You don't have to be a golf fanatic to be enchanted by Pinehurst, a graceful and venerable resort in the North Carolina Sandhills that has long been synonymous with famous golf-course architecture.

Only one of us plays golf. But even though we visited Pinehurst before it was warm enough to swim, water-ski or sail on its large, man-made lake, we found plenty to do besides playing one of the six appealing courses.

Non-golfers can take advantage of Pinehurst's huge stables and walk the winding streets of the New England-style village, designed at the turn of the century by Frederick Law Olmsted, architect of New York's Central Park. From exploring the neighboring villages and enjoying the resort food to shopping at the abundance of area factory outlet stores and reading a book on the hotel's wide veranda, a Pinehurst weekend is the epitome of relaxation.

And, of course, for the golfer, with six Pinehurst courses at hand and 16 public courses nearby, there is no better place to relax.

Pinehurst, which has become America's premier golf resort because of its mild climate and challenging courses, was created by a man made wealthy by catering to a nation enamored of ice-cream sodas.

When James Walker Tufts retired from his successful soda fountain equipment business in Boston 90 years ago, he headed south in search of an area with a healthy climate for those who wanted to escape the harsh winters of New England.

He found a bargain in the cut-over timberland in the Sandhills of North Carolina, where he bought 5,000 acres for $1 per acre in the summer of 1895.

The seller was delighted that Tufts would pay such a sum for land so barren and seemingly worthless. The sandy soil had no value for anything except timber, and the turpentine from the pine forests already had been harvested and the trees cut for lumber.

Tufts, however, had chosen carefully and wisely, for it was the mild winter weather of the Sandhills that had attracted him. He promptly hired Olmsted to design a quaint New England town in this North Carolina outpost.

In rapid order, a village common and winding streets were fashioned, and longleaf pine, holly, dogwood and magnolia trees were planted in the sandy soil.

To attract paying customers to his new town, Tufts sent an appeal to doctors, suggesting the pine-scented air as a perfect place for invalids.

But soon after hearing reports that people had been disturbing cows by chasing a small white ball around the fields, Tufts decided to have a course built for this game that was just beginning to catch on in America. Nine holes with sand greens were finished for the 1898 season, a modest beginning for one of the world's great golfing centers.

Today there are six golf courses at the Pinehurst Hotel and Country Club and another 16 golf courses available to the public nearby. The World Golf Hall of Fame sits aside the internationally renowned Pinehurst No. 2 course.

Visitors to the town now benefit from the foresight, planning and planting of Tufts and Olmsted. The quiet village, with its abundance of magnolia trees and brick walkways, is on the National Register of Historic Places. The Holly Inn, Tufts' first hotel, still stands and is under renovation for use as condominiums.

Golf is not the sole pleasure of Pinehurst, but it is a prime reason for visiting.

If Tufts' choice of location was superb, his selection of Donald Ross as his golf professional was a masterstroke. Ross, now widely regarded as America's greatest golf course architect, arrived in Pinehurst in 1900 to work that winter. He stayed to serve three generations of the Tufts family until his death in 1948 and became world famous for his golf-course architecture.

Ross designed or revised more than 500 courses, at least a dozen of which are rated among the country's top 100. These include the magnificent Seminole near Palm Beach, Fla.; Inverness in Toledo, Ohio; Oak Hill in Rochester, N.Y., and Scioto in Columbus, Ohio, where Jack Nicklaus honed his golfing skills.

Upon arriving at Pinehurst, Ross immediately began reconstructing the crude course layout that existed. In subsequent years, he designed most of the holes of what are now Pinehurst's first four courses.

Ross' impact spread across the country, as visitors to Pinehurst brought him topographical maps of the land they had in mind for their local golf clubs. For some, Ross would sketch out a course on the map and leave the construction supervision to others, sometimes to his later dismay.

His masterpiece, a course listed on virtually everyone's top 10 in the world, is the challenging No. 2 course. Laid out in Ross' early years at Pinehurst, the course was revamped substantially in 1935.

Until that time, the Pinehurst courses used sand greens because of the soil and climate. Ross' decision 50 years ago to switch to Bermuda grass greens gave him the opportunity to put his best talent, contouring greens, to work at Pinehurst. The grass greens put No. 2 in the first rank of golf courses around the world and prompted the Professional Golfers Association to hold its championship there the very next year.

