Nags Head undulates around wetlands, grasslands, sand dunes, lakes, and the Roanoke Sound---so close to the water, in places, that it is possible, but not always advisable, to hit an errant shot back to a fairway or green. If not for closely-packed housing along portions of the course, it resembles something you might find in a small town in the British Isles. Fairways run hard and fast. Closely-mown green complexes encourage the bump-and-run. I liked it, partly because I scored well. Then, head professional Gary Otto ruined my illusion. "You played in the most benign of conditions," he said. "The wind can come from any direction at 25-30 miles an hour. There are days when it's almost impossible to reach some greens in regulation."
Nags Head's demands decisions all the way around, starting with the 292/264/246/211 yard, par four, 1st. From an elevated tee, the green sits straightaway and downhill, but tucked behind a large sand mound about 50 yards in front. That mound dictates the strategy. Big hitters can easily drive this green, but if they miss left, short, or wide right, they'll be in unredeemable trouble. It's classic risk and reward. Your smart play is short and to the right side. From there, the green is easily accessible. On this calm morning I faded a gentle four iron to about 90 yards, then wedged for a routine par. Had the wind been blowing, this would have been a different hole, entirely.
Nags Head is short enough to tempt driver off every tee, but I wouldn't advise it. On this day I played with my future nephew-in-law, Mason Goodman, who likes to bomb balls 300 yards, or more. Suffice to say that although he tried to throttle back, Mason found plenty of trouble, and he's a very good golfer.
The 349/329/312/260 yard, par four, 4th is a good example of Nags Head's temptations. From the tee, the green appears tantalizingly close, framed by the Roanoke Sound, behind. But, a creek bisects the fairway, ranging from 155 yards on the right to 111 yards on the left. Big hitters can easily clear it, but Mason and I played the hole with seven irons. He birdied. I missed my approach and made a double-bogey. But when finished, and just to experiment, we returned to the tee and hit our drivers. Our balls cleared the creek, but we never found them.
The 513/490/457/401 yard, par five, 5th is another mind bender. Later, Gary Otto explained why it's the number one handicap. "When the wind blows, you may have to hit driver, three-metal, three-metal to reach the green." Mason hit driver, missed the fairway, scared a house, and dropped. I played four-metal, eight iron, eight iron. Why? This fairway along Roanoke Sound is very narrow. Moreover, a pond comes into play on the second shot. It starts down a hill, 86 yards in front of the green, and 180 yards into the fairway. Mason took the chance, cleared it, and nearly saved his par. In my playing safe, the 5th remained an exciting par because not one shot allowed much margin for error.
For options and decisions, you'll like the 360/341/325/292 yard, par four 8th. This hole doglegs right, over a lake and around another wetland. You can avoid that water by playing right, but you'll pay for it when hitting a short, blind approach over the wetland and two bunkers, into a shallow angle of the green. If you have the length, carry the longest portion of the lake?about 230 yards from the blue tees. I hit another four-metal into an ideal landing area with a clear view of the green. Mason did the same.
But my game was hardly perfect. Despite hitting mostly long irons and fairway metals off most of the tees, I still lost three balls and six strokes, some from decent swings.
Nags Head finishes with a crafty, 583/545/522/422 yard, par five. This is the signature hole. It, too, runs along the Roanoke Sound. You'll need good distance from the tee, not only because of the 18's length, but also because the fairway bottlenecks some 200 yards from the green. If you can clear that with your semi-blind second shot, you'll have a good chance for par, but if length is an issue, lay back and rely on your short game.
To summarize, Nags Head Golf Links offers a wonderful golf experience despite the presence of those darned houses. I can only imagine how this course would look without them, but frankly, we spent so much time studying the routing of holes that, after a while, we didn't see them.
Yes, the course is that good?as mental exercise.
Nags Head Golf Links
Nags Head, Outer Banks, North Carolina
By: Wayne Freedman
Championship: 6126 yards/par 71/71.2/138
Blue: 5717 yards/par 71/69.4/128
White: 5354 yards/par 71/67.3/112
Ladies White: 4415 yards/par 71/73.4/139