By James Dodson
Reflections on my Carolina boyhood in Greensboro came sweeping back last autumn as I made an impulsive overnight drive toward Asheville—where I had not set foot in nearly 40 years—to try and wring some solace from the last days of the golf season up in the Ridge.
I was thinking about the summer I turned 11 and received my first golf clubs. My parents had them in the trunk when they picked me up one Saturday morning at a church camp several miles up the Blue Ridge Parkway from Asheville. From there we made the short ride into town, where my father was scheduled to attend a newspaper convention at the Grove Park Inn, a monumental structure resembling a National Park lodge or perhaps a castle from a Brothers Grimm fairy tale. With dad imprisoned in meetings, my non-golfing mother and I piloted the first golf cart I’d ever sat in around the hotel golf course, a stately piece of ground bordered by avenues of Southern mansions.
The quality of our golf must have been woeful, but the setting was magical and I’ve never forgotten that weekend in Wolfe’s Old Catawba (the fictional town name), which included a visit to the novelist’s boyhood home, a restored, rambling boardinghouse on Spruce Street. Years later, at the same state university Wolfe and my father had attended some 20 years apart, I read his books and wondered what it was about Asheville that both inspired and afflicted this towering, brooding talent. I vowed to someday go back and absorb whatever artistic vibes I could—perhaps with golf clubs at the ready in case the literary experiment fizzled.
Funny how life gets away from us. It had been nearly 30 years since that English 101 inspiration and not once had I made it all the way back to Asheville; now I was headed there on a long-distance whim. In the three-decade span that elapsed I had expended my youth. Meanwhile this handsome, tidy city seemingly became young again: A cultural and artistic renaissance has boosted the population to 67,000 and made Asheville a must-see destination in many recent tour books. Whether they bring golf clubs, the sightseers dutifully tour America’s oldest Craft Guild and snap photos of some of the best-preserved 1920s- and Depression-era Art Deco architecture in the country.
The town’s narrow streets teem with art galleries and distinctive restaurants, funky clothing boutiques and one-of-a-kind designer shops, all clustered around the Grove Arcade Public Market, a restored Neo-Gothic market building from 1929. With a thriving arts community that hosts an international film festival and supports no fewer than six live theater companies plus a legendary jazz club (the Orange Peel on Biltmore Avenue, where everyone from Ray Charles to Bob Dylan has performed), it’s easy to understand why Asheville has been tagged “Boulder of the East,” a nod to the artsy college town in the foothills of the Colorado Rockies.
My full-scale reunion with the venerable Grove Park Inn didn’t quite come off, as last-minute arrangements collided with a pair of medical conventions that had booked every room of the landmark hotel. Plan B, billeting downtown in the beautiful Art Deco-style Haywood Park Hotel on Battery Park, proved a blessing in disguise, however. Out the window of my second-floor suite the streets of Wolfe’s old town vibrated with life. Not five minutes after dropping my bag and heading out to investigate this tapestry of delights, I discovered a thriving independent bookstore called Malaprops, several bohemian coffee shops and street performers who sounded like they had apprenticed under Doc and Merle Watson. All this, and not a chain-store logo in sight.
Window-shopping would have to wait, however. I had a mid-afternoon tee time at the Donald Ross-designed Grove Park Inn Golf Course, itself reacquainted with lost youth after a $2.5 million restoration project by Greensboro-based architect Kris Spence. When I first played the course with my folks in the mid-1960s, all I knew about Ross was that he’d also designed the course where I sometimes played with my dad back home. I could not have noticed the early signs of wear or known that the Grove Park layout was headed for a decline that wouldn’t be reversed until the century turned and Spence was given the tools to fix it. He spent a year on the project, relying on original sketches and other early documentation to clear overgrowth, rebuild tees and greens, and add length. For his efforts, one industry journal named Grove Park the best course restoration in the U.S. for 2003. The jaunty little hotel track now plays to a greatly enhanced 6,702 yards from the tips, with a vigorous 134 slope rating that will test every skill level from tournament players to semi-golfing moms chauffeuring pre-teen sons.
What I liked most about the 1924 layout (technically a renovation, since Ross had scraped away the features of an 1899 golf course before installing his design) was its use of the site’s natural features, the drama of creeks and abrupt angles to create a constantly fresh shotmaker’s dilemma. By modern standards, the course’s par-5s are reachable affairs, but Ross and Spence more than equalized the proposition with putting surfaces that are severely sloped in critical places. Four putts, I discovered the hard way, are not at all uncommon.
Being something of a back-nine fancier, I was pleased that the more compact routing of the concluding nine—as the land lifts you gently to the feet of the magnificent stone hotel—features the course’s best run of holes, a devilish Amen Corner of testers that finally brings you to the summit on the 17th tee. From this elevated prospect all of the golf course, Asheville proper and eternity with it seems to stretch away into the web of misty hills.
