Guy’s Time: Teeing up Memories of Mountain Golf

written by Carl Danbury, Jr. | photos courtesy of Warren Grant

Sky Valley 15th Hole - CroppedThe frame of reference is a combination of awakening scenery, rousing colors, infrequently indelible shot making and the reminiscence of those with whom you played and undoubtedly laughed. For me, that’s golf.

It began at an early age at municipal or public courses, and others with a low-entry cost. Money earned shoveling snow, delivering newspapers, and then later when I was old enough to caddy at Springdale Golf Club in Princeton, N.J., funded my early passion for the game. The game, however, was more than round-by-round improvement (frustration), posting a career best score or hitting a memorable tee shot; it often was about the comical aspects of the game that provided the fixation.

My father stepped to the first tee box at Princeton Country Club early one summer afternoon. His job allowed such trivialities in the mid-‘60s and neighbor Ferdie Reeves and I were the beneficiaries of his afternoon off. Dad paid our $6 greens fee and we sauntered gleefully over to the tee box, toting our clubs behind us on a pull cart. Ferdie and I dribbled our tee shots down the fairway about 90 to 110 yards, and then my father stepped to the box.

After a few practice swings, he addressed the ball and swung mightily expectant of a 210-yard drive (passable in the days of small-headed persimmon drivers), just slightly right of center in the fairway. Instead, the ball rose off his club like a wounded sparrow, floated as if on a cotton pillow with butterfly wings, and then landed softly in a nearby oak tree. The ball then rolled vertically down the massive trunk of the oak, its descent seemingly taking minutes rather than seconds. In an instant, Ferdie and I were rolling around on the ground, laughing hysterically at the embarrassing attempt. Nonplussed, my dad teed up his mulligan, struck it well and we were off for 18 holes of unbridled pleasure.

Round After Round
Some 40 years later, I joined two friends for an afternoon round at Marsh Creek Country Club, just south of St. Augustine, Fla. We sailed along for the first 12 holes with no impeding play in front of us. That changed on No. 13 when we spotted three groups on the same hole. As there were no groups behind us, the three of us circled back, sped across the 12th fairway and through the rough in our carts, hoping to play a few extra holes while the slower groups ahead finished the next two holes.

On our way back to the 11th tee, my friend Greg and I were racing over a rise when we heard an unforgettable scream and turned to our left. We spotted Jeff, the third in our threesome. His cart was airborne and flying into a cavernous sand trap that was hidden from view from the direction we were headed. We screeched on our brakes and returned quickly to the befuddling scene, only to find Jeff standing upright, with the side rails that held the roof of the cart on either side of him. The cart, wheels still spinning, was laying on its side, undamaged but in need of some T.L.C. We helped Jeff turn the cart upright, pushed it out of the sand trap as quickly as we could, and then half-heartedly raked the trap to hide any of the tracks or other evidence. We were shocked that he wasn’t seriously injured — or dead — and as such, laughed without remorse for the next 30 minutes between shots.

There were many other funny instances along the way, but in addition to the comical allure of the sport, is the addiction of wanting to play as many courses as possible. Monday was caddie day at Springdale, and we rarely missed the chance to play for free on those days. Pete Consoli, the caddiemaster, always yelled at us for playing in our bare feet: “There’s chemicals on that grass!”

Once I acquired my driver’s license — in between my summer job and four to five baseball games a week — most of my recreational spare time was spent playing any course that would allow passage, no matter the distance. Mountain View, Cranbury, Hominy Hill, Howell Park and Hopewell Valley were the favorites. A few years later, my brother-in-law clued me in on Bowling Green Golf Club in Oak Ridge, which was about a two-hour drive and well worth every second. The Morris County course had topography and elevation changes, something we rarely got in the central or coastal part of the Garden State, which fueled another fixation: mountain golf.

Mountain Air Hole #1

High Times
Playing in the peace and quiet, often away from housing communities or subdivisions is the ultimate treat for me. I particularly enjoy playing in the fall, with its soothing cool breezes, striking colors and playfully active wildlife. Your shots are framed by myriad colors of the hardwoods and the bent- or bluegrass has recovered from the summer heat, making it more lush and providing more favorable lies.

Since we began publishing Points North Atlanta, I have been fortunate to play many great courses, both for media or personal visits. The following is a curated list of memorable courses for both categories:

One of my personal favorites is the Cascades Course at the Omni Homestead Resort in Hot Springs, Va., which was once home to the venerable Sam Snead, and nephew J.C. Snead. Designed in 1923 by William S. Flynn, the timeless layout was rated in the top 100 courses by Golf Digest for 40 consecutive years. .

Not too far away, the Highlands Course at Primland Resort, Meadows of Dan, Va., was opened in 2006. Architect Donald Steel crafted a masterpiece atop a mountain plateau with stunning scenery.

