Top 10 List of Public-Access Golf Courses for 50+ Golfers

It’s been said that life begins at 40, but for most golfers, the fun doesn’t really get going until a decade or so later—near the seasoned age near retirement. And for active adult golfers – those old enough to enjoy AARP privileges - there is no better playground than the Carolinas. The region boasts some of the world’s finest public access golf courses--and some of its most famous.

While a few of them are, frankly, too difficult, for anyone but scratch or near-scratch players, active adult golfers with moderate handicaps or better should be able to handle most of the Carolinas’ best venues - provided they play from the proper set of tees.

In compiling our list of Top 10 Carolinas Public-Access Golf Courses for 50+ Golfers, we selected courses we felt appropriate for golfers in reasonably good health and with handicaps in the low 20s or better. We assumed the courses would be played from the men’s forward tees, usually designated as the white tees. We picked courses that are not overly long and do not have excessive forced carries or overly rugged terrain - this is golf, after all, not mountain biking.

We also considered a course’s slope rating, which indicates its degree of difficulty for a typical bogey golfer. The slopes of our Top 10 courses (as calculated from the men’s forward tees) were from the low to high 120s, a range where the typical active adult golf will be substantially challenged, but not unfairly so.

A very high handicapper will probably find golf more enjoyable on courses with slopes in the neighborhood of 110 to 115 or less. There are many fine venues in the region that fit the bill. As for the rest of you, let’s tee up!

Pinehurst No. 2

Wasn’t this the course that hosted the U.S Open in 1999, when the only player to break par was the late, great Payne Stewart? That’s right. And the U.S. Open will be back at Pinehurst Resort next summer. No. 2 can be extraordinarily demanding, as the likes of Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Vijay Singh can all attest.

Don’t forgo a visit to this veritable golf shrine because of what you’ve seen on television, however. The pros play the course stretched to its maximum length, with narrowed fairways, high rough, and closely cropped putting surfaces, all of which would make the course nearly unplayable for the average golfer. But the legendary Donald Ross designed the legendary, 97-year-old course to yield difficult pars and easy bogeys, so it would be a fair test for amateur and professional alike.

From the white tees, No. 2 plays to a little more than 6,300 yards, with a slope of 127. Few balls will be lost as the fairways are fairly generous (except when set up for a major tournament), and even wayward shots are usually found quickly on the soft beds of pine needles that line the holes. There is only one water hazard on the course-- a small pond to the left of 16th tee - and only a duck hook will find it from the white tee.

2. Harbour Town Golf Links

Located at Sea Pines Resort on Hilton Head Island, Harbour Town Golf Links is the home of the MCI Heritage, an annual stop on the PGA Tour. The Pete Dye-designed, par-71 layout stretches about 6,100 yards from the white tees and weighs in at a slope of 127.

You will have to hit the ball straight at Harbour Town, as many holes are quite narrow. Players can also be challenged by the wind, although not as much as are the pros, who typically hit the ball high above the trees that help shield the course from sea breezes. 

The 18th hole is one of the country’s most memorable finishing holes, with the Calibogue Sound running the length of the hole on the left and the candy-cane striped Harbour Town lighthouse forming a backdrop to the green.

3. Pine Needles Lodge Golf Club, Southern Pines, N.C.

Pine Needles is another quintessential Donald Ross design, located just a wedge shot from Pinehurst in Southern Pines. Like Pinehurst, Pine Needles is adorned with thick stands of long-needle pines and features classic Ross architectural features. Pine Needles, however, is a somewhat kindler, gentler Ross track. From the white tees the yardage is just under 6,000, with a slope rating of 124.

Pine Needles has twice hosted the U.S. Women’s Open, in 1996 and 2001, and the national championship is scheduled to return again in 2007.

4. Tidewater Golf Club, N. Myrtle Beach, S.C.

Three-time U.S. Open champion Hale Irwin called Tidewater Golf Club “one of the finest and most spectacular courses on the East Coast.” Irwin, who was a consultant on the design of the course, may have been a little biased. But few who have played this stunningly beautiful layout in North Myrtle Beach would disagree. Named the best new public golf course by both Golf Digest and Golf Magazine in 1990, Tidewater has brilliant vistas of the Intracoastal Waterway, salt marshes and the Atlantic Ocean. Played from the back tees in a strong wind, the Ken Tomlinson is a bear. From the silver (6,160 yards and a slope of 129) or the copper tees (5,097 yards and a slope of 106), however, Tidewater is far more manageable. 

