It’s five o’clock somewhere, the time to pop the seal on that bottle of Colonel Taylor Four Grain if you’re a mind. Here at Linville Golf Club in the cool and green North Carolina mountains, though, happy hour is setting off Donald Ross’s 1926 museum piece with your golf bag slung over your shoulder and a spring in your step.
The club and the relaxed and snug lodge on-premises—known as the Eseeola for “river of many cliffs” from the region’s Cherokee heritage—cater to an older set, and the golf course is quite hilly and doesn’t return to the clubhouse after nine holes. So it’s a challenge to navigate by foot and there’s not much interest from walkers, ergo the club’s policy of restricting walkers to after 5 p.m.
Linville and the Eseeola have been among my favorite spots in the Carolinas ever since GOLF Magazine sent me under cover in 1988 to critique the operation as the magazine was first launching its Gold and Silver Medal rankings program. I was knocked asunder by the ambiance and aesthetics and later glad to see it had been anointed with a Silver Medal. Since then I have relished the opportunity to visit, particularly on Thursday nights when the Eseeola and chef Patrick Maisonhaute lay out a seafood buffet that’s to die for—shrimp to crab to grouper and beyond.
The forecast in Chapel Hill was for a typical late summer high in the low nineties when I left town versus the expected high of seventy-six in Linville, perched at 3,665 feet elevation in Avery County. The thermometer read seventy-two degrees at 5 p.m. as I hit my drive on the first hole, a slightly uphill par-four with a tidy row of cottages on the outskirts of the fairway, the dwellings resplendent in the quintessential Linville look: chestnut bark siding, gray stone accents and steeply pitched roofs.
“It’s a little slice of heaven up there,” says golf architect Bobby Weed, who’s consulted with the club on design tweaks since the mid-1990s. “Linville is one of the best playing golf courses in the mountains. It’s so playable, no hole is forced. It’s a wonderful piece of property. We’ve just tried to embellish that.”
Walking the course at Linville, you can feel the crinkled and rumbled fairways under foot, pause to watch the trout swimming the cool, clear Grandmother Creek and find some of the nooks on the opposite sides of the cart paths where few golfers ever tread. I sniff at a sign designating the “90 Degree Rule”—old Donald Ross never heard of a dad-blamed 90-degree rule. And I think of a woman named Katharine Blackford, whose memory is saluted with a little sign in back of the thirteenth green with a passage carved into wood, “When we come to Linville, all troubles fade away.”
Now, this course is not an easy walk—the hikes up to seven green, nine tee, ten green, twelve green, thirteen tee and sixteen green will churn the acid in your thighs for sure. But the crystalline mountain air takes the concept of “catching your breath” to a whole new level. The tees of the eleventh and thirteenth holes are particularly striking late in the afternoon, the fairways heading north and the sun setting to the left, casting grand shadows across the fairways. Whenever I come to thirteen, I think of the photo taken by the great Hugh Morton in the 1930s from this very spot of two boys and their father playing golf.
The second and third fairways are museum exhibits A and B in showing how Ross carved the fairways out of the woods beneath Grandfather Mountain with horses and drag pans and how the remnants of old tree stumps decomposed beneath the grass over decades, leaving pock marks and dimples amid the cornucopia of mountain grasses that have woven to give the fairways a distinctive look. The third is one of the most photographed holes in Carolinas golf, the creek snaking back forth across the fairway and the green perched on an upslope—with no bunkers to guard it, just a slick poa annua putting surface and devilish slopes around the circumference.
A challenge in rebuilding the fairway of the third hole after the rock walls needed repair work in recent years was to give it, as Weed says, a “mottled and crinkled look. It’s hard to replicate the look of those pock marks and humps. They’re so natural.”
I walked eighteen holes in two hours, forty minutes, not posting a true score but notching a birdie on the long par-three twelfth hole as well as a handful of bogeys when my skills navigating the greens complexes come up woefully short. Linville is toughest to play in the fall, when the grass on the greens starts to go dormant over the cool nights and the greens start putting upwards of 12 and 13 on the Stimpmeter. You have the misery of three-putting amid the joy of all the autumn color enveloping you.
“The greens are the course’s strength,” says Logan Jackson, a seven-time club champion. “You have all kinds of difficulty getting it up and down. It’s not tight, it’s not long, but the difficulty is in the greens. The longer I’ve been there the more I appreciate it. It’s as challenging as any good player would want in a course, but it’s enjoyable for ladies and seniors. It’s playable for everyone.”
It’s nearly dusk as I lope along the eighteenth fairway, hating that I’ve run out of holes and daylight. The good news is that a bountiful table in the Eseeola Lodge awaits—and I’ve built up a caloric voucher or two to redeem.
Stories like this extolling the great golf in the Carolinas will be profiled by Chapel Hill-based writer Lee Pace in a forthcoming book to be published by UNC Press. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org with ideas and comments.