Another memorable course is Mountain Air Country Club, Burnsville, N.C. The Scott Pool-design is majestic, and if you’re lucky, you will see a private plane land on the community’s mountaintop landing strip, 4,400 feet in elevation.

Closer to home in Dillard, Ga. is the recently renovated Sky Valley Country Club course at 3,500 feet in elevation. The original course, routed by Bill Watts, was redesigned by Bill Bergin in 2007 and is a very entertaining layout.

Nearby Waterfall Club in Clayton overlooks Lake Burton and is simply breathtaking. Another Scott Pool design, the signature par-3 second hole features a 210-foot drop from tee to green, and you’ll be hard pressed to find a finer collection of finishing holes than at Waterfall. Holes 14 through 18 are very challenging.

Brasstown Valley in Young Harris is situated at 1,923 feet in elevation and features a 6,957-yard Denis Griffiths design that challenges golfers of all skill levels.

Currahee Club in Toccoa, while only around 1,000 feet in elevation, is a course that seems much more mountainous than it is. Elevation changes, gorgeous vistas and first-rate conditions make it a must-play venue in Northeast Georgia. Acclaimed golf course architect Jim Fazio crafted a gem with views of Lake Hartwell and the surrounding mountains.

Waynesville CC - Blue Ridge Course 9AThe Waiting List
There is another list of mountain courses that I have not played that are perched high above others in terms of reputation, significance and perhaps grandeur. Those that are the icons on this list are:

Grandfather Golf and Country Club, Linville, N.C., which was designed by Ellis Maples and is regularly ranked only behind Pinehurst No. 2 as North Carolina’s finest. Dan Maples, Ellis’ son, has updated the course twice since and it remains one of Western Carolina’s golf masterpieces.

The younger Maples also designed a relative unknown, which offers breathtaking scenery and exhilarating shot values. Redtail Mountain, Mountain City, Tenn., is located just 20 minutes from Boone, N.C., and features striking elevation changes and great conditions.

Linville Ridge is another on the list and I won’t have to drive far from Grandfather to play it. Designed by George Cobb and updated by Bobby Weed in 2007, Linville Ridge soars to an elevation of 4,945 feet on the 13th hole. It is acclaimed for its playability as well as for its views.

Also nearby is the aptly-named and ultra-exclusive Diamond Creek, created by partners John McNeely and Wayne Huizenga, with a revered golf course designed by Hendersonville’s Tom Fazio. The few lucky enough to play here have commented that the experience is unparalleled.

Another Tom Fazio design is Mountaintop Golf and Lake Club in Cashiers. Available only to members and their guests, this stunning 18-hole layout is framed by hardwoods. A friend who played it recently called it one of his top 5 golf experiences ever.

Wade Hampton Golf Club, also in Cashiers, is a perennial No. 1 on Golfweek’s best residential courses list and among the top 15 of all U.S. Modern Courses. Following its 1987 selection by Golf Digest as “Best New Private Course” in America, the Wade Hampton quickly ascended to prominence, entering the magazine’s Top 20 two years later. Fazio created a gentle, walking course with the more rugged terrain flanking the fairways and hardwoods, masking the presence of the exclusive homes with cedar shingles.

The land upon which Wade Hampton was developed was once part of High Hampton Inn & Country Club. High Hampton’s golf course is also a Cobb design featuring the par-3, 137-yard famed 8th hole, an “island” hole, which Golf Digest once featured as “One of America’s Great Golf Holes.”

Old Edwards Club, a Tom Jackson design that opened in 2009 in nearby Highlands, offers packages to guests of the Old Edwards Inn through Oct. 31.

The Waynesville Inn Golf Resort and Spa features 27 holes of golf, including the Carolina nine, which opened in 1926, and was designed by the iconic Donald Ross. Carolina lies in a valley, beneath the backdrop of the surrounding Balsam Mountains. The Dogwood nine was completed in 1929, and third nine, the Blue Ridge, was built in 1986.

Last but certainly not least, is another Donald Ross design. The Linville Golf Club opened for play in 1926 and regularly appears on must-play lists by various golf media outlets. Ross used mules and pans to grade the course long before machinery was commonplace. The painstaking process allowed him to carve the course into its glorious mountain setting. Located in a valley beneath Grandfather Mountain, it features many changes in elevation and sloping fairways. The small greens are fast and slightly undulating. A creek runs through the course and must be traversed at least 14 times. The par-72 layout is reserved for guests of The Eseeola Lodge, which opened 123 years ago, and is one of the Southeast’s finest and timeless resorts.

Although I don’t play as frequently as I once did, I still enjoy the game and the infrequent miraculous shots. The score may not matter as much as it once did, but the scenery, camaraderie and comedy always will. Grab your sticks, enjoy the fall weather and let us know about some of your favorite high country courses.

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