It was the best-kept secret in the North Carolina Sandhills. If you knew about Southern Pines Golf Club, you had been let in on a discovery almost exclusively whispered about by locals. In fact, it was referred to in code: the course was known simply as the Elks Club.
“It has always been a hidden gem,” Kelly Miller said. “My goal is to make it not so hidden.”
Miller, president of Pine Needles Lodge and Golf Club, led the acquisition last year of Southern Pines Golf Club from the Southern Pines Elks Lodge. The company now has three courses in the same area, all original Donald Ross designs, a unique situation, to say the least. Mid Pines opened in 1921 and Pine Needles in 1928.
Southern Pines, opened in 1906, is loved by the local community and revered by golf course aficionados. Miller believes it’s the best course site in Moore County, where Southern Pines and Pinehurst are located. But the Elks Lodge, which had owned the course since 1951, found that in recent years, it was ill-equipped to be in the golf course business and finally let it go.
Miller had been trying to pry Southern Pines loose from the Elks for at least 15 years and was always stiff-armed. But as it turned out, the fifth time was the charm and the two parties struck a deal in July 2020.
In recent years, the course had fallen into disrepair and along with design features that weathered away with time and poor maintenance practices, it needed a complete overhaul. Miller turned to architect Kyle Franz, who worked for Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore on the renovations to Pinehurst No. 2 in advance of the 2014 U.S. Open. Miller hired Franz for the renovations to Mid Pines in 2013, which were regarded as brilliant by many, and for the work in 2017 on Pine Needles, which will host the U.S. Women’s Open for the fourth time in 2022.
The greens and surrounds at Southern Pines were in need of the most attention and there will be 20 to 25 percent more green surface when things are complete. And Franz is building sandscapes, much like he did at Mid Pines. But an even bigger job is the removal of about 700 trees, which will create dramatic vistas throughout the course and accentuate the amount of elevation change on the property.
Franz is recreating Southern Pines’ “lost hole,” which Ross installed around 1911-13 and is not part of the 18-hole routing. The hole was about 120 yards and went from the fourth green to the 15th tee, creating a nine-hole loop with holes 1-4, the lost hole and holes 15-18. A regular green is being built at 120 yards and Franz is installing a sand green at 100 yards, which harkens back to the early days of the course.
And some yardage is being added to the back tees, which had been tipped out at 6,350 yards and will stretch out to around 6,900 after the renovation, with a par of 70.
“We’re not trying to make it more difficult,” Miller said. “We’re trying to get clubs in your hands that Ross wanted you to have, especially for better players. Having a little wedge for your second shot if you’ve taken a risk off the tee is one thing. But if you get that because it’s outdated, that’s what we’re trying to eliminate.
“If Ross were alive today, he’d be tinkering with it. Obviously, we want the renovation but we also want to do what Ross would have done to make it great. He was a master at that, like Pine Needles, it’s a course people would like to play every day but still can challenge some of the best players in the world. We want to make (SPGC) challenging for the better player and still fun for the average golfer.”
If Mother Nature cooperates, Miller says, the course will be open with renovations complete on Sept. 1, just in time for the fall season.
Miller wants everyone to know that he’s not trying to wrestle Southern Pines away from the residents to turn completely over to high-paying tourists. “We want to institute a type of system used in the UK, where locals play golf for a lower price while visitors pay a much higher rate,” he said.
Miller will also keep in place the memberships of those belonging to the Elks Lodge. “We want to honor their legacy,” Miller said.
While at the same time, spreading the word about their treasure of a golf course with a shout rather than a whisper.