5. Linville Golf Club, Linville, N.C.

Tucked away in the scenic Blue Ridge Mountains, Linville Golf Club is yet another Donald Ross triumph. To play it, you’ll need to stay at the famed Esseeola Lodge next door. At an altitude of 3,800 feet, Linville remains substantially as Ross left it. The landing areas are generous and the approach shots to those turtleback greens are unimpeded by bunkers, but you had better be accurate. Hardwood and hemlock line the fairways and a trout stream--Grandmother Creek--winds through the property. It comes into play twice on the tough third hole, one of the most respected par-fours in the Carolinas. From the white tees, Linville extends some 6,280 yards with a slope of 129.

6. Caledonia Golf & Fish Club, Pawleys Island, S.C.

Built upon the site of a Southern rice plantation, Caledonia may be the finest work of free-spirited golf architect Mike Strantz. Featuring centuries-old live oaks and an antebellum-style clubhouse, Caledonia was named the fifth best new public course in America by Golf Digest in 1995. One of the country’s best short courses, Caledonia plays to just 6,526 yards from the tips. From the men’s forward tees, the par-70 track is only 5,710 yards. But with a slope of 129, Caledonia is no pushover. 

7. Rock Barn Golf & Spa, Conover, N.C.

The not quite two-year-old Robert Trent Jones Jr. Course at Rock Golf Club & Spa is a sensational, rolling layout in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. The home of the Champion Tour’s Greater Hickory Golf Classic, the Jones Course was recently ranked the fourth best new upscale public course by Golf Digest. Rock Barn also boasts a fine Tom Jackson golf course and a 20,000–square-foot spa, which features a full array of body wraps, aromatherapies, messages and other treatments. The Jones Course plays to 5,860 yards from the white tees and carries a slope of 123.

8. Wild Dunes (Links Course), Isle of Palms, S.C.

Tom Fazio, of Henderson, N.C., is arguably America’s top modern architect and his Links Course at Wild Dunes Resort is one of our favorites. Located on the Isle of Palms, just north of Charleston, S.C., Wild Dunes is a semi-tropical stay-and-play paradise featuring two Fazio gems—the inland Harbor Course and the Links Course. The latter features three of the most scenic ocean holes on the Carolinas coast. The par-16th plays out to the ocean and is followed by the par-4 17th and par-5 18th, which play through sea oat-strewn dunes along the blue Atlantic Ocean. The Links Course is 6,131 yards long form the white tees, with a slope of 125. 

9. Tiger’s Eye Golf Links, Sunset Beach, N.C.

The eye-popping Tiger’s Eye is the newest and the best of a trio of fine Tim Cate-designed golf courses at Ocean Ridge Plantation in Sunset Beach, N.C. Named one of America’s 100 greatest public courses by Golf Digest for 2003-2004, Tiger’s Eye has water on two-thirds of its holes, the difficulty of which is mitigated somewhat by the breadth of the fairways. From the Bengal tees, Tiger’s Eye runs 6,120 yards with a slope of 128. Too tough? Then move up to the Caspian tees at 5,136 yards and a slope of just 108. Tiger’s Eye has some 60 feet of elevation change--sot much by mountain standards, but a topographical marvel for a coastal golf course. The course also sports numerous bulkheads made of coquina boulders, sedimentary rocks formed from limestone and seashells.

10. Old South Golf Links, Bluffton, S.C.

One of the so-called Lowcountry’s finest golf courses, Old South Golf Links has a wide variety of terrain that ranges from maritime oak forest to pasture to tidal salt marsh. At just 5,779 yards from the white tees and with a slope of 119, Old South is a relatively user-friendly layout.  . Designed by native Carolinian Clyde Johnston in a spectacular natural setting, Old South was given a top-10 berth in Golf Digest’s list of best new public course in 1992 and remains a favorite of knowledgeable golfers in the region. You’ll need to keep your ball dry to score well at Old South--a half-dozen of its greens are at least partially surrounded by water.