine Needles, topping out at about 6,500 yards to its neighbor's 6,900.

The subtle nature of both courses ensures that you can play them time and again without any feeling of sameness.

The courses, laid out virtually the same way Ross designed them more than half a century ago, are testament of his timelessness as a designer.

Pine Needles is the more well-known layout, site of the 1996 and 2001 U.S. Women's Opens.

The tournament will return in 2007, making Pine Needles one of only two courses to hold the tournament three times.

It's a playable course, without gimmicks, no water to speak of, but its subtle difficulties, particularly around the greens, are evident: Only two players broke par when Annika Sorenstam won the Open there in '96 and only Karrie Webb broke par when she won there two years ago.

And you won't find foursomes teeing off every eight minutes here to produce as many green fees as possible. The courses average barely 30,000 rounds a year.

"It's important for us not to overplay these golf courses," says Chip King, longtime director of golf. "These are small tees, small greens; we don't want to spoil the experience of this facility.

"That's philosophy of ownership -- ensure that the golf experience is as good as it can be and preserve the great sense of tradition."

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