No Losers

Embracing the best kind of debate on a Mid Pines adventure

Vodka, ginger beer, lime juice. Three simple ingredients make a Moscow Mule, or as they’re now called at the Madrone Art Bar in San Francisco, a Kyiv Mule. Michael Krouse, the bar’s owner, had seen enough of the atrocities unfolding in Ukraine, so he poured out all of his Russian vodka (including some Stoli before realizing it’s made in Latvia). He scoured the internet for Ukrainian-made spirits to substitute, eventually finding Prime vodka—distilled in the northeastern region of Kharkov. Krouse bought as much Prime as he could and pledged $2 of every Mule sold toward a Ukraine crisis fund. A few weeks later, his distributor went dark. Word got back to Krouse that the distillery had been bombed. 

He tells me this on the back porch of the Mid Pines Inn—the central hub of three classic Donald Ross courses located within five miles of downtown Pinehurst. We’ve both just checked in for a three-night stay along with 60 fellow Golfer’s Journal Members, some of whom are finishing up play on the 18th green just below us. Conversations on the porch bounce between first impressions of Mid Pines, anticipation for the newly renovated Southern Pines, and speculation around this year’s U.S. Women’s Open at Pine Needles. Which will be best? We can’t wait to find out. Shadows of the pines framing No. 18 grow longer with every exchange. 

The last time the world was on the brink of war, Mid Pines was shut down and used to house military personnel. Donald Ross’ 1921 design was left to grow over during World War II, and the interior of the hotel was spray-painted beige. When the course reopened in 1944, Ross suggested that Frank and Masie Cosgrove take over. Frank ran the golf course, and Masie fixed up the hotel. In 1953, they partnered with another local couple, Warren and Peggy Kirk Bell, to acquire Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Course just across the street. 

Midway through my first lap around Pine Needles, I wondered if this year’s U.S. Women’s Open will be held at a different Pine Needles. With only three months until a champion is crowned, I can’t find a corporate tent buildout, let alone a USGA sign. There isn’t much room behind these Ross greens for grandstands. There’s even less along the fairways where sandy, shrub-covered washout areas lead into the backyards of single-level family homes. One of those homes on the back nine belongs to Sal Filardi. 

I first met Sal at Tobacco Road, 30 minutes down the road in Sanford. He was caddying on the weekend to earn some extra dough for his newborn daughter’s college savings. Between that and his day job as a Green Beret stationed at Fort Bragg, M.J.’s higher education is in good hands. After my round, I pop over to see them both. 

Many might imagine the residents of Southern Pines, North Carolina as retirees who spend their mornings poking 7 woods down the fairway and their evenings playing bridge with the neighbors up the block. I certainly did, until Sal gives me the neighborhood scouting report over a roaring bonfire in his front yard. He explains how there’s really two places to live when you’re stationed at Fort Bragg: Fayetteville and Southern Pines. He says the Special Forces soldiers he works alongside prefer Southern Pines for the back-road drives, spacious front yards and nearby schools. As I’m processing all this, he gets to the point: today I played past the houses of some of the baddest men and women on the planet. 

Picture that: Lurking among the buddy trippers and boardroom execs at America’s cradle of golf are the subjects of action movies. They’re smiling and waving as they cut their grass during the day, and prepared to drop into a hostile nation’s territory unannounced at night. 

Before I head back across the street to the hotel, Sal hands me a coin from his unit. On it is a George Orwell quote: “People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.” As I walk through the foyer of the Mid Pines Inn, it’s clear that Southern Pines is far from the sleepy golf town that it appears to be. I pass by the bar on the way to my room. It’s now serving American Mules. 

Donald Ross left little room for grandstands at Pine Needles—host of this year’s U.S. Women’s open.

Did Peggy Kirk Bell sound familiar? LPGA Founder, World Golf Hall of Famer, Pine Needles owner and so on? Well, she and Warren “Bullett” Bell had themselves a daughter, Peggy Ann Bell, who ended up marrying a fine, young player from the University of Alabama named Kelly Miller. Instead of chasing the dream, Miller did it right: He lived it. He’s won five club championships at Seminole, four at Pine Valley, married into the legendary Bell family, and these days is the CEO of the parent company overseeing these three fabulous Donald Ross courses. 

Up until 2020, the Bell company only had two fabulous Ross courses. Since 1951, Southern Pines had been owned and operated by the local Elks club. That’s right—the old guys with the cheap drinks and fish frys. It was a rundown, daily-fee course with world-class bones. Every good player who passed through could see its potential, including Miller. He tried and failed to get it for 20 years until the Elks finally budged.

