Play like a pro: Pilots get a special invitation to Pinehurst

Ever wish you could play on the same golf course as the professionals?

You can, at North Carolina’s Pinehurst Resort, site of the 2005 U.S. Open Championship. The 2,000-acre resort, which boasts eight championship golf courses, is just one of three U.S. Open sites open to the public, according to Janeen Driscoll, communications manager.

And the resort is reaching out to pilots. In March, it hosted the first-ever Cessna Fly & Drive Championship.

About 50 airplanes — many Cessna bizjets — flew into Pinehurst/Southern Pines Regional Airport (SOP) for the weekend event, which included ample opportunities to mingle with other pilots, Cessna officials and — of course — hit the links. Pilots and their guests had the opportunity to play course #2, site of the U.S. Open, and #4, site of the 2008 U.S. Amateur Open. A pilot seminar also was held and it’s reported that Cessna even made a few sales during the weekend.

“Cessna wants to make this event even bigger and better for next year,” says Peter Stilwell, director of business development and events at the resort. Next year’s fly-in is slated for March 9-11.

The success of the fly-in has spurred Pinehurst officials to look at other events and packages for pilots. The resort hopes to unveil a special package that will have pilots fly in, spend the night at the resort and play a few rounds of golf. Details are expected to be finalized by fall.

That’s good news to Ron Maness, a retired airline pilot who manages SOP.

About 80% of the pilots who land at his airport pull golf clubs out of their airplanes, he says. No surprise, considering there are 43 championship golf courses within 15 miles of the airport — including one just across the road. “You can take the crew car and in five minutes be on the tee,” he says.

Of course, Pinehurst is the main destination for many pilots landing at SOP. Often, business executives come in for an event at the resort’s convention center and squeeze in a round or two of golf before heading back to the airport.

“Pinehurst’s reputation ranks up there with the likes of St. Andrews,” Maness says.

SOP’s staff has one mission: customer service, according to Maness. “Whether it’s a 172 or a Gulfstream IV pilot, it doesn’t matter,” he says. “We want to meet their needs.”

That includes courtesy cars for pilots, as well as discounts at area hotels. They specialize in helping pilots find those last-minute tee times, which can be a daunting challenge. “During the season, tee times are probably booked weeks in advance,” Maness reports.

While spring and fall — “the season” — are busy, golfers can hit the links every week of the year in Pinehurst, says the native, who claims he hasn’t missed his regular golf game except for just a few occasions.

One of those may have been during the U.S. Open. The normally uncontrolled airport, which got a temporary tower from the FAA, hosted 1,612 airplanes in that one week. “That was very abnormal, but it was a delightful problem to have,” he says, noting the airport usually has around 150 flights in a week’s time.

“The event took an incredible amount of planning and coordination,” he says.

Airport officials closed a 2,000-foot grass strip to use for parking, reserving ramp space for jets. Most of the airplanes had to be towed to a parking space because the planes were so close together, pilots couldn’t maneuver into the parking spots.

“We ran it like an airline terminal,” Maness says. “We handled all the baggage and set up a hospitality suite in the airport with refreshments and a live TV feed from the tournament.”The airport recruited 40 volunteers from the area to help things run smoothly. A fringe benefit of that? “It’s cemented our relationship with our neighbors,” he says.

Another benefit of that busy week: The airport sold 123,000 gallons of fuel.

“I’m very envious of the guys in Augusta who get a tournament every year,” Maness says.

For more information: 910-692-3213, Pinehurst.com or 800-487-4653.

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