I am standing on the ninth tee at Grandfather Golf & Country Club, my heart-rate elevated halfway to the moon, a wisp of perspiration on my brow on a mid-sixties May afternoon, my legs stressed from climbing twenty-seven steps through a passage carved in the rhododendron thickets leading from the eighth green. And getting to eight was no picnic, either—it’s sixty feet uphill from the one-fifty marker in the middle of the fairway to the green, your sightline angled up the ground to the heights of Grandfather Mountain at 5,945 feet above sea level.
I am the first of my foursome to hit. I pull a five-iron on the par-three hole, and my heart is still racing as I address the shot. “Good turn, good posture, good extension,” I think as I begin my backswing.
Over the top, pull-hook into the water front-left of the green.
“I don’t think hitting first on nine is such a good thing,” I say to my playing partners. “I need time to catch my breath.”
Such are the challenges of walking and lugging at Grandfather, which this summer turns fifty years old and is consistently ranked as one of the best courses in North Carolina. The course is very walkable to be a mountain course with a significant real estate component. That’s not to say it’s easy.
“From six to fourteen, it’s pretty much uphill the whole way,” says Jim Magruder, a Grandfather member, avid outdoorsman and professional photographer.
I stop to think. Despite having played the course probably twenty times over the years, I’ve never noticed that. But if you envision driving along Hwy. 105 that runs north-south just to the west of the club and that most of the holes are laid out an a north-south axis, it dawns on you than you’re driving downhill headed from Banner Elk to Linville. So as the course turns north after the par-three fifth hole, it makes sense that you’re going against the elevation for nearly half the course, with the one exception of playing downhill off the thirteenth tee.
“If you carry a bag, this course is a good workout,” Magruder says. “The last few holes, I have to think, ‘Okay, I’m getting a little tired, what do I need to do to make sure I don’t lose my focus?’”
Joining Magruder and me on this May afternoon are David and Karen Nenon, members since 2000 and regular walkers. All of us are mid-fifties and up and all are carrying our bags.
“When I play bad golf I can just say, ‘Oh I had great exercise,’” Karen says. “The times I have ridden in a cart, I feel like it ruins my rhythm. I just feel like I don’t play as well. You’re in and out of carts all day. And when it’s cart-paths only, oh my word. I really enjoy the walking. As long as I can do it, I will.”
“Walking gives you time to see some really cool things,” David says. “We were out one evening for a few quick holes before dark and were on the eighth hole. It had just quit raining and there was the moon up to one side and sun setting behind us. It was one of those neat moments you have when you take the time to look for them.”
Magruder has walked the course many times and hiked the trails around Linville all his life. He knows where the good angles are of golfers crossing bridges, how to frame the mountain peaks like Grandfather and Dunvegan around the holes. He understands how the shadows and seasons and times of day interact to form fascinating images, that if you catch golfers on the eighteenth green just before sundown, for example, sometimes the light of the sun that has just set to the west can illuminate the puffy clouds hanging in the sky over the clubhouse. The result can be magic.
I ask Magruder if there is a “money shot” of the course that he’d try to shoot if a magazine wanted a cover shot.
“Well, there would never be a golfer on eight at sunrise,” Magruder says, “but a really nice shot would be if you caught the first few rays coming over the mountain, and the golfers would be silhouetted against the light amidst all the early mist. That would be a pretty cool shot.”
Grandfather was the brainchild of Agnes Morton Cocke, who one day in 1964 was frustrated at how busy nearby Linville Golf Club had become during the high summer season. Aggie, an accomplished amateur golfer from Wilmington, and her brother Hugh had each inherited tracts of some two thousand acres around Linville from their grandfather. Hugh used his land to build the Grandfather Mountain tourist attraction that has drawn hundreds of thousands to walk across the Mile-High Swinging Bridge and feed Mildred the Bear and her offspring, and Aggie used hers to create this private residential enclave and golf club. She hired Ellis Maples of Pinehurst to design the course along land that had massive rock deposits in places and thick forests everywhere else.
The first construction chief quit because there was too much rock, too many hills and too much dense forest.
“A lot of people said the course couldn’t be built, and after a while in the rhododendron, I had a hard time believing it could be done,” said Wayne Smith, an irrigation equipment salesman at the time who went on a few early treks around the course with Aggie and Ellis. “The boulders and rocks were huge obstacles. I was in awe at what Ellis saw.”
The holes are woven through the woods with generous setbacks for houses, and many of the boulders deposited over the eons were left in place to frame holes, particularly on holes two through four. One hole flows conveniently to the next, the only difficult part being a healthy trek from nine green back to the clubhouse and tenth tee. The ever-accommodating golf staff under Director of Golf Chip King knows where the walking groups are and leaves carts tucked in the woods off the ninth green for golfers to ride up to the clubhouse, where they leave the carts and continue on their merry way, often stoked with a cup-to-go of the club’s outstanding chicken salad.
(You wouldn’t want to do this at the turn, as you’d soon need a nap by the eleventh tee, but the 10th Hole Halfway House makes a killer hamburger, eight ounces of a blend of brisket, sub-primal and chuck-eye roll. It’s more of a post-round reward for having walked nearly six miles and burned more than six hundred calories.)
There’s not a bad hole at Grandfather, just eighteen interesting and picturesque ones that require a variety of shots and seem to play longer than the scorecard because the area’s substantial rainfall quota makes it tough for the course to firm-up. The Linville River is a key feature, crossing or running parallel to more than a half dozen holes. Four of my favorites are eight, thirteen, fourteen and eighteen.
Eight is a short par-four, uphill into the green with a spectacular view of Grandfather Mountain in the background. Thirteen is a par-four, playing downhill to a green surrounded by a forest of green in the summer and orange and gold in the fall. Fourteen is a shorter par-four bending to the left, the green fronted by the river and the understated putting surface looking to be merely an extension of the fairway. The home hole is a long par-four with a peninsula green surrounded on three sides by Loch Dornie; miss short, right or long and you’re fishing your ball out of the lake and going to the hip to pay off the day’s Nassau.
Bobby Weed, a golf course designer headquartered in Jacksonville, Florida, has consulted with the club over the last decade on a handful of adjustments, many of them simply culling back Mother Nature’s encroachment on the dimensions and corridors of what Maples built half a century ago.
“Grandfather has such a rich heritage and pedigree to be comparatively young,” Weed says. “When it opened, it was one of the top courses in the Carolinas and has been in the top one hundred nationally for decades. It’s a tribute to Ellis, to the founders, to a great membership.”
My round perfectly illustrated the never-ending “plug the dike”malady facing amateur golfers of modest skills: Patch one leak in your game and another starts oozing. I putted with hands “like a blacksmith” as Yogi Berra once said but was delighted that I held up to hit crisp iron shots into four of the last five greens and play those just one-over. Meanwhile, Magruder scored his course-best seventy-eight despite lugging a camera and a couple of lenses around and doing so on an increasingly sore hip. One certainly has to multitask at Grandfather: Play golf, stride the mountain and capture the beauty.
Grandfather Golf & Country Club is one of eighteen notable golf courses in the Carolinas to be featured in the forthcoming book by Lee Pace on places that welcome and embrace the old traditions of the game. He recently completed a fifty-year anniversary book for the club.