By Bill Kamenjar in partnership with the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau.
Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills, Nags Head. Throw a Duck into the mix and you have about as fascinating a foursome of names as there is. Together they form the golfing hub of North Carolina’s Outer Banks. All up and down this mile-posted strip of seaside adventure there are outdoor things to do. Each one tempts you in its own particular way. You can swim on lifeguarded beaches, fish for marlin, visit the site of man’s first flight, watch the sun go down atop Jockey’s Ridge or just go for a stroll along the water’s edge. It’s a laid back, rustic setting with a cooling breeze made famous by two brothers from Ohio who changed the world. But once you’ve gotten most of those other summertime niceties out of your system it will be time to hit the links. And in terms of links golf, the heart of the barrier island that dangles off the coast like a pearl is a gem. It’s like hitting the sweet spot on your golf club, the point where impact is maximized.
As golf continues to grow throughout the region, the three mainstays of any OBX vacation remain Nags Head Golf Links to the south, Sea Scape Golf Club in the middle and Duck Woods Country Club farthest north. While Duck Woods, which plays through tall pines and other foliage is not a links-style design at all, the others are – perhaps two of the closest layouts to actually replicate what its like to play the game on original linksland of the British Isles.
Due to the lack of space, there is only a small handful of championship golf courses located right on the barrier island. This makes playing any or all of these three layouts particularly exclusive. Sandwiched between the sounds and the Atlantic Ocean, the designs take full advantage of the prevailing winds off the waters. Whipping up quickly, the breezes are said to be changing sometimes by the hour. This Jekyll and Hyde feature alters the complexion of the courses each time out. While Duck Woods is the oldest venue on the Outer Banks, Sea Scape and Nags Head are also mature designs with nobility in their blood. And both have aged beautifully.
Being the second course to arrive in OBX over time in 1965, Sea Scape is cut out of the maritime forest of Kitty Hawk and plays across signature dunes. The course was designed by Art Wall, who in 1959 shocked defending champion Arnold Palmer when he birdied five of his last six holes at Augusta National for his most notable career achievement. He won The Masters. That was, of course, before he shaped Sea Scape. Close enough anyway. Snaking in and out of the low-lying forest in somewhat of a links fashion, Sea Scape is a rhythmic blend of holes, some of which offering views of the Atlantic. Wall’s creation has weathered years of storms that have helped shape the character of the design. It continues on as one of the early pioneers in the OBX golf surge.
Moving down the coast you’ll find Nags Head Golf Links, with its enticing beauty along the Roanoke Sound. Designed by architect Bob Moore, Nags Head is possibly the most intricate design in the region, played over naturally shaped surfaces and requiring both muscle and mind. If your ball misses the fairway, there’s undergrowth to be found. In this respect, you may want to leave your driver in the bag on some holes and go with the more accurate clubs so as not to be blown off line. Its accuracy over distance at Nags Head, though if you catch the right wind at the right time on certain holes, you may want to go for it with the big club. While the beastly part of the layout is perhaps along the finishing holes on both nines as they play heavily impacted by the wind since they brush up against the sound, the heart of the course is no bargain. Many of the interior holes are tight and filled with doglegs and disrupted by dune moundings.
In all, Nags Head, it has been written, is “a lovely combination of coastal landscape, shifting dunes, sashaying sea grasses and native wildflowers. With 17 ponds, plenty of pot bunkers and low-lying scrubby vegetation, penalty strokes abound.” But mastered on a calm day or conquered with the wind howling, there’s possibly no more greater feeling than walking away from this OBX mainstay with your head held high.
Rounding out this Outer Banks proper golf trio is Duck Woods to the north near Southern Shores. Designed by Ellis Maples, who is well known around the Pinehurst area in the famed Carolina Sandhills, the course sports narrower fairways than its fellow OBX neighbors with water and tree-lined fairways providing the biggest challenge. A friendly course when managed properly, Duck Woods can become unforgiving if you begin to stray even the slightest from the fairway. Shots must be well thought out and carefully executed.