As the resident professional and architect at Pinehurst for 48 years, Ross never stopped refining No. 2, which he considered his finest course. For men, it is a par 72 and, from its back tees, measures 7,020 yards. For women, the par is 74 and it measures 5,934 yards.

On the courses he designed, Ross was blessed by not having bulldozers. The best Ross courses have a subtlety and naturalness seldom matched by modern architects who extensively revise nature.

Choice is the essence of the strategic golf one must play to master a Ross course. It's not enough to belt a long drive. Placement is more important than length, as every shot is played to set up the next. A good approach will find the small greens, but a slight error is likely to slide off and leave a tricky chip shot. A careful positioning of mounds and bumps around the greens was Ross' trademark.

One of the great virtues of Ross courses is that in addition to being pleasing to play and walk, they are a fair test of golfers of differing ability. This is something that cannot be said of the punishing style of many of the newer resort courses.

But the Pinehurst courses are not without peril. If you are not straight off the tee at Pinehurst, you might find yourself imprisoned in a thicket of pine trees. If you miss the fairways and land in the thick Bermuda rough or treacherous "love" grass, you will remember it.

Perhaps No. 2's most forbidding hole is the 445-yard No. 5. This hole illustrates the importance of a well-positioned drive on a Ross-designed course. A drive slightly to the left may kick into the sandy rough or pine trees. A safe drive to the right will leave even the strong player a very long second shot to a well-bunkered green.

In 1970, the Tufts family sold the resort to the Diamondhead Corp., and No. 2 was modified in unfortunate ways. As a result, it was dropped from its traditional standing among the top 10 American courses by Golf Digest magazine. Eventually, Peter Tufts, the great-grandson of the founder and a godson of Donald Ross, was brought in and he restored the course to the glories of the Ross design. (And in 1983, Golf Digest reinstated the course in its top 10.)

The other five Pinehurst courses offer a variety of challenges. No. 1 and No. 3 are short and enjoyable for beginning and senior players. No. 4 and No. 5 are strong tests for players of all abilities. Donald Ross fans probably will not like No. 6, as it represents the modern, unforgiving approach. A seventh course is slated to open next fall.

Near the low-lying clubhouse, which overlooks the 18th green of the No. 2 course, is Maniac Hill, where Ross initiated the lesson and practice area now common at golf courses around the country.

There is a heavy demand for golf at Pinehurst and five-hour rounds are typical, as they are at most popular resorts. The compensation comes as one plays up the last fairways on courses 2 and 4 toward the maize-and-maroon-colored clubhouse framed by a purple-orange sunset.

Behind the fourth green on No. 2 and down the road from the village common is the World Golf Hall of Fame. It houses a fine collection of clubs, trophies and other golf memorabilia that any serious student of the game should see. Unfortunately, its massive, modern building is out of character in the Pinehurst setting.

For a more human scale, visit one of Pinehurst's most overlooked jewels, the Tufts Wing of the Given Memorial Library in the village common. Ten years old this December, the Tufts archives tell the story of Pinehurst in a tasteful room of memorabilia.

Photographs show the evolution from barren timberland to the landscaped village of today. The archives own thousands of negatives from Pinehurst photographer John G. Hemmer, who recorded the triumphs and tragedies of the golfing greats who graced the fairways of Pinehurst from the 1920s through the 1960s.

Scorecards, news clips, silver trophies and golf clubs fill the library's small museum. Featured is the 1900 visit of Harry Vardon, the great English professional, and the feats of Bobby Jones, Walter Hagen, Gene Sarazen, Glenna Collett and other standouts.

Pinehurst has hosted such important competitions as the 1936 Professional Golfers Association Championship, the 1951 Ryder Cup Matches between the best British and American professionals, the 1962 United States Men's National Amateur and the 1980 World Amateur Golf Team Championships. And it continues to host the North and South Men's and Women's Amateurs each spring.

Substantial space in the archives is devoted to Ross and Richard S. Tufts, grandson of the founder, both of whom gave Pinehurst much of the style and standing that it has today.

Even a non-golfer should enjoy the archives as a museum of social history. A display of the sportsman's uniform of the '20s -- checkered knickers, knee socks, white shirt and striped maroon and yellow tie -- is included along with china from the hotel, vintage advertisements for Pinehurst and souvenirs from well-known visitors.

