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Summer on the Greens

A dispatch from the golf mecca of Pinehurst, North Carolina

by
Maggie Phillips
July 03, 2023

The rain finally cleared up on the last day of an uncharacteristically cold and drizzly Memorial Day weekend, so we took the kids to the driving range. To say golf is big here in the backyard of Pinehurst, North Carolina—the sometime home of the U.S. Open Golf tournament—is an understatement, akin to remarking on the Catholic-ness of the Vatican or the intrinsically Japanese character of Tokyo. That we are not a family native to the Sandhills (the creative nickname given to this sandy, hilly part of North Carolina) was belied by the hopelessness of our drives and the amateurishness of our putts.

Like many in this area, also known as the Republic of Pineland by the Special Forces soldiers who train here (so named for the abundant pine trees, you see), we are temporary residents of what is also a bedroom community for service members stationed at the fort formerly known as Bragg (Fort Liberty as of June 1). On the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, among the $500,000 Ferraris and McLarens on display at the annual Sandhills Motoring Festival in downtown Pinehurst, the emcee could be heard over the sound system acknowledging the sacrifices of the fallen.

My husband and I married on Memorial Day 2009 at West Point, in a chapel just a few miles from the cemetery where young men he graduated with some 36 hours earlier would lie buried barely two years later. Fourteen years later, as my family and I wound through the assembled crowd of Barbour, Titleist, and Patagonia to a coffee shop offering a 10% military discount, I wondered whether any of them actually knew any active-duty service members, let alone any fallen ones.

The resort town of Pinehurst was established in the late 19th century by soda-fountain baron James Walker Tufts, and was originally intended as a beneficent haven for Yankee consumptives. Tufts quickly yielded to the realities of contagion, however, and converted it to a Southern playground for wealthy sportsmen. The downtown is a collection of picturesque shops centered around a self-conscious imitation of a New England village green: Footpaths in front of expensively quaint cottages lead to a manicured central lawn, graced by the towering white spire of an inviting interdenominational red brick church.

Pinehurst is quaint (it’s a village, after all), but it’s not parochial. The gracious golf resorts that dot the county attract out-of-towners, just as Tufts intended. And next year, golf aficionados from all over will fly into either the Charlotte or Raleigh-Durham airports, and drive an hour-and-a-half to two hours to attend the 2024 U.S. Open Golf Championship at Pinehurst No. 2. One of my military spouse neighbors is already considering clearing out and cashing in by opening up her home as an Airbnb, since her husband will be away at some training.

A WASPy Brigadoon quality persists in the Sandhills to this day; the civic calendar is dotted with annual events like the “Blessing of the Hounds” before the Foxhound Society’s opening meet (presided over by a no-kidding, real-life jovial Anglican clergyman!). It’s also the kind of place where landed equestrians can still arouse one’s inner Fenian by attempting to block the building of a Catholic church near their property, citing concern for the horses’ quietude amid the undoubtedly raucous games in which the (assuredly many) papist children were likely to engage.

Aside from the summer heat that was due any day, Bible verses hanging on restaurant walls and the occasional MAGA flag served as reminders that we were decidedly not in New England. Reality intrudes in other ways. A proposed revitalization effort in nearby Southern Pines threatens local culture and property taxes in a historically Black neighborhood. This past December, the town’s historic movie theater hosted a drag show, prompting protests. Rumor speculated that it incited a disabling power substation attack. Even so, the theater began entertaining crowds at its popular seasonal outdoor concert series this month, and a small church plant meets in the theater’s loft every Sunday, where the pastor is flanked by Cary Grant and Greta Garbo posters.

Locals in this eccentric cluster of small towns warmly invite military families to join their rhythm of life as best we can. But, as we are conscious that we are perennial outsiders, the military-friendliness of the place only serves to highlight the differences on either side of the civil-military chasm. Intermixed with the swaggy golf bros and leisured retirees are the conspicuously unkempt, studiously disheveled Special Forces soldiers, and the 82nd Airborne Division paratroopers, whose military haircuts and summer “out of uniform” wardrobe of Under Armour and Oakley still constitute a de facto uniform.

But we’ll miss it when we move again (and we will move again). Whatever this place is, with its charms and contradictions, its pretensions and dissensions, it’s only possible in America.

Maggie Phillips is a freelance writer and former Tablet Journalism Fellow.

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