LINVILLE, NORTH CAROLINA | The Old North State is littered with golf courses from the Coastal Plain through the Piedmont Plateau to the Appalachian Mountains. An inordinate number (40 remaining) were built by legendary Scottish architect Donald Ross. Pinehurst, and its hallowed No. 2 course in the sandhills, lays claim to being the “home of American golf” in much the same way that St. Andrews is the game’s ancestral cradle, but it isn’t the first place where golf was played in North Carolina.
That distinction, against all rational odds, belongs to a little hamlet in the mountains of northwestern North Carolina at a club called Linville. And folks lucky enough to experience the game in this little corner of the highlands during its short season from late spring to fall understand the appeal that has spread like mountain rhododendron across Avery County with heralded gems such as Grandfather Golf & Country Club, Elk River Club, Diamond Creek and Linville Ridge.
It all started at Linville with what was arguably the first “golf resort” in the world. In 1892, mining entrepreneur Hugh MacRae decided that these mountains could be more than a place to extract minerals. The MacRaes opened the Eseeola Inn (now Lodge) to draw tourists to the crisp mountain air, and being of Scottish descent its centerpiece needed a golf course. Hugh built the first nine holes himself in 1895 and with his brother, Donald, added five more before the turn of the century. Four holes got played twice to make up 18.
The original Linville course quickly grew obsolete, so in 1924 the MacRaes brought in Donald Ross to create what remains one of the most charming little gems in the country and arguably Ross’ greatest mountain design. Open to members and guests of the Eseeola Lodge, the Ross classic was hand-crafted with mule-and-pan grading along the natural contours around the crystal-clear, trout-filled streams including Grandmother Creek, which meanders its way through 14 holes. The most famous is the 472-yard par-4 third, a gorgeous brute of a hole that requires carrying the creek (at least) twice – earning the distinction of being ranked among Golfweek’s top-100 holes in the country.
Linville Golf Club’s success spawned a new industry as golf courses have blossomed all around that original Ross masterpiece. At the base of Grandfather Mountain is its namesake course that was the vision of Agnes “Aggie” Morton with financial assistance from her brother, Hