Steve Miller works from his home in the leafy enclave of Biltmore Forest just south of Asheville as an adjunct professor at the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School and as a business consultant and a corporate board member. After a day of drafting reports, processing emails, returning phone calls and text messages, he’s ready at four or five o’clock to slip down the street to Biltmore Forest Country Club, sling a bag over his shoulder and go for a walk.
“I’m trying as hard as I can to get back to living at the speed of life instead of living at the speed of technology,” Miller says. “Technology is great, but boy, it will wear you out. My wife still talks about everything changing when I brought ‘that doggone laptop home’ and started working after dinner. Technology speeds everything up.
“Walking this golf course is my solace, my psychotherapy. It’s so beautiful out here. You get a feel for the course and you have time to think between shots. And more than anything, golf is simply a walking game.”
Dr. Keith Black is an orthodontist in Asheville and also a Biltmore Forest member. He put his golf game on the shelf temporarily in mid-December 2018 to have knee replacement surgery, this after getting three cortisone shots throughout the year to help him through the discomfort of walking the hilly course that opened in 1922.
“The knee’s not serious, I’m not gonna die,” Black says with a smile. “But the reason I’m having it done is I can’t walk this course with my friends. I play the front nine walking and can just make it up the hill to eight green, then I’ve got to ride the back nine. Walking with my buddies is what it’s all about.
“I ride if I have to. But this is a walking golf course.”
Dr. Bud Brazil is a retired urologist who has been a member at Biltmore Forest since the 1960s. He remembers a conversation over breakfast in the late 1980s with his good friend, Claude Ramsay, who happened to be club president at the time. Ramsay said the club’s board was thinking of instituting a mandatory cart policy like many clubs of that era were invoking—all to boost cart revenues and hence the club’s bottom line.
“I voiced my opinion against that idea very strongly because I knew we had a strong membership of guys that liked to walk,” says Brazil. “They all had light Sunday bags and they could throw eleven or twelve clubs in them and take off. That’s been a pattern of this club for a long time, and they didn’t pull the trigger on that, fortunately.”
Today roughly half of Biltmore Forest’s annual golf rounds are walkers—lugging a bag, pulling a trolley or even taking a caddie via a program started in 2018 by Director of Golf Jon Rector via ClubUp, a Charlotte-based concern that works as something of an “Uber for caddies.”
And consider that Miller, Black and Brazil as 2019 dawns are all north of sixty years old—Brazil is actually eighty-three and known in the club as one of its most prolific walkers.
“It’s quite a statement about the mindset of the members,” says course superintendent Michael Heustis. “Walking is a traditional way of playing the game. It speaks to how the membership views the club, the course, the game—that they are willing to carry it forward in a very traditional way.”
Rector considers the more than three hundred caddie rounds from 2018, youngsters and adults donning royal blue bibs and carrying clubs, raking bunkers and tending flags in the age-old manner dating back to St. Andrews centuries ago.
“People have commented to me, ‘It just looks right seeing caddies at Biltmore Forest,’” says Rector, who joined the staff at Biltmore Forest in 2012.
Generations at Biltmore Forest have acquired that taste of methodically traversing a golf course via comfortable saunter rather than the herking and jerking of mechanical contrivances. Bill Brazil, an Asheville attorney, learned to play the game tagging along with his dad and today at age fifty-four is one of a group of about a dozen middle-age golfers who are single-digit handicappers.
“It’s so much more pleasurable to walk,” Bill says. “For me, it’s an element of fitness. I hate to get on a treadmill. I’d much prefer to throw a bag on a trolley or on my shoulder and go walk eighteen holes. All my buddies are committed to that. We rarely get in a cart.”
If any club in the Carolinas should embrace the traditional elements of golf, it’s Biltmore Forest, which opened on the Fourth of July 1922. The club is not Asheville’s oldest, as the Country Club of Asheville can trace its roots to 1896 and a five-hole course built at Swannanoa Golf and Country Club (albeit a couple of iterations and locations predating its current location on the north side of Asheville). But BFCC certainly resonates as much old-world patina as any in the region.
