NEWTON, N.C. – Thirty-five years ago, Dale Jarrett faced what amounted to a career choice. Would the 18-year-old follow in the footsteps of his father, longtime NASCAR driver and broadcaster Ned Jarrett, or take a shot at college and his other main sports love – golf?
Then-University of South Carolina coach Bobby Foster had offered a scholarship to the self-taught youngster from Hickory, N.C. His parents had a preference, too, and it wasn’t racing.
“I tried to encourage him to go the golf route,” Ned Jarrett, 77, said. “I knew the pitfalls in racing. And I thought if he had worked as hard as he did at racing, he had a chance to make it on the PGA Tour.” Martha Jarrett also would rather have seen her son in polyester slacks than a fire-resistant suit.
Over a recent lunch at Catawba Country Club, a 1946 Donald Ross design near Hickory where his family has been members for four decades, Dale Jarrett – now ESPN’s lead NASCAR analyst after retiring in 2008 from a 26-year racing career – reflected on what might have been.
“I have thought (about it) sometimes,” Jarrett said. “But I played some amateur golf around that time with Scott Hoch, and I wasn’t to that level.
“I made the right choice.”
Jarrett smiled. “Now,” he said, “I’ve got the best of both worlds.”
As does, it might be said, his home state.
For most sports fans, North Carolina – particularly Charlotte with its Lowe’s Motor Speedway – is the home of NASCAR. But as Jarrett can attest, golf also is in the Tar Heel State conversation.
Pinehurst No. 2, about 110 miles east of Charlotte, was the site of U.S. Opens in 1999 and 2005, and is scheduled to host the men’s and women’s U.S. Opens in 2014. From mid-July to mid-August, the state will host three U.S. Golf Association championships in a span of five weeks.
“I think it just shows what the sport of golf means to the state,” said Jarrett, a one-time scratch player who carries a 3.0 handicap index. “You’ve got places like Pinehurst that are destinations for players around the world.”
Jarrett’s racing career afforded him opportunities to play courses such as Augusta National, Pebble Beach
and Pine Valley, and to have pro-am partners such as Phil Mickelson, Davis Love III, Jay Haas, Craig Stadler and Arnold Palmer, his “greatest thrill,” at the 1999 Vantage Championship.
Three U.S. Golf Association championships will be held in the span of five weeks in North Carolina:
U.S. Amateur Public Links: July 12-17, Bryan Park Golf & Conference Center, Greensboro
U.S. Girls’ Junior: July 19-24, Country Club of North Carolina, Pinehurst
U.S. Women’s Amateur: Aug. 9-15, Charlotte Country Club
But his favorite rounds remain those played near home with buddies such as Joey Sadowski, Kelly Hoover, and Jarrett’s older brother, Glenn.
Jarrett said he’s hardly the best NASCAR golfer, putting pals Elliott Sadler and Juan Pablo Montoya among the top players, but he sees similar skill sets in both sports.
“(You need) good hand-eye coordination” in golf and racing, Jarrett said. “And we go to a different track every week, so it’s like (playing) different golf courses. Golf always helped me with my mental approach to driving a race car on weekends.”
Once, Jarrett thought his weekends might be spent on the Tour. Now, he plays three days per week, including the occasional outing with a familiar foursome: himself, his parents and his brother.
“Racing is the family business,” Jarrett said, “but golf is the family game.”
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Woody Allen is director of golf at The Golf Club at Ballantyne, a 6,710-yard, high-end public-access course that opened in 1998. The facility, about an hour southeast of Newton, specializes in hosting corporate outings and charity events, many backed by NASCAR drivers.
“We’ve had a tournament and fundraiser with Bobby Labonte for years,” said Allen, 36, a Virginia native who is in his 12th year at Ballantyne. “(Defending NASCAR champion) Jimmie Johnson hosts a party here.” Other drivers frequenting the course include Michael and Darrell Waltrip, Kyle Petty and Brian Vickers.
Ballantyne, located on Charlotte’s booming south side and developed by businessman Howard C. Bissell, sits in the middle of a vast office park. Golfers negotiating Ballantyne’s rolling terrain, lakes, creeks and slick greens are struck by the odd juxtapositions of hearing a rooster crow near the tranquil ninth green, for instance, then being confronted by the din of high-rise construction left of the 12th tee.
Ballantyne bills itself as “public golf with a private feel,” its massive hotel serving as a backdrop to its par-4, 420-yard finishing hole and housing a spa, pro shop, bar and dining facilities.
Green fees range from $49 (weekdays) to $69 (Friday-Sunday) in prime season and, coupled with the resort-like amenities, make it a bargain.
The golf course, designed by an eight-person committee that included Bissell, features extensive mounding, with creeks and severe downslopes that catch wayward shots. The signature 18th is a beast, demanding a long tee shot to clear a creek and sloping rough, then an accurate approach to an elevated green guarded by more water and sand.
Allen said Ballantyne and other Charlotte-area public-access courses – he lists Birkdale, Highland Creek, Charlotte Golf Links, Waterford and Carolina Lakes as some of his favorites – will profit from this summer’s USGA events.
“There’s a lot more publicity in golf magazines, where to stay and play,” he said. “We already get a lot of ‘blue birds’ (from Canada and the Midwest) headed to Florida or Myrtle Beach – and since there’s no easy way to (get to) Pinehurst, we’ll get some of those people, too.”
Most of all, though, Allen says, the Women’s Amateur, Public Links and Girls’ Junior are a point of pride for North Carolina.
“I think it justifies (that) we promote the state as one of the top destinations for golf in the United States,” he said.
Tar Heel State natives such as Dale Jarrett wouldn’t disagree.
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Jarrett’s top 5
Former NASCAR driver Dale Jarrett lists his five favorite public-access courses in North Carolina, all within 120 miles of Charlotte:
Rock Barn Golf and Country Club
Conover (site of Champions Tour’s Ensure Classic); $85 weekdays/weekends; rockbarn.com
Finley Golf Course
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (Jarrett’s daughter Natalee is a UNC student); $50 weekdays, $82 weekends; tarheelblue.cstv.com/sports/finley-gc
Clemmons (site of 1974 PGA Championship); $38 weekdays, $48 weekends (Championship Course), $26 weekdays, $32 weekend (Reynolds Course); forsyth.cc/parks/tanglewood/golf
Pine Needles Lodge and Golf Club
Southern Pines (site of U.S. Women’s Open in 1996, 2001, ’07); $140 weekdays, $175 weekends; pineneedles-midpines.com
Mid Pines Inn and Golf Club
Southern Pines (1921 Donald Ross design remains true to its original form); $99 weekdays/weekends; pineneedles-midpines.com