The ocean, beaches and all things related are obvious draws to the Outer Banks. Less apparent, but equally compelling for many, is the lure of 18 holes in an attractive setting.
The Outer Banks has eight golf courses tucked into its geographically tight space. Four are on the barrier island, four others a short drive inland. They are varied in terms of difficulty, layout and cost, with qualities that appeal to all levels of golfers and wallets.
“What makes the Outer Banks such a terrific golf destination is the variety of the courses,” wrote Kevin Brafford, executive director of the Greensboro-based North Carolina Golf Panel, in an email. “I love the Sandhills, but many of the courses feel the same. Mountain courses are beautiful but sometimes tough to differentiate. Here, they all seem unique.”
The area’s golf courses include a track designed by famed architect Rees Jones (the Currituck Club), links-style courses (Nags Head Golf Links, Sea Scape Golf Links), a club that’s twice hosted the State Open (Kilmarlic), a tight gem tucked among the trees in Southern Shores (Duck Woods Country Club), and accessible, well maintained sister tracks on the Currituck mainland (The Pointe and Carolina Club).
“There’s not a bad golf course down here,” says Cathy Johnston-Forbes, a teaching pro based out of Kitty Hawk, who spent 21 years on the LPGA Tour. “They’re all in good condition, which is surprising for an area this size. But everyone puts a lot of time and effort into keeping them in good shape.”
Nags Head Golf Links sits alongside the Roanoke Sound and offers a picturesque, Scottish-links type of experience. In 245 reviews on Golf Advisor, 213 reviewers gave the course four or five stars, out of five.
“Nags Head (Golf Links) has always been a favorite of mine because of the accessibility and its playability,” Brafford wrote. “For most North Carolina residents who are visiting the area, it’s the first course you see. To play it well requires accuracy off the tee. The greens, while fair, are among the most difficult to read of any coastal course I’ve played.”
The area’s other links-style course, Sea Scape, provides its own challenges.
“It’s like two different golf courses,” says Tim Connell of Williamsburg, an 8-handicapper whose family has vacationed at Sea Scape’s golf villas for three decades. “The front side is wider and a little more open. The back side is a little tighter and tougher. But it’s very challenging. And every year, it’s always been in excellent condition.”
Connell began coming to Sea Scape with his in-laws 30 years ago and eventually purchased a week for two condos at the golf resort, always in late June or early July. Ownership, or residence, at the resort provides a number of free rounds, and Connell and various partners often play four or five rounds per week.
“We would come back, regardless, because of the family history,” Connell says. “But the golf course being right here, for me, it’s a solidifier, for sure. It’s just so convenient.”
Duck Woods is a private club with public accessibility. The course is open to the public, though members have priority for tee times. Sandy Eanes of Kitty Hawk said that the course’s narrow fairways and abundant water put a premium on club selection and accuracy.
“The mental part of the game comes into play a lot,” he says. “You can’t just knock it around. It definitely challenges you at every level of play.”
“Every course is different,” Johnston-Forbes says, “and one of the best things about them is the variety within each course. Sometimes, you play a course and when you finish, you think, ‘I played the same hole five times.’ That’s not the case here. And the courses here aren’t overly long. They can stretch out a little, but they’re accessible for golfers at all levels.”
Like Nags Head Golf Links, The Currituck Club, and Kilmarlic routinely appear in the N.C. Golf Panel’s list of top 100 courses in the state in recent years. The Currituck Club was No. 66 and Kilmarlic No. 81 on this year’s list. All three also appear on the panel’s list of Top 50 Courses You Can Play, which are the best courses open to the public.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to travel to a lot of places and play golf at a lot of different courses,” says Brian Sullivan, director of golf at Kilmarlic. “Places like Pinehurst and Myrtle Beach, I would put our courses alongside them and not bat an eye.”
Kilmarlic, which sits among maritime forests and wetlands, is highly rated and was chosen to host the N.C. Open in 2004 and ’09.
Kilmarlic, Brafford wrote, “gets better with each passing year. The variety of the par-3s stand out, as does the conditioning. Because it’s more inland, you get less wind. And because there are so many par-5s and par-3s, if your short game’s in good shape you can shoot a good score.”
In addition to his duties at Kilmarlic, Sullivan’s wife runs a golf travel business on the Outer Banks that sets up trips and is aligned with various hotels and most of the area’s courses for multi-day ventures.
“We’re starting to get known as a golf destination,” Sullivan says. “It’s in people’s minds that they can play golf on quality courses for several days.
“When you factor in the restaurants, shopping and spas and sightseeing, we have all of the same qualities that any other golf destination has.”
The Pointe, a few miles inland at Powells Point, and the Carolina Club, a little farther north in Grandy, routinely get high marks for their layouts, value, and course conditions.
“The thing about our two courses is they have fine, playable layouts,” says Doug Kinzer, director of golf at both The Pointe and Carolina Club. “Some of the courses at the beach, the way they’re designed and because of limited space, they can be more penalizing for golfers who aren’t highly skilled. If you miss fairways (here), you can recover. We have modest designs that are fun and playable for the average golfer. Yet the better player, the more skilled golfer, can really appreciate the course conditions and still find it challenging. We think we consistently provide the best playing surfaces in the area.”
Indeed, 179 of 184 reviews on Golf Advisor give The Pointe four or five stars. Nearly 99 percent of reviewers recommend the course, and in 2016, the GA site ranked it the No. 15 course in the state. One hundred thirty-one of 136 reviewers rated the Carolina Club at four or five stars. Based on GA reviews, the Club was rated a top-10 course in the state in 2015 and ’16.
“We have great course conditions, playable designs, and we’ve always tried to put a premium on customer service,” says Kinzer, a Thomasville native who has been at The Pointe since it opened in 1996. “Golf in general is not an inexpensive hobby, and we’ve been able to offer very competitive rates for the Outer Banks.” The Pointe also features the Outer Banks’ largest driving range, which is open to the public and not limited to those playing the course. There’s also joint memberships available for both clubs.
The Currituck Club’s pedigree begins with Jones, who designed major championship courses Bethpage Black in New York and Hazeltine in Minnesota, as well as Wintergreen’s Stony Creek in Virginia and Pinehurst No. 7.
When the Currituck Club opened in 1996, Golf magazine called it one of the 10 best new places to play.
“The Currituck Club’s location is unrivaled on the Outer Banks,” Brafford wrote. “It’s a beautiful piece of land with more elevation changes than you’d think possible given that it’s only a few hundred yards from the ocean.
“It seems as if the wind’s always blowing … it’s just a matter of how hard and in what direction.”