Clubbing in the Carolinas: From Pinehurst to Hilton Head, it's a golf safari

Photo gallery: Golf courses of the Carolinas

Looking for the ultimate golf safari? If you are, you'll want to craft an itinerary that manages to combine challenging golf with some of the most breathtaking views outside of Pebble Beach.

Your trip would have to take you to a couple of legendary courses, and you'd also want to play where the pros play.

In a perfect world, your destination would be diverse enough to enable you to mix in a "links course" somewhere along the way.

Ideally, the courses you played would all be within a day's drive of one another, and they would all have a distinct sense of place.

If you think you need a PGA playing card in order to have that kind of experience, think again.

A golf getaway to the Carolinas, home of some of the nation's most picturesque public courses, fulfills all the requirements for a classic long weekend of golf.

Make your home base at North Carolina's legendary Pinehurst facility, and you'll be within an easy day's drive of three additional world-class resorts in two states, providing one unforgettable getaway over a four-day span.

We've picked four courses for you to play, all ranked among Golf Digest's top 50 public courses:

Pinehurst Resort & Country Club/Course No. 2

If you're golfing in the Carolinas, there's no better place to start than Pinehurst.

Bobby Jones so revered the place that he called it the "St. Andrews of United States golf." With its eight world-class courses -- the most famous being Course No. 2 -- Pinehurst Resort & Country Club (1 Carolina Vista Drive, Village of Pinehurst, NC 28374; Web site) is, indeed, an American golf mecca.

Designed by Donald Ross, No. 2 celebrated its centennial in 2007, and it's loaded with history. It's where Payne Stewart won the 1999 U.S. Open by sinking a memorable 15-foot putt on the 18th hole. The win put Stewart in good company: Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan, Sam Snead and Jack Nicklaus all have won tournaments here.

Pinehurst No. 2 challenges golfers with strategically placed bunkers and hard-to-read crowned greens.

"The greens are the trickiest part of the course," club spokeswoman Janeen Driscoll says. "We recommend you take a caddy with you the first time you play No. 2 to help read the greens."

The course tends to be a little more forgiving from tee to green.

"The fairways are extra wide," Driscoll says, "and there are not a lot of false fronts."

With five tee boxes to choose from, the course is playable for all levels.

A bronze statue of Stewart stands next to the 18th green, and it has become a de facto 19th hole, with players routinely stopping for a photo op after their round.

"People remember all the drama of 1999," Driscoll says, "so I think the image of Payne Stewart winning the U.S. Open is the biggest memory of Pinehurst for most visitors."

All Pinehurst courses can be difficult to get on in the spring and fall, but winter and summer are low season.

Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club

The course has played host to the U.S. Women's Open in 1996, 2001 and 2007. Cristie Kerr shot 5 under par to win in 2007.

The Pine Needles course (1005 Midland Road, Southern Pines, NC 28387; Web site) was designed by Donald Ross in 1927 and completely restored in 2004.

"Because the course is so unique, we didn't want to change the original Donald Ross design," director of golf Graham Gilmore says. After painstaking research, designer John Fought completed a makeover that restored the course to Ross's original vision.

From the longest tees, Pine Needles measures 7,015 yards for a par 71, but with five tee boxes to choose from the course is playable for everyone. The course's signature hole is the par-3 No. 3.

"It's a short par 3, about 110 to 145 yards," Gilmore says. "It's short, but because it's guarded by a pond and by bunkers on the front, as well as the left and the right, you have to be very precise. It's the hole that got the most attention during the U.S. Women's Open."

Like its Ross-designed counterpart at Pinehurst, Pine Needles is known for its unforgiving greens.

"The crowned greens offer a challenge," Gilmore says. "But they are not quite as severe as the greens at Pinehurst. With five tees to choose from, this is a very enjoyable course to play."