The first order of business was getting Kyle Franz on board to dust off those incredible bones. Franz first came to the area to help Coore & Crenshaw with the restoration of Pinehurst No. 2. Miller kept him around, hiring him to touch up Mid Pines and Pine Needles before handing him a blank slate in Southern Pines. The result is somewhere between Ross’ soul and Franz’s mind. 

“It’s modern,” Brett Cyrgalis warns me on the first tee. As author of “Golf’s Holy War: The Battle for the Soul of a Game in an Age of Science,” he’s uniquely qualified to spot the difference between restoration and renovation. A few holes in, I see his point. The greens are big. Massive. The slopes are severe. Not in the traditional Ross turtleback way, but in a rollercoastering, ‘You better be on the correct tier’ way. The pines have been plucked thin, opening views around the lake that sits between Nos. 8, 9, 10 and 11. Like Steve Carell with a salt and pepper beard, it’s the right amount of scruff. If Mike Keiser plopped it between Sand Valley and Mammoth Dunes, we’d all nod in agreement. 

Look hard enough and you’ll still see Ross. He still wants you to draw it around the corner on 18, just like at Mid Pines and Pine Needles. You’ll still come up short to half a dozen pins, because you can’t believe they actually play uphill. In the clearing behind the 13th tee box, you can peer back into history and see the bones of a Ross-made ghost hole.

As I write this, the collision of old fundamentals and new techniques at Southern Pines makes for the most dynamic and best offering of the three. Ask me tomorrow and I might have a different answer. And that’s the beauty of Miller’s trifecta. There’s Mid Pines, the wise elder who needn’t be rushed or overthought; Southern Pines, the cool, new kid, gleaming with the promise of fulfilled potential; and Pine Needles, the steady adult who cleans up nicely when company arrives. You add in the historic hotel just footsteps away from two, and a short drive from the other, and it was no surprise so many Members in our group were making plans to come back before we even left.  

Back in the hotel that night, we gathered around the television in the game room to watch North Carolina take on Kansas for the NCAA basketball championship. With Chapel Hill just an hour away, a gravitational force pulls everyone closer for the final possessions of a tied game. As great as the game was, when the final seconds ticked off, conversation turned back to the Pines triplets. Which one is better? Which one did you like better? Are those different questions? The home team didn’t pull it out, but there were no losers in the case of Mid Pines, Southern Pines, and Pine Needles. Only favorites. 

On our third and final day at the Inn, I headed back across the street to Pine Needles. A severe storm washed away any aspirations of 36, so I’m forced to settle for lunch. Inside, I noticed Miller sitting in the corner, tucking in his napkin as he prepared to tackle some homemade fried chicken and sweet slaw. I walked over to pay my respects. He smiled as I told him how much I’ve enjoyed all three of his golf courses, and all for different reasons. He’s got a lot to smile about. He did it right. 

One of the upsides to Pinehurst’s perpetually running golf factory is that there’s a good chance you know somebody who’s also in town. And if they’re not on one of the 30-plus golf courses within city limits, there’s a good chance they’re at Drum & Quill. The Irish pub downtown is named for legendary golf writer Bob Drum who, at the 1957 Masters, tipped off Dan Jenkins about a can’t-miss kid he’d discovered at The Pittsburgh Press: Arnold Palmer. Drum passed away in 1996, but he’s still bringing good people together. As the rain gets heavier, I run into Ted Camp. 

I met Ted during a TGJ event at The Saticoy Club in Southern California last year. There I learned of his past as an Air Force fighter pilot, and his present as a 737 captain for American Airlines. I heard about the time he, on a whim, opened a golf equipment franchise in The Villages—the sprawling 55-and-over community in Central Florida with more than 50 golf courses. And how he survived stage 4 throat cancer. Here we pick up right where we left off over fried green tomatoes and tonics. We make plans to hit Tobacco Road before my 4 p.m. flight tomorrow. 

As the clock hits 2 p.m. the following day, I tap in my birdie on the par-5 13th underneath the famed Tobacco Road entrance sign. I’m 4 under on the day and haven’t missed a green, haven’t had a birdie look outside 20 feet. I briefly debate staying another night before begrudgingly admitting that real life can no longer be ignored. Ted tells me he’s hanging up his wings in three years and wants to come ride in the TGJ Van in our next slate of adventures. I reply that we’re going to hold him to it and race toward the rental car return in Raleigh. My bags make it with 10 minutes to spare. I glance at the board and see my flight has been delayed until 6:30. More time to consider which of the three Pines I’ll play first on my next visit.