You might think Sanford’s reputation as a golf hotbed is based on proximity alone. Living just a half hour away from one of the most famous golf communities in the world would certainly lead one to believe it.
But the four main golf courses that call Sanford home aren’t just benefactors of Pinehurst’s ability to draw golf enthusiasts from around the world. They are championship level in their own right. Home to professional tournaments. Regulars on state and national “best of” lists.
The four names who created them would make a tough-to-beat Mount Rushmore of golf course architects. Robert Trent Jones and Carolina Trace. Mike Strantz and Tobacco Road. Ellis Maples and Quail Ridge. The legendary Donald Ross and Sanford’s city course.
That’s right. Even our municipal course is full of history.
Golf has been a part of Sanford for nearly 90 years. The area’s had four courses for 25 of those years. And while the past decade has seen considerable growth — and with that, a booming wedding venue industry, new breweries, a revitalized downtown area, music and art festivals and other events that are drawing a record number of visitors locally — golf is still the No. 1 tourism draw in Sanford and Lee County.
“Weddings are certainly bringing in a lot of people and producing a lot of hotel stays, but golf continues to introduce more people to Sanford and Lee County,” says Wendy Bryan, executive director of the Sanford Tourism Development Authority. “Outdoor recreation is one of our eight pillars as a tourism authority, and while we’ve always known that people come here to play golf, the data over the past several years has only supported that.”
The oldest golf course in the world — St. Andrews in Scotland — dates back to 1552. It would be 335 years until the first course appeared across the Atlantic with the Quogue Field Club course in New York in 1887. The sport made its way to North Carolina with Pinehurst No. 1 in 1898, and Donald Ross’ famous Pinehurst No. 2 — site of the 2024 U.S. Open — opening to the public in 1907.
Ross’ genius made its way 30 miles up the road in 1934 with the opening of Sanford’s first golf course, with Ross designing the first nine holes. The back nine were designed by Bobby Powell, a former professional golfer who was course superintendent from 1967 to 1998 and creator of the Brick Capital Tournament.
Sanford’s second course, Quail Ridge, located along the U.S. 1 corridor, opened in 1967 and was the creation of Ellis Maples, whose father was a longtime construction superintendent for Donald Ross and greenkeeper at Pinehurst Resort. Maples began working with his father at the age of 14 and would follow in his footsteps as greenkeeper for Mid Pines and Pine Needles in Pinehurst. From the 1950s through the 1970s, Maples was considered one of the busiest golf architects in the nation.
Perhaps the busiest man in golf, Robert Trent Jones, designed or redesigned roughly 500 golf courses in his career that spanned nearly 70 years. He designed the Lake Course at Carolina Trace — then an upstart planned community built around a lake just south of Sanford — in 1971, and the Creek Course would open eight years later. Trace, like Quail Ridge, was part of a bigger plan to bring in residents to the growing area, and Trace in particular focused much of its marketing efforts on northerners looking to escape the colder climates and retire in the South.
Tobacco Road rounded out the foursome in 1998 and made an instant splash. Designed by the late Mike Strantz, the course was lauded for its beauty and difficulty and has since been recognized by Golf Digest Magazine as one of the 50 best golf courses in the nation and by several national publications and websites as one of the most difficult courses ever built.
Tobacco Road draws just as many tourists as it does local players and averages about 37,000 rounds played each year. Both Carolina Trace courses are consistently busy and host dozens of professional, U.S. Amateur and local nonprofit tournaments each year. Quail Ridge has seen an uptick in play in the last five years after its major renovations, and Sanford’s city course continues to be a big draw because of its affordability.
Based on data it’s gathered over the last three years, Bryan and the tourism authority believe Sanford draws more than 170,000 people to the area each year to play golf. If that’s accurate, then the sport has pumped millions into the local economy. Marketing efforts have been directed toward different parts of North Carolina and northern cities like New York City and Philadelphia. The effort has worked — Charlotte is the top “origin market city” for Sanford visitors, and New York is a surprising fifth (ahead of Raleigh, Asheville and other more local spots).
When Carolina Trace opened in the 1970s, golf in Sanford went from being an amenity to living here to a reason to move here, according to Kate Woods, president of the Carolina Trace Association, sales manager and food and beverage director.
“I’ve heard stories from the 80s and 90s where Trace had reps all over the East Coast at retirement fairs and home shows, directing people to Sanford to retire and live here,” Woods says. “And even today, it’s a huge draw, especially as more people are looking at Sanford, whether it’s people leaving Apex and Holly Springs or moving here for the military. Our community continues to grow.”
Local golf got a boost from an unexpected source in 2020 — when COVID-19 shut just about everything else down over a two-year period, golf courses thrived.
“As bad as COVID was for many people and many other industries or businesses, golf was one of the few things you could still go outside and do,” says David Von Cannon, the longtime golf professional at Sanford City Course. “And what that did was it introduced golf to a lot of kids that were at home, even parents that were at home. It got people out of the house and it also rehabilitated some people who had given up on golf in their 40s and 50s. And then that trend just kind of continued.”
“Our business busted wide open,” says Mike Hendley, one of the principal owners at Quail Ridge. “Sanford is a great golf destination to begin with. I expect that for the next 10 years, our growth is going to be amazing. We’re happy to be where we are. The future is just wonderful.”
Next summer will be huge for local golf and Sanford tourism. When Pinehurst hosted the U.S. Open and the U.S. Women’s Open at Pinehurst Resort in 2014, the tournaments drew more than 340,000 people combined, according to the U.S. Golf Association. Hundreds of thousands of people had to drive through Sanford on U.S. 1 to get to the tournament. Thousands stayed in Sanford, whether in hotels or by renting local homes for the week.
Bryan says Sanford will be even better prepared when the U.S. Open returns in 2024. At least one new hotel (possibly two) will be open along U.S. 1, and now that people are more familiar and more comfortable with VRBO and AirBnB, there will be more opportunities for Sanford homeowners to become “landlords” for a week and make a pretty penny.
And, of course, that will mean business for restaurants and breweries and lots of local tee times.
“We’ve been working with the Pinehurst [Convention & Visitors Bureau], and they’ve been a fantastic partner, because they know there will be more demand than supply in that area when the Open gets here,” Bryan says. “They’ve asked us to create a landing page that they’ll link to, and already our hotels are preparing a year out. It’s a huge event for Pinehurst, and it’s going to be a pretty big event for us, too.”