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The Sandhills' porous, sandy soil is a reminder that in prehistoric times, this land was under the rolling waters of the Atlantic. This soil provides the ideal drainage that's crucial to the Golf Capital of the World, for no matter what the rainfall, no puddles accumulate on its rolling golf courses. And with mean temperatures ranging between 44° and 78°F (7°-26°C), the game is played here year-round.

But golf hasn't always been king. When Boston philanthropist James Walker Tufts bought 5,000 acres of land in 1895 for $1 per acre, his plan was to build the little resort village of Pinehurst as a retreat for wealthy Northerners from harsher climes. Recreation then consisted mainly of croquet on the grassy lawns, outdoor concerts, hayrides, and quiet walks through the pines.

Tufts' attention first turned to golf, which had only recently arrived from Great Britain, when one of his dairy employees complained that guests were "hitting the cows with a little white ball." By 1900, Tufts had enlisted Donald Ross (who had honed his skills at Scotland's St. Andrews) to come to Pinehurst and introduce golf. Ross designed courses here that drew some of the most distinguished golfers in the world: Ben Hogan, Walter Travis, Bobby Jones, Walter Hagen, Patty Berg, Sam Snead, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, and Jack Nicklaus, to name just a few.

For years, golfing on the superb courses of the Pinehurst Country Club was by invitation only. Even though the golf world's top players still consider Pinehurst their own turf, these days you don't have to wait for an invitation -- or be a millionaire -- to play. Prices are high, but they're not exorbitant compared with those of other luxury resorts around the country. And there are hotels and motels here in almost any price range for experts or duffers who want to play the Pinehurst courses.

In 1973, the first World Open Championship was played in Pinehurst; the event was replaced in 1977 by the Colgate Hall of Fame Classic. In September 1974, President Gerald Ford presided at the opening of the World Golf Hall of Fame, overlooking Ross's famous No. 2 Course (one of the top 10 in the country).

Midland Road (N.C. 2), a highway divided by a stately 6-mile row of pine trees and bordered by sedate homes and lavish gardens, sets the tone for this golf mecca. From the second green of the Pinehurst No. 2 Golf Course (site of the 1999 U.S. Open) at one end to the little village of Southern Pines at the other, Midland offers an array of both golf courses and lodges. About a third of the area's more than 35 courses are accessible via this road. Also on Midland Road, you'll pass a rambling white building called Midland Crafters, which houses a virtual survey of American crafts, from beanbags to paintings to furniture to pottery to glassware, or almost any handicraft you can conjure up. Over the years, this region has drawn artists, craftspeople, and potters. Scattered around the vicinity in rustic, pine-sheltered workshops, many of the potters welcome visitors, and most are quite happy to have you watch them at their work.

In addition to golf, competitive tennis made its mark when the first major tournament, the United North and South Tennis Tournament, hit the courts of the Pinehurst Tennis Club in 1918. That amateur event ran until 1942 and was the proving ground for many nationally ranked players, including the Davis Cup Team of the 1930s. Today this area enjoys a reputation for having some of America's best tennis facilities and programs.

The Sandhills region is also known for its equestrian competitions. Most of these events are free to spectators. Horse Days, a monthly publication about events that features calendar listings, is available locally at information offices. From late October to May, there are horse trials, shows, and even fox hunts. "Is there really a fox?" we asked a dapper man in a traditional "pink" hunt jacket, knee-high riding boots, and a tall hat, who was sitting straight in his saddle. "Sometimes," he responded.