If you’ve flipped a club or two in disgust at Lonnie Poole Golf Course you’re not alone. In just a few short years since opening, North Carolina State’s layout has earned a reputation as one of the most difficult tests of golf in the state.
At 7,358 yards from the “Competition” tees, with a slope of 145 and a course rating at 74.8, the raw numbers back up the course’s demanding label.
But within the last year, the overall maturity of Lonnie Poole, along with a few calculated changes by management, has softened the layout a bit.
For starters, a sixth set of tees was added, called the Wolfpack tees, which measures 6,027 yards, or about 500 yards shorter than the Red tees, offering senior golfers an opportunity to score.
“The new tees have been awesome, and the ‘course is too difficult’ label is going away,” said Lonnie Poole director of golf Chip Watson. “Golfers can enjoy an awesome test of golf and have fun when they play the right tees.”
The biggest change has been on the third hole, a 552-yard monster par-4 in the original Arnold Palmer Co. design, which has now been converted to a par-5, changing the course par from 71 to 72.
The hole’s length was only one aspect that made it a bear to play – and try to avoid double bogey. There is ample room off the tee, but an errant shot left will find marsh, or if struck long enough, a large bunker. Then the hole makes its way downhill toward a waste area that cuts across the fairway, then back uphill to a series of bunkers and a blind shot to the green.
“It’s in the top 10 of holes I’ve designed and I’ve done a couple thousand golf holes,” said Erik Larsen, the lead architect on the Palmer project. “It didn’t feel like it was going to be that difficult on paper. We had to maintain that wetlands area down below the green, so it became not only the length of the hole that made it difficult, for most people that is a forced carry in the zone they have difficulty with. We said, ‘OK, let’s put some teeth in, let’s go ahead and make this thing a brute and layer the bunkers into the hillside between that and the green. There is some run-up to the left so you can elect to play it smart.”
Still, the hole as a par-4 created a backup of golfers either looking for lost balls or waiting to hit their second shots, and still not reaching the green on a regular basis.
“Once the course opened and we saw how hard the hole played – an uphill tee shot, usually into the wind, a second shot carry uphill over a hazard, to a small green with a false front — we were consistently moving the tees up to help the golfer and maintain the intent of the design,” Watson said. “But, it was still a difficult hole and golfers tended to wait to play their second shot to the green when they might hit it one out of 10 times. By changing to a par-5 and moving the tees back, it is now a true three-shot hole; people lay up and move on which speeds up play, and the green is more receptive to the wedge shot instead of a hybrid.”
Watson said when the course was being constructed it appeared the land might constrict Larson’s design team. “So, we found areas where we could stretch things out a few yards here and there,” Watson said.
“Then, we were able to make No. 8 fit across the creek that enabled us to do a few things, like stretch the second hole from the original 160 yards to now over 235; No. 8 from 160 to over 175. Once all of this happened, we chose to put in two “back tees” for No. 3 and we kept the hole as a par 4 as well.”
Now, cooler heads have prevailed, even though the third – even as a par-5 – still remains the No. 1 handicap hole on the course.
“The terrain of the golf course is completely unique to North Carolina, particularly around Raleigh with great rolling hills that drop down into these blue line streams in the bottom with some good vegetation and some open areas,” Larsen said. “It really was a pretty rugged site anyway, and we did not want to have a formal golf course. The land just didn’t speak that way. Plus it was something different. We were given the direction of producing a tournament golf course, something unique and different, particularly different from UNC and Duke. And this course provided that.”