As we wake up at Pinehurst Resort on Christmas morning, my wife and I joke that we hope Santa has brought us new golf swings.
An hour later, to the sound of church bells ringing in the distance, we optimistically tee off at the resort's No. 2 course, hallowed ground for every golfer and the marquee attraction of a bucolic North Carolina village known as the "Home of American Golf."
Set in rolling and sandy countryside 113 kilometres southwest of Raleigh, the state capital, Pinehurst during the holidays is a Norman Rockwell canvas come to life. Towering Carolina pines, dogwoods, hollies and azaleas frame colourfully lit and garlanded New England-style cottages on streets laid out in a wagon-wheel pattern by Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of New York's Central Park. A fringed horse-drawn surrey filled with sightseers sedately passes by. In the village square, children gather beneath a sparkling tree to sing carols.
For more than a century, golfers and other vacationers have come to Pinehurst to enjoy the festive spirit and temperate climate (December highs average 12 Celsius) in a tightly knit community that has been stubbornly resisting change since some time around the presidency of Calvin Coolidge.
Pinehurst's holiday season officially begins with the lighting of the Christmas tree, carol singing and a visit from Santa in the village square. A Christmas parade follows in Southern Pines, an almost equally picturesque town whose main street is divided lengthwise by the railway; and the Moore Philharmonic Orchestra plays a holiday concert in Pinehurst on Dec. 20.
But for golfers, the focus of every visit, no matter the time of year, is on historic Pinehurst Resort, North America's largest golf resort, with eight courses, including the iconic No. 2.
Built in the grand style in 1901 and lavishly renovated in recent years, the resort's Carolina Hotel is decorated for the season with 25 themed Christmas trees, 400 poinsettias, 2,300 metres of ribbon and a giant gingerbread village in the elegant main lobby, complete with trains and lights.
Just as the North Pole is linked in the imagination with Santa, Pinehurst Resort is renowned as the long-time home of legendary golf architect Donald Ross, whose kindly likeness has pride of place on the walls of the Carolina and restaurants throughout the village.
After settling in Pinehurst in 1900, the Scottish-born Ross built the resort's first three courses (Nos. 1, 2 and 3). The roster has since grown to include superb designs by Tom Fazio, Ellis Maples, Tom and George Fazio and Rees Jones. Ross's masterpiece, No. 2, a layout infamous for its diabolically difficult inverted-bowl greens, has twice held the men's U.S. Open and will host both the men's and women's Opens in 2014.
Between rounds, Pinehurst Resort offers guests the free use of bicycles for exploring a postcard-perfect community that lives and breathes the game. The gracefully colonnaded Given Memorial Library houses a collection of historic photos and artifacts, including original drawings by Ross. Charmingly cluttered Burchfield's Golf Gallery offers an outstanding selection of original golf paintings, limited-edition prints and golf memorabilia.
Ross himself often frequented the still popular Pine Crest Inn, taking a drink among friends in the heart of a village where every day is like Christmas for golfers - even if a new swing isn't waiting on the first tee.
WHERE TO STAY Carolina Hotel 1-800-487-4653; www.pinehurst.com. Double rooms from $192 a person per night (including breakfast and dinner). The Holly and The Manor 1-800-487-4653; www.pinehurst.com. The resort also offers two small inns in the village, The Holly and The Manor, as well as 40 four-bedroom villas and 30 one-, two- and three-bedroom condominiums. Special winter rates for Canadians (including a round of golf at any of five resort courses and breakfast) start at $189 per person a night. Proof of a Canadian mailing address is required.
WHERE TO PLAY Pinehurst Resort 1-800-487-4653; www.pinehurst.com. Play at the resort's eight courses is restricted to guests, although non-guests can call for day-of-play bookings. The walk-on winter green fee at No. 2 is $439; other courses range from $177 to $284. For guests, green fees vary depending on the package. National Golf Club 1-800-471-4339; www.nationalgolfclub.com. Green fees $80 to $107. Carolina Golf Course 1-888-725-6372; www.thecarolina.com. Green fees $38 to $54. Tobacco Road Golf Club 1-877-284-3762; www.tobaccoroadgolf.com. Green fees $53 to $63.
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