Few places change on a daily basis like the Outer Banks. Guarded to the east by the mighty Atlantic and to the west by a series of picturesque sounds, hurricanes, winter storms, sand dunes and wind have combined to form a magical landscape.
The golf at Nags Head Golf Links and sister club Currituck Club is no different. Chapel Hill-based architect Bob Moore, who designed Nags Head in 1988, first set foot on the property more than 25 years ago and took an hour to figure out where he was despite intensely analyzing a topography map in hand.
Well, the drawing Moore was reading was 10 years old, and the projected “high point” on the course now had the architect sitting in a valley.
“The dunes had migrated,” Moore explained on a recent return trip to his third-ever layout. “Some moved almost 100 yards in less than 10 years. Normally topographic change is measured in millennium, not decades.”
And Mother Nature’s fury has been golfer’s gain at Nags Head. A buffer of live oaks, wax myrtles, beach grasses and sea oats situated between the golf course and the Roanoke Sound in Moore’s original design has eroded and been replaced by sea wall bulkheads, providing magnificent, unencumbered views of the massive body of water on four holes.
Currituck Club, situated on a swatch of sand near the historic Sanderling Inn about 40 minutes north of Nags Head in Corolla, also has four sound holes and was designed by renowned architect Rees Jones.
For the water views alone, tackling Nags Head Golf Links and Currituck Club should be atop a bucket list of “must plays” across the state of North Carolina.
“On certain holes you can smell the salt air, hear the waves,” said Currituck Club general manager Jack Stone. “And then there are the non-interrupted sound views. It is just gorgeous. Rees Jones did a fantastic job of using the land he had and what nature carved out for him. He did the absolute best here.”
“You would have to go up to Long Island to find anything even comparable to Nags Head Golf Links,” added Moore. “You can go all the way down the coast of South Carolina and into Georgia and there is nothing like these sand dunes and a golf course on the edge of a sound. Even in Scotland, you don’t have this kind of connection to the water. There are always dunes, and sometimes you have a hard time even seeing the ocean.”
Nags Head Golf Links and the Currituck Club are both ClubCorp properties, but each course has its own distinct character.
Nags Head measures just 6,126 yards from the tips, with an opening 292-yard “downhill” par-4 – in which you can see the Atlantic off in the distance – setting the tone for a layout that measures a golfer’s brain more than his brawn. Wind also plays a factor on most days here, making the yardage book an illusion at times.
“The wind can shift completely, blowing 180 degrees on the same day,” Moore said. “If I had designed it for the wind to play as a long par 4 the next day it might play as a short par 4, so it’s a different layout each day … each hour sometimes.”
“There is a ton of risk-reward involved in the golf course,” added Steven Wright, the general manager at Nags Head. “For people who come out and just hit driver and rip it they are going to lose some golf balls here, but if you work the strategy around the golf course you have some birdie opportunities. The length is very deceiving.”
On a rare tranquil day in late July, I carded four birdies – including three “2s” on the card – for a low round of the year, a 76. Just as fun was tagging along with Moore and Wright as the two talked about possible improvements to the course.
After the round, Moore chatted with members prior to lunch in the Nags Head dining room, which comes equipped with a top-notch beer menu and one of the state’s best 19th hole views.
“This is the most cleverly designed golf course I’ve ever played and I’ve been around for a long time. What you did was just brilliant, just brilliant,” Nags Head member Tom Murphy told Moore.
Most around the Triangle are familiar with Moore’s work, and he has an extensive award-winning portfolio overseas along the Pacific Rim in Asia. His first career design was Wildwood Green in North Raleigh, and he has also built Heritage Club in Wake Forest, Chapel Ridge in Pittsboro and Cutter Creek in Snow Hill.
Moore was fortunate at Nags Head to work for Raleigh-based developer Jud Ammons, who had a vision beyond high-end beach real estate.
“When I first stepped on the property it was impressive as hell,” Moore said. “You stood on the high point of No. 12 and it was all out in front of you. I knew then it could be very, very special, but when Jud understood that it was in the project’s best interest to put golf on the sound so the housing had both the golf view and the sound view I knew it was going to be great.”
The natural flow of the dunes at both Nags Head and Currituck Club allowed for Moore and Jones to move very little dirt, similar to how legendary architects Donald Ross and Ellis Maples designed so many courses across the state for decades.
“I was literally blown away by the quality of the land and the fact that we had wetlands and dunes, and some of the other topographical changes,” Jones said. “We could build some very distinct and different types of holes. It is just so natural, a natural piece of ground. It is nature’s pathway into the game of golf.”
Both courses appeal to those who vacation on OBX because neither beats you over the head with length while affording various ways to play each hole.
“And it’s just a great place to get away from it all,” Jones said. “It has been 18 years since I designed Currituck Club and the popularity of the course tells you something, that every caliber of player is able to enjoy it.”
Triangle golfers can now reach Nags Head Golf Links in three hours, with the upcoming fall golfing season an excellent time to beat the crowds and experience a unique golfing round. Both courses are also in excellent shape this season.
“Some call us an undiscovered secret,” said Stone of Currituck Club. “People have been coming here for years and years to the Outer Banks and stumble across us. Every year we hear things like, ‘We drove past it and never realized you were here.’ People are absolutely still finding out about us, and once they try us they realize we’re a little bit different than anything around. We kind of get them hooked.”
“When I got here a little more than a year ago I was fascinated,” added Wright of Nags Head. “I had never seen anything like it. It is true links golf. Who knows what you’ll shoot, but you’re guaranteed beautiful views.”
And in Nags Head in particular, a course that couldn’t, or wouldn’t, be built today due to wetland restrictions and the escalating value of OBX beach property.
“Land is so valuable that nobody would allow you to put golf on this property,” Moore said. “It would all be development. Jud (Ammons) knew he wanted the amenities with this project and knew the amenities would be big for its success, mainly because there was nothing else like it. He built all of the streets and the entire golf course and this clubhouse before he started selling real estate. That was a huge investment.
“As a golf course architect there are always things you would change looking back 25 years ago,” added Moore, “but it is a pretty solid piece of work. It has stood the test of time … and really is one-of-a-kind.”
Just how unique? Well, Nags Head received a very prestigious recognition from Facebook fans on PGA.com during The British Open Championship, being ranked as the No. 1 links-style golf course in the United States. The top five included Whistling Straits, Erin Hills, Bandon Dunes and Chambers Bay, the site of the 2015 U.S. Open.