Golf in Asheville

Reems Creek, hole 18
John Kernick

When it comes to golf in North Carolina, Pinehurst is the great big pink elephant in the room: You can't ignore it, and everything else shrinks by comparison. But peek past that elephant and you'll discover that the Tar Heel State offers plenty of fine golf beyond Donald Ross's masterpiece at Pinehurst No. 2, site of next summer's U.S. Open.

The Blue Ridge, Appalachian and Great Smoky Mountains encircle the western corner of the state and in the center is Asheville, where New Age meets Mayberry. Where else can you cruise Billy Graham Freeway in search of Possum Trot Road, all the while listening to Frank Zappa's weekly radio show on KNCW FM? Asheville is no Pinehurst and no Myrtle Beach -- there aren't dozens of courses cheek-by-jowl -- but this part of North Carolina has more than its share of worthy tracks, including a handful of the 45 courses that Ross built in the state.

Asheville's Grove Park Inn Resort & Spa is everything you'd expect in a mountain retreat, with cavernous granite fireplaces and antique furniture. A glance at the roster of notable guests since the Inn opened in 1913 shows eight presidents, along with the colorful mix of Thomas Edison, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Tammy Wynette. The superb, newly renovated Ross course here was a regular PGA Tour stop a half-century ago and has hosted many stars for exhibitions. "They had wonderful moments here barnstorming in the 1940s and '50s," says Dal Raiford, the director of golf. "They'd put up flyers around town, charge people 50 cents to watch and gamble with the big shots in town to cover their rooms and bar tabs."

The layout first opened in 1899, but was revised by Ross in 1924. Despite constrained boundaries, the 6,700-yard track has fairly forgiving fairways, though level lies are rare and the greens are smallish and crowned. Be sure to exercise care at the 221-yard 7th hole, where Ben Hogan once ran up an 11.

The Inn has great food, but for a more eclectic menu try Flying Frog Cafe on the corner of Haywood Street. The cuisine is Continental mixed with German, and Urban Indian. How can you beat lamb, crab cakes and wiener schnitzel?

Ross also designed Asheville's 6,356-yard Buncombe County muni in 1927. The front nine is open, but the back weaves through hilly woodland. The greens here are large, but hazards lurk in places that the architect surely never envisioned. For instance, if you airmail the green at the 410-yard 9th hole, you'll be scrambling for par from beneath an SUV in the parking lot. Two other courses near Asheville are worth a look. Alongside the French Broad River, Broadmoor Golf Links abuts the airport. It is a flat, well-conditioned 7,140-yard track. You might easily miss the poorly signposted Black Mountain Golf Course east of town on Ross Drive, but its small-town eccentricities are memorable. The layout measures 6,250 yards -- and 747 of those yards come on a single hole, the par-6 17th. Just be thankful it plays downhill.

Thirty minutes to the south, Hendersonville is the hometown of architect Tom Fazio, who runs his design empire from a humble storefront. It's also where you'll find Etowah Valley Country Club, considered one of the best courses in the state. Edmund Ault designed the original, prairie-flat South and West nines in 1967 and later added the more up-and-down North loop. The longest combination runs 7,108 yards, but Etowah Valley is best known for its great conditioning and first-rate service. There is, however, one constant hazard here: The mountains form a stunning backdrop but often wreak havoc with your distance perception.

FACTS & CONTACTS
Broadmoor Golf Links
Greens fees $36-$43; 866-578-5847; broadmoorlinks.com

Buncombe County Municipal Golf Course
Greens fees $20-$36; 828-298-1867

Etowah Valley Country Club
Greens fee $53; 800-451-8174; etowahvalley.com

The Grove Park Inn Resort
Greens fee $145; 828-252-2711; groveparkinn.com

Lake Lure Golf & Beach Resort
Greens fees $46-$50 (Apple Valley);800-260-1040; lakeluregolf.com

Linville Golf Club
Greens Fee $90; 828-733-4363; Linvillegolfclub.com

Mount Mitchell Golf Club
Greens fees $55-$79; 828-675-5454; Mountmitchellgolfresort.com

Reems Creek Golf Club
Greens fees $45-$53; 828-645-4393; Reemscreekgolf.com

Lake Lure Golf & Beach Resort, a 30-minute drive east of Hendersonville in the Blue Ridge foothills, is home to the Dan Maples-designed Apple Valley course. The greens here are tricky, and the tee shots can pose a conundrum, too. For example, the fairway at the 369-yard 12th hole is bisected by a stream. From the elevated tee, you can smack an aggressive drive over the water and leave a short-iron approach shot. Cautious players lay up and face a longer play to a sloped green guarded by a cluster of bunkers.

Mount Mitchell in Burnsville is a stunning track on the edge of the Pisgah National Forest 60 miles north of Lake Lure. Set near its namesake mountain -- the tallest peak (6,684 feet) east of the Mississippi -- Mount Mitchell was designed by Fred Hawtree in 1975. Your game plan here is hostage to the South Toe River, which slices across numerous holes. The layout is virtually flat but is routed through dense pockets of oak, hickory, laurel and hemlock trees that erupt like flaming Crayolas in the fall.

The meat of the course comes early on the back nine: the steep, 145-yard 11th hole; the 530-yard 12th, which runs beside the Toe; and two exacting par 4s of 430 and 450 yards at Nos. 13 and 14. A word of advice: This is one of the most popular tracks in the area so be prepared for a sluggish pace, unless you tee off at dawn.

From Mount Mitchell, swing northeast to Linville, where the exquisite Linville Golf Club is yet another Ross creation. Set in the shadow of Grandfather Mountain, this track looks as though it hasn't been touched, except for mowers, since the architect left town 80 years ago. The Grandfather may be a beautiful sight, but beware the Grandmother -- Grandmother Creek, which is in play on most holes. The best hole is the 3rd, a 469-yarder that roller coasters to a small, upturned-saucer green that is typical Ross. A few miles from the course you'll find Linville Caverns, a series of limestone caves that was discovered in the 1820s by local fishermen and later served as a hiding place for Civil War deserters.

As you loop back toward Asheville, a good last stop is Reems Creek Golf Club in Weaverville. Designed by Martin Hawtree (son of the aforementioned Fred Hawtree), this is a bold, modern layout with knee-knocking carries over creeks and ponds and tilted fairways that play to multi-tiered greens. It's only 6,492 yards, but Reems Creek is no pushover. The severely hilly terrain makes for many blind shots, the greens rise and fall like election year opinion polls, and the bunkering is plentiful.

Back in Asheville, the must-see final port of call is the famous Biltmore Estate, a majestic 250-room chateau built by tycoon George Vanderbilt in 1895. Stop in at the mansion's Deerpark Restaurant and raise a glass from the estate's winery to great golf in the North Carolina mountains. And to finally seeing past that big pink elephant in the room.

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