Peering into those russet hills darkened by late-afternoon sunset, the question of whether Linville Golf Club would still be open for the season nearly crossed my mind. But it remained only a subliminal twinge of doubt until the next morning, when, after the hour-long drive north from Asheville, I turned eagerly into an empty parking lot.
Any left-brained, systematic traveler would have groaned I-told-you-so at that moment, and been within his rights. I crossed the parking lot toward a lone maintenance man doing repair work on a practice bunker and was told that the golf course and the adjacent Eseeola Lodge had closed for the season just 48 hours earlier. “You’re free to walk the course,” he added, gesturing sympathetically. “You could even take your clubs and hit some balls, if you like. I don’t think anyone would mind too much.”
I cringed. Then I took him up on the offer and made a decent workout of it.
All those decades ago, this was the first true mountain golf course I ever played, a jewel cut through the dense mountain laurel and native rhododendron with small greens and tilting fairways. A true members’ club measuring 6,952 yards from the championship pegs, this marvelous layout was largely unknown by the outside world until several major golf publications discovered it was accessible through the rustically elegant Eseeola Lodge and ranked it among the Old North State’s most elite golf destinations.
Back in the mid-1990s, on a trip that might have included a sweep through Asheville had time allowed, I pulled into this same parking lot on a June afternoon and found the tee wide open. That second tour of Linville reminded me why less is often really more when it comes to most of the world’s better golf courses. Linville’s severely canted landing areas, tiny but sloped greens, and a rushing creek that meanders through the layout and must be crossed at least a dozen times at strategic places, put the emphasis where it belongs—on the player’s ability to park his ego, choose the right club and execute the shot required.
A test I apply to all golf courses is how many holes I can recall after playing the course only once. From my only adult visit of a decade before, I had mostly fond memories of Linville, but there was also an old score to settle with a painfully unforgettable hole on this delightful course, the long (450 yards) and ruggedly difficult par-4 third, which calls for you to fire a tee ball over the crest of a hill to a small bowl area, then negotiate a brutally long and lethal approach twice over the creek to an elevated, well-guarded green.
I somehow took a woeful 9 on this brute and, having never gotten over it, was looking forward to regaining a shred of my dignity. Allowing the automatic two-putt-within-20-paces—well, I still didn’t manage that redemptive par. But I hiked on, keeping score only on the good holes and following the old routing into the dimming, laurel-girdled hollows of this boy’s memory. I ordered myself to hustle straight back here as soon as Blue Ridge spring returns, Linville’s first tee opens for official play and all that laurel bursts gloriously into bloom.
The ensuing days were devoted to great jazz at the Orange Peel and pre-Thanksgiving revelry on Monument Square, the highlight of which was a fabulous Indian meal at the Haywood Park’s renowned Flying Frog Café. My new base for these activities was a room at the marvelous new 213-room Inn on Biltmore Estate. The historic Biltmore House itself is George Vanderbilt’s vision of baronial perfection. It seems that on the eve of the Great Depression, Vanderbilt hired Central Park designer Frederick Law Olmsted to fashion him a residential property for the ages on 125,000 acres of pristine land along the French Broad River just outside Asheville. The great stone chateau is a true American treasure, and is still owned and run superbly by the Vanderbilt clan, attracting more than a million paying customers every year.
One morning, following a fine night’s rest, I went out for a meditative stroll through the misty landscape that tumbles down from the massive Biltmore to the waters of the French Broad. Since Vanderbilt had not ordered up a links, I then decided on a few side trips to play some of the lesser-known but better-liked public venues in the Asheville orbit. Reems Creek Golf Club, 15 minutes away in Weaverville, provided one of those diversions. Since its quiet opening more than a decade ago, the course has steadily gathered the respect of area golfers. English architectural firm Hawtree & Son blended classic parkland holes with several challenging water features and provided some nice open touches that give the roving hilly layout a frisky bit of highland magic.
At the suggestion of a longtime golf buddy from Charlotte, I made the one-hour drive east to Etowah Valley Country Club & Golf Lodge. Of late-1960s vintage, Etowah Valley features three distinct nines most notable, in my book at least, for the beauty of their mature fir and hardwood trees and some top-drawer landscaping that includes over 60 gardens and flowerbeds that must dazzle guests come springtime in Southern Appalachia.
Realizing winter would be in the air when I returned home to New England, I stretched out the shoulders and hips for one last golf outing, at the user-friendly Maggie Valley Resort 30 minutes out Highway 19 South in Waynesville. Built by the Moody family in the early 1960s, this layout offers inviting fairways and beautiful Kentucky bluegrass turf that call to mind alpine meadows set against craggy mountain borders. I found the course such a visual delight, I took a full spin around 18, doing something I love to do: playing without a card, enjoying only the magnificent scenery and the shots as they unfolded.
I was particularly enamored of the more upland back nine. The short, doglegging 17th hole, a wee par-4 with a dangerous creek down the left and out of bounds on the right, is the kind of hole that’s sure to bring me back—and next time it won’t take 30 years.