Michael Jordan, the University of North Carolina’s most famous basketball alum, loved winning NBA championships with the Chicago Bulls, and a close second was learning to play golf in Chapel Hill with buddy Davis Love III and the pursuit of par on the links.
Jordan has his favorite golf courses across the country, one of which may be a big surprise — Duke University Golf Club. Yes, Jordan would sneak under the radar dozens of times over the years to tee it up with the course’s general manager, Ed Ibarguen, who was instrumental in teaching Jordan the finer points of the game.
Ibarguen himself is considered a “traitor” of sorts, having broken into the golf industry at UNC Finley Golf Course in the late 1970s before being lured to Durham by former Duke athletic director Tom Butters to take over the Duke golf course.
Jordan’s tee time in enemy territory did come with a caveat, though.
“He wouldn’t call it Duke University Golf Club,” Ibarguen said. “He said he couldn’t play it if he called it that.”
Rivalries aren’t created by continuous “blowouts,” so debates between which of the colleges golf courses in North Carolina's Triangle area is the best are as heated as the battles on the hardwood. And while the three hoops programs have combined to win a remarkable 12 of the last 43 national titles, none of the three golf courses is a slam dunk on most golfers' favorite meter.
Duke, N.C. State and UNC were designed or rneovated by legends in the business — Robert Trent Jones Sr. with later assistance from son Rees Jones, Arnold Palmer and Tom Fazio — which helps fuel the debate about which layout tops the list.
The three are annually ranked among the top 30 college courses in the country and are separated by less than 30 miles of interstate highway and hardwood pines.
You know how closeness can breed contempt.
“There is no doubt there is a rivalry as to which one is the best golf club,” Ibarguen said. “The interesting thing about golf courses is they are a like cars, some people like a Prius, some people like Mercedes and some people like BMW, so you can’t say definitely that this golf course is better than that one.”
UNC Finley is more of a modern design, while N.C. State’s Lonnie Poole Golf Club has some elements of links to it.
“All have some interesting golf holes, but if you had to choose one to play every day as someone who really likes fast greens I would choose Duke hand’s down — for the routing, for the design, for the variety and playability, and then for the fun on the greens,” Ibarguen said.
Spoken like a true Dookie.
“People walk into the pro shop daily and say, ‘I see you don’t have any red,’ or ‘Where are your Duke blue shirts?’” said UNC Finley director of golf Mike Wilkinson. “We hear it every day and I’m sure they do as well.”
Here is a look peak at the three university golf courses along North Carolina’s Tobacco Road:
The Washington Duke Inn overlooks Duke University Golf Club's 18th green and putting greens, and adds to the course's stately feel. (Photo: Duke University)
Duke University | Duke University Golf Club (1957)
The club, which hosted the 1962 and 2001 NCAA men’s golf championships, celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2017 and has an eye on Rees Jones returning this year to embark on a $15 million renovation project.
Originally designed by his father in the mid 1950s, Rees Jones returned in 1993 to renovate the course while his daughter was enrolled in school at Duke. Jones waved his design fee.
Ibarguen recalls riding around with Jones prior to his renovation work on the classic tree-lined course.
“We paused at the top of number 11, the par five and he said ‘stop the cart,”’ Ibarguen recalled. “He said, ‘you guys could host a major championship out here. The tailor cut a good suit,’ meaning there is nothing to be done with the routing. What we needed to do was modernize it a little bit.”
Jones made the course more generous off the tee and increased the shot value into the greens, which is the layout’s top defense of par.
“Rees made the bunkers more deceptive to where they come more into play,” Ibarguen said. “Duke has a lot of elevated greens so it becomes a challenge for the player. When I watch most players play for the first time they don’t take enough club into the green to calculate for that. And there are not many even lies out there because the course is not like these modern courses with a lot of flat lies. It is one of those golf courses you can play every day and be maybe five yards away from where you hit it yesterday and have a completely different shot into the green. It is endlessly challenging in that sense.”
Ibarguen said part of the new project for Jones will be to increase the length to close to 7,800 yards.
“That way we could host our third NCAA championship,” Ibarguen said.
N.C. State University | Lonnie Poole Golf Course (2008)
For decades, N.C. State’s golf teams were virtual nomads, without a home golf course on or near campus.
