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Upper-level courses

The Baltimore Sun

DURHAM, N.C.-- --Tiger Woods was once asked to rate the best courses he has played. Though typical candidates such as Augusta National were mentioned prominently by the world's best player, so were other, unlikely gems, such as the course at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Courses - not those focusing on biology, mechanical engineering or journalism - are some of the rare finds on the golfing landscape, especially here in a part of the country that is a hotbed for college basketball.

The Dean Dome and Cameron Indoor Stadium have nothing on their golfing counterparts at North Carolina and Duke.

But getting the word out is sometimes difficult to do because those running the courses can't advertise what is essentially a not-for-profit operation where the greens fees for students and faculty members are subsidized by the university.

Ed Ibarguen, the head pro at the Duke University golf course in Durham, nearly found that out the hard way shortly after coming over from rival North Carolina in 2000.

"I put an ad in the local Yellow Pages and I almost got fired," Ibarguen said.

It didn't help when a five-star resort was built adjacent to the course in 1988 and was called The Washington Duke Inn and Golf Club. Most assumed that the course, which had been around since 1957, was private.

"They didn't know that it was open to the public, and some still don't," Ibarquen said.

Though some of the 80 or so courses on college campuses are simply cow pastures with flagsticks, many have become a great, affordable experience.

"Some university golf courses are not diamonds in the rough, they're ghosts in the field, so to speak," said Mike Wilkinson, who was Ibarguen's assistant at North Carolina's Finley Golf Course and is now its head pro. "That's all dependent upon the university and the people that are funding the facility. We're fortunate to have a top-notch designer to design and the university to support the facility."

The University of Florida's golf course has been rated among the top public courses in the country, but for those not able to make the trek to Gainesville, there are a number of top-shelf courses within an easy drive from the Baltimore area.

You can go 3 1/2 hours north to Penn State's Blue and White courses as well as four to five hours to Virginia Tech, Duke and North Carolina. And one of the best bargains can be found in College Park, where Maryland's course offers membership for as little as $1,600 a year.

"Each situation is really unique and different," Wilkinson said. "To try and compare one university golf course with another university golf course is difficult to do. Locations are different. Budgets are different. There's just so much that goes into running the golf course."

Finley Golf Course was built in 1949 and completely redone by noted designer Tom Fazio in 1999 at a cost of $9.2 million. The par-72 course can play as long as 7,091 yards from the Tar Heel tees to 5,017 from the red tees.

"It is all that a Fazio is supposed to be," said Wilkinson, whose course was voted the best new course in North Carolina by Golf Digest in 2002.

A stand-alone entity - meaning that it is part of the university but privately funded - Finley (at least the original version) is where Davis Love III honed his game and where a novice named Michael Jordan learned it.

"The first clubs that Michael ever used were Davis'," said Wilkinson, a 1986 North Carolina graduate.

The greens fees are reasonable (about $65 to $80 depending on the day), given the quality of the course. The 450-yard, par-4 16th hole is not only the No. 1 handicap hole but also one of the prettiest.

One recent reviewer on Yahoo.com wrote of Finley: "The course is an excellent test of golf in a wonderful location. Visually, the course is outstanding and the amenities are top shelf. On my personal top 10 that I get a chance to play frequently. The staff is very pleasant and helpful, and the maintenance of the course is excellent. A wonderful deal on a wonderful golf facility. Go play it, you won't be sorry you did."

The first family of modern-golf architects - the Joneses - has its imprint on the Duke course. It was built by the legendary Robert Trent Jones and opened in 1957. Son Rees renovated his dad's work in 1993. It didn't need that much of an overhaul.

"The tailor cut a good suit," Rees Jones told Ibarguen shortly before renovations began.

The younger Jones modernized a course that was built, for $500,000, without a single fairway bunker. He took out the blind tee shots and made it a better driving course with the difficulty coming more in the second shots and around the greens.

The result is a course that hosted the 2001 NCAA championships. Shortly after that event, it was voted the second-best college venue in the country behind Oklahoma State's $14.1 million facility.

It was the place where Jenny Chuasiriporn of Timonium rose to become the best college golfer in the country in the late 1990s. The course fees are a little more expensive than nearby North Carolina's, but the best bargain is a late-afternoon walking rate of $30.

To take advantage of that rate, you had better be in shape. One of the reasons Robert Trent Jones picked the location was its hills. I can attest to that. Years ago, I decided to play golf before a Duke-North Carolina basketball game across the road at Cameron Indoor Stadium. I nearly didn't make it to tip-off.

The final stop on this golf trip trio is not finished, but it is expected to be right up there with its competition at Duke and North Carolina. (So is the basketball team, but that's another story.)

A $3 million gift has jump-started North Carolina State's plans to build the Centennial Campus golf course in Raleigh. The university has hired Arnold Palmer's design company to deliver on what is expected to be a par-71, 7,025-yard course.

The course - at an anticipated cost of $11.6 million - is expected to open in the spring of 2009.

"This course will bring a broad range of benefits to N.C. State, our students and the community," N.C. State chancellor James Oblinger said. "The golf course will support teaching and learning, research, economic development and recreation in many ways."

don.markus@baltsun.com

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