By David R. Holland
FRANKSTON, Texas – The expected celebrity photos in Pine Dunes Resort & Golf Course’s pro shop include the NFL’s highest-paid man, Kansas City Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes, Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers (came with former Texas Tech QB Graham Harrell), and President George W. Bush.
It is proof anyone can venture to the USA’s premier hidden gem.
“Pine Dunes is the best hidden gem in America,” said The Golf Channel’s Shane Bacon, Co-Host of Golf Today. “I’m telling you, it is a must play. Hard to find, off the beaten path, but when you find this golf course, it is one of the most spectacular 18-hole courses you’ll ever play.”
Golfweek likes Pine Dunes so much it was ranked the No. 1 course in Texas at one time. All the major golf magazine rankings love Pine Dunes and Golf Digest declared it as a “Best Places to Play in America” and awarded it a 4.5 rating (out of 5).
Now in its 20th season, Pine Dunes has added new lodging with dreams of a new clubhouse and a heralded membership drive. Named Double Eagle Club at Pine Dunes, I was lucky enough to be one of the first to spend the night in the upscale lodging, complete with high tech lighting, shades, DirecTV and bathroom plumbing Herb Kohler would like.
My room also had a view of No. 18 green and the driving range and was next door to the beautiful Great Room where owner Jodi Lutz hosted a wine tasting event for the grand opening. The Great Room is complete with kitchen, fireplace, jumbo table for meetings, large-screen TV and plenty of relaxation couches.
East Texas Hideaway and its History
Here in East Texas, where the Deep South ends with its western boundary, folks still eat grits, sit on front-porch rockers to cool off on hot summer evenings, drive pickups, say howdy and pitch in to help their neighbors.
But driving in to Frankston there are no highway signs declaring it as home to one of the best golf courses in the United States. That’s curious.
Back in late ’90, Ms. Lutz, a young entrepreneur, and a former pro figure skater from Minnesota, was looking for a unique investment opportunity.
Lutz, a senior portfolio manager for some D-FW professional athletes and creator of a million-dollar art supply business, was dabbling in commercial real estate when her agent posed this question: “How would you like to own a golf course?”
Even though she had never played the game, Lutz took the challenge. The land included a nine-hole course named Dogwood Trails, but it was primitive. She asked PGA Tour player David Frost to take a look at the property and he was “blown away” and convinced it would make a first-class golf resort. Frost then persuaded her to hire golf course architect Jay Morrish and son Carter Morrish.
Pine Dunes Resort & Golf Club opened in June 2001. The resulting 7,117-yard par-72 design takes you through a dense pine forest (some 80 feet tall) dotted with dogwoods, around rolling mounds, over more than 80 bunkers with rust-colored sand and past four bodies of water and sandy waste areas.
Buddy-trip golfers find a classic course that could be at home at Pinehurst, but it’s only 90 minutes southeast of Dallas and three hours from Houston.
Upon seeing the finished product Frost said: “There is no need to go all the way to Augusta National or Pine Valley to play a superb golf course, we have our own right here in Texas.”
When Dallas native Justin Leonard visited, he raved about the design, liking the consistent bunker sand, the fact that the subtle, slightly undulating greens require an accurate read, and he loved the tight fairways.
The Golf Experience
I was lucky enough to visit its opening year and then 20 years later. Pine Dunes continues its history of excellence and beautiful conditioning.
During that first season the late Morrish said the par 3s were the best he’d ever designed. Golfers will find his trademark driveable par 4s on both nines and a par 5 that has a split fairway divided by towering pines.
The golf is traditional, but No. 11, a 605-yarder does have a fairway interruption 307 yards from the back tees where you have to traverse a native, sandy waste area.
“I think just about every architect today is designing reachable par-4 holes,” Morrish said. “It’s a concept Tom Weiskopf and I loved to do. Everyone has the physical ability to play well on them if they use their head. It is strategic golf that’s much more fun than those long par 4s that only the young big-hitters can reach in two. I know I couldn’t compress a ball like that at age 65.”
The Texas-sized par-3 No. 6 is 254 yards from the back to a amphitheater green cut into a hillside. This one will challenge anyone. There’s water left, but you have to really yank it to go there. Even if you hit this massive right-to-left sloping green in one, there’s a tricky, sloping putt.
The only parallel holes on the course at 14 and 15 are beauties. No. 14 is a healthy 434 yards slightly uphill with a pond on the right 281 yards from the tee. The 15th is one of those reachable par 4s, 344 yards, with the same pond on the right and a huge bunker engulfing the fairway 260 yards from the tee. A 275-yard drive from the back tees will clear the trap, setting up a birdie opportunity.
Pine Dunes also has a double-sided 300-yard practice facility and you can grab food and drinks at the Pine Dunes Bar & Grill. For membership opportunities log on to pinedunes.com. Group outings are also popular here.
This piney woods golf experience is not to be missed — you just might think you are playing golf in North Carolina.
Photos Courtesy of Pine Dunes and David R. Holland