Lonnie Poole Golf Course at N.C. State University: Challenging, scenic golf in Raleigh

By Jennifer Mario, Contributor

RALEIGH, N.C. -- Until July of 2009, N.C. State University suffered from a bit of an inferiority complex. Its neighbor (and rival) universities, Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill, each boasted championship, award-winning golf courses, while State had no course to call its own.

Lonnie Poole Golf Course - 11th hole
From the 11th hole at Lonnie Poole, golfers get a postcard-worthy view of downtown Raleigh.
Lonnie Poole Golf Course - 11th holeLonnie Poole Golf CourseLonnie Poole Golf Course - clubhouseLonnie Poole GCLonnie Poole G.C. - Audobon certified
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Lonnie Poole Golf Course at NC State University

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Lonnie Poole Golf Course at N.C. State University was designed by Arnold Palmer with the help of N.C. State graduates Erik Larsen and Brandon Johnson. It's home to the university's men's and women's golf teams but it's open to the public as well. It's a favorite among locals who claim it's one of the toughest golf courses in the Triangle.

18 Holes | Public golf course | Par: 72 | 7358 yards | Book online | ... details »

All that changed after the opening of Lonnie Poole Golf Course.

A $3 million gift from businessman, alum, and namesake Lonnie Poole made the vision a reality. Now the Audubon signature course fills an important role for the university, providing a home for the men's and women's golf teams, as well as any area golfer.

Sustainability is a key word at Lonnie Poole. The Arnold Palmer Design group accomplished this by leaving many areas untouched -- resulting in a beautiful, meandering golf course that fits into and protects the environment.

Lead architects Eric Larsen and Brandon Johnson, both NCSU alumni, left large buffer areas in place and created a course pleasing both to the eye and the conscience. You won't see a single house along the fairways, but you might catch a glimpse of a red fox, blue heron, or even the resident beaver.

In January of 2014 the course moved to the next level with the opening of the two-story, nearly 30,000-square-foot Carol Johnson Poole Clubhouse. Walk through the clubhouse and you'll get a sense of the course's connection with the university: you'll pass the pro shop, the locker rooms, and, wait, classrooms?

The classrooms in the clubhouse are testament to the role of the course as a living laboratory for golf course management and turfgrass students. The course itself becomes an extended classroom, serving as a teaching and training facility for students at the College of Agriculture and Life Science and in the Professional Golf Management Program in the College of Natural Resources.

But make no mistake, N.C. State students, faculty, and the men's and women's golf teams aren't the only ones who benefit.

Head Professional Nick Dillman is careful to emphasize that Lonnie Poole is a daily-fee public course, and all are welcome. Frequent-golfer plans are available, as are staff and student discounts, and twilight rates.

Lonnie Poole: The course

So besides the university atmosphere, what does Lonnie Poole offer?

First and foremost it offers a challenge. The course is long -- 7,358 yards from the back tees, with a 74.8/145 slope and rating. But the white "Wolfpack" tees play from 6,027 yards, and the forward tees a very manageable 4,869. You have six tee boxes to pick from, so if you bite off more than you can chew, you'll have only yourself to blame.

There's no easy A on this golf course. The sloped and undulating fairways that make the course so scenic also increase the difficulty level significantly -- there are few flat lies to be found. Learn how to play the ball below or above your feet to improve your score.

So how do you make the grade?

"It's tough to make par if you miss the fairway," Dillman said. "Your tee shot is critical."

Either you're in great position or you've lost your ball -- there's not much in-between. Pro-tip: work on your accuracy and ball placement. And bring an extra sleeve of balls. Or two.

Members Bill Burton and his wife, Ann, play here exclusively, three or four times a week. They find the course difficult but fair, and they credit the course for improving their games.

"This is not a resort course," Bill said. "Every shot's gotta be good. If you can score well here, you can score well anywhere."

Raleigh residents Lucinda and Curtis Cook include Lonnie Poole in the roster of area courses that they enjoy. They appreciate the convenience to downtown Raleigh and the natural beauty, but pay the course due respect.

"Ego does come into play," Lucinda said. "But you know it's a championship course coming in, so you should play accordingly."

Curtis, a 14 handicapper, calls the course difficult but fun.

"If you keep the ball in play it's enjoyable and you can score," he said. "But if not, forget it."

Lonnie Poole Golf Course: The verdict

Lonnie Poole G.C. is a scenic, challenging course that lives up to its championship reputation. At 7,358 yards from the competition tees, the course can accurately be described as a monster. But the six tee boxes mean you don't have to punish yourself (unless that's your thing).

The well protected pins tempt risk-takers, but there's always a bail-out path for the less adventurous. Missing the fairway will cost you big. With natural grass, numerous bunkers, and environmentally sensitive areas on every hole, an errant tee shot will likely result in a lost ball or a long, unfruitful search.

As a young course, Lonnie Poole is still coming into its own. Many areas were under repair when I was there, as bunker renovations were being completed, but the final project will be gorgeous when it's finished later this year. Walking is permitted but the course's length and elevation changes make it a tough workout. Cart paths can be confusing and sometimes require doubling back -- more signage would be a plus.

What it lacks in seasoning, the course makes up for in amenities: The clubhouse and instruction are state of the art, conditioning is excellent, the staff is warm and friendly, and the carts have GPS (a rarity in these parts).

Lonnie Poole Golf Course offers a full driving range and putting green, a short-game practice area for members, three indoor hitting bays, lessons, and video instruction and ball-flight and swing analysis.

Jennifer MarioJennifer Mario, Contributor

Jennifer Mario is a regular contributor to the TravelGolf Network and the author of "Michelle Wie: The Making of a Champion" (St. Martin's Griffin, 2006). A graduate of Duke University, she lives in the Triangle area of North Carolina with her family.

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