Annie Oakley spent five winters in Pinehurst during the 1910s giving exhibitions and teaching women to shoot. Warren G. Harding and Gene Tunney were among those who visited. Teddy Roosevelt, John D. Rockefeller, Cordell Hull, Amelia Earhart and Dwight Eisenhower stayed at Pinehurst, and Gen. George C. Marshall had a home there.

Space in the Holly Inn and nearby cottages proved insufficient to meet demand soon after it was opened. As a result, the grand hotel was opened Jan. 1, 1901. Originally named the Carolina, Tufts' new building quickly became known as one of the finest hotels in the South. The sprawling white, four-story clapboard beauty, now called the Pinehurst Hotel, is the largest frame hotel in North Carolina. Marred somewhat by a 1970s entryway designed to accommodate the automobile, the handsome hotel retains its appeal because of its trademarked cupola and wide porch with white wicker high-backed rockers.

Recently bought by the Club Corp. of America, the hotel is in the midst of a $4-million renovation of all four floors and the dining room.

On our recent visit to Pinehurst, we approached the hotel's spacious dining room with some trepidation, mindful of Calvin Trillin's edict that the quality of club food is inversely proportional to its exclusivity. Happily, this club is not snooty and its new chef is no fan of white-bread cuisine. New menus are prepared daily and unusual appetizers, such as a piquant sausage and bean soup, are the norm. So are a multitude of courses. But beware, this is tobacco-producing North Carolina, and the new management has not yet instituted a no-smoking section.

Golf clinics and movies are part of the after-dinner fare at the Pinehurst Hotel. As befits a 90-year-old resort, a sturdy pair of dapple gray horses, named Currier and Ives, are on call for carriage rides. Horses also are available at a large, nearby stable and there is skeet shooting and croquet.

Guests at the hotel have access to 24 tennis courts, four swimming pools, a health spa and 200 acres of sailing, swimming and fishing at the man-made Lake Pinehurst.

In addition to the hotel, visitors to Pinehurst can stay at the reasonably priced Pine Crest Inn, favored by many regulars because its small size permits a warm hospitality. It is located in the village and also serves excellent food, including breakfasts highlighted by an enormous juice squeezer. A large portrait of Donald Ross, who once owned the inn, hangs in the lobby.

Besides the lower rates, the Pine Crest offers golfers a wider range of courses to play, including the six Pinehurst Country Club courses and 16 neighboring courses. But those who insist on playing the famed No. 2 should be aware that the Pine Crest does not have the broad selection of starting times available to hotel guests. It cannot guarantee access during weekends in the prime months of March, April and May.

Also directly in the village is the inexpensive, family-run Magnolia Inn. There is room for 28 people and at the low rate of $14.50 per person per day, including breakfast, it often is filled. The three-story inn is lovely, but dated. Guests are permitted to play on Pinehurst courses for a fee, with similar restrictions on the starting times and access that apply to Pine Crest guests.

The village's cottages, shops and neighborhoods all are worth exploring. Have lunch on weekdays at the tearoom in the Sandhills Women's Exchange, located in an 1810 low-ceilinged log cabin. Volunteers in aquamarine-colored smocks will serve you cream cheese and olive sandwiches and homemade lemon pie. The exchange features quality handcrafted gifts, such as smocked baby clothes, quilts and pecan sweets.

Off the square is the Pinehurst Theatre Building, where Gloria Swanson, Will Rogers and John Philip Sousa performed. It has been renovated and now houses a collection of small shops. Two streets distant, on Market Square, is a friendly French restaurant, Jacques, with reasonable prices and excellent pommes frites.

The Village Chapel, a colonial-style Congregational church built among the pines in 1925, is topped by a classic white spire.

Five miles east of Pinehurst, Southern Pines, an interesting railroad town of 8,600 people, is filled with antique shops. If you are there at dinnertime, try Sleddon's, an unusual private home that has been turned into a limited-seating restaurant specializing in seafood and duck. Call ahead for reservations for one of its four small dining rooms.

One free bonus of the area is the beautiful, oversize pine cones under every tree that are yours for the taking. Save them for the holidays and as a remembrance of Pinehurst's clean fragrance.