George Vanderbilt, grandson of railroad and shipping magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt, was smitten with Asheville and the Blue Ridge Mountains when he first visited in 1888 and a year later started building a 250-room French Renaissance chateau on rolling countryside four miles south of downtown, the Biltmore House opening in 1895. Vanderbilt died in 1914 and his widow, Edith, over the next decade needed to generate funds for the massive upkeep of the estate.
One decision was to sell 87,000 acres to the west of the estate to the United States Forest Service, including Mt. Pisgah. Another was to develop the land between the estate and Hendersonville Road into a residential neighborhood anchored with a country club. Edith hired Donald Ross of Pinehurst to design the course and Edward Palmer of Baltimore to create the Tudor-style clubhouse, which sits today resplendent with its steep, slate roofs and English turrets.
Over nearly a century, Biltmore Forest has been the venue for the Biltmore Invitational (with the likes of Billy Joe Patton and Harvie Ward dueling in the 1940s); the PGA Tour (with Ben Hogan completing his three-week victory run through Pinehurst, Greensboro and Asheville in March 1940); and the Sweetser Memorial (a spring weekend tribute to amateur golf and the legacy of former member Jess Sweetser, the 1922 U.S. Amateur champion). Bobby Jones visited in the mid-1920s regularly to escape the Atlanta heat, and Dr. Cary Middlecoff, a two-time U.S. Open champion, was a longtime member.
One of dozens of sepia-toned images hanging in the club’s hallways shows Hogan hitting from the first tee, a gallery of elegantly dressed spectators surrounding the clubhouse. John Gerring, a noted teaching professional and Carolinas Golf Hall of Fame member who worked two stints at Biltmore Forest over his career, sums it best.
“It’s like I’m doused in tradition, decorum and good manners when I visit Biltmore Forest,” he says.
The golf course is not long by modern standards, measuring 6,770 yards, but it’s a par-70 with just one par-five hole, has greens that routinely roll at twelve on the Stimpmeter and fairways that readily bounce after a two-year drying-out regimen implemented in 2016 upon Heustis’s arrival after posts at, among others, Peachtree Golf Club in Atlanta and Chicago Golf Club. And on a course with zero flat fairways and numerous twists and turns, firm landing areas do not equal three-hundred yard bombs that roll straight toward the target. Heustis used seven million gallons of water in 2017 versus thirty-five million the year before. The club installed a new drainage and irrigation system in 2014-15, and the course now has A1/A4 bent greens, zeon zoysia fairways, tees and caddie walks and fescue rough.
“You can only ride your history for so long. You have to put a great product out there,” says Rector. “The course plays significantly different today. You have to be able to place your tee shot in the fairway. If you’re hitting out of rough to a green rolling thirteen, you can’t stop the ball near the hole and you’re not going to make birdie. You have to think your shot through and then put your ball in the fairway.”
“The ambiance and walkability … the history of Donald Ross … the greens rolling at twelve … the fact we’re in the South and have that genteel nature—it all adds up,” adds Black. “There’s nothing like it in my mind.”
One of the highlights at Biltmore is crossing Stuyvesant Road from the eighth hole and mounting the weathered and ancient stone staircase leading to the ninth tee. Five miles in the distance looms Mt. Pisgah, the very sight that first enraptured George Vanderbilt so many years ago.
“You walk up to the tee and all of sudden, there is Mt. Pisgah,” says lifelong member Stan Cocke. “You thank your lucky stars you’re able to enjoy that view so many times over the years.”
Biltmore Forest Country Club is one of eighteen notable golf courses in the Carolinas to be featured in the forthcoming book by Lee Pace on clubs that welcome and embrace the old traditions of the game. Pace is also authoring a book to celebrate the club’s 2022 centennial.