“The teams depended on other people to be nice to them to play,” said Lonnie Poole general manager Chip Watson. “Try getting three tee times on a Saturday or Sunday morning at a very nice private place. That’s not easy to do. Of course (former men’s golf coach) Richard Sykes promised a home golf course to all of his recruits for 47 years. I guess it took about 35 years or so before it was actually announced. Once it finally came together and opened it was just amazing for the golf teams.”
And a grand design for the golfing public as well in an area where daily fee golf is lacking.
Lonnie Poole is the only collegiate golf course that Arnold Palmer ever designed, and it’s the closest to a downtown that The King has ever been associated with.
“So, we have two major things here that [Arnold Palmer Design Co.] has never done,” Watson said. “When you hit the back nine, the Raleigh skyline view is awesome and then the view from the clubhouse is really the best of downtown Raleigh from anywhere.”
Golfers can see seven holes on the back nine while sitting on the restaurant terrace after a round.
“And you can see all four of the finishing holes — you can see almost every shot — which is quite unique,” Watson said.
Lonnie Poole is a new breed of golf course, focusing on sustainability, with a natural look and tall fescue grasses the penal phase of your round.
“You don’t see a lot of big flowers and azaleas and areas off the golf course that need to be maintained,” Watson said. “It’s certainly not an Augusta National-looking place at all. It’s more in the mold of a Bethpage Black, Whistling Straits, Erin Hills or Pinehurst No. 2. Arnold Palmer’s group did a great job with mirroring the design with the land. There was not a lot of earth moving at all.”
“If someone comes to Raleigh and wants to play 4-5 golf courses we always suggest they go play the college courses,” Watson said. “And we have kind of become a pretty solid hospitality zone right here.”
With the best 19th hole view in the area already in play, the new StateView Hotel, a Marriott Autograph Collection venue recently opened.
“It is one of the finest hotels you can stay in, right where you can walk right across the street and play golf,” Watson said.
UNC Finley Golf Course's par-4 15th hole begins a four-hole closing stretch that course architect Tom Fazio created with spectator viewing in mind. (Photo: UNC Finley Golf Course)
University of North Carolina | UNC Finley Golf Course (1949)
Originally built by Raleigh businessman A.E. Finley, designed Tom Fazio remoled the course into its current layout in 1999.
Nicknamed the “Finley Flats” for its once unimaginative design, Fazio crafted one of his 18 North Carolina layouts on much of the existing land that Finley gave to architect George Cobb.
“Fazio does a phenomenal job of presenting the golf course in front of you," Wilkinson said. "He doesn’t trick you, hide you, doesn’t dogleg you to death. Most of the holes have an avenue to the green or a run up. There is nothing hidden out there if you hit it in the fairway, but if you get off the edges you are going to have some trouble, and Fazio’s bunkers can be treacherous at times.”
The closing holes are dotted with water, marshes and a massive two-tiered green on the par-5 17th hole that measures more than 10,000 square feet.
“Fazio prided himself on holes 15-18 here because those holes are designed with viewing; you could put grandstands out there if you wanted to,” Wilkinson said.
Urban legend has it that Jack Nicklaus re-designed three holes here while son Jackie was in school in the early 1980s, but it never happened.
“It is a good story, but it’s not a true story,” Wilkinson said.
What is true is Finley is open to the public — a fact that is often misidentified by the golfing public.
“Finley sits on its platform,” Wilkinson said. “We certainly embrace the fact we’re part of UNC, so over the years one of the difficulties has been while we would love to live in the world of UNC athletics we are not supported solely by athletics or solely by the university, we’re supported by public golfers.
“It’s a unique golf course built for a certain select number of people … the Tar Heels … and everybody in the state is a Tar Heel,” he added.
Wilkinson also endorses all three courses in what may be college golf’s friendliest rivalry.
“I will promise you that if somebody wants to complain about any of the three college golf courses, check their diploma,” Wilkinson said. “I got a call the other day complaining about this and complaining about that and at the very end of the call he ended it with: ‘Go Duke!”’
David Droschak was an award-winning writer with The Associated Press for 20 years. He was honored with the Sports Writer of the Year award in North Carolina in 2003. He lives in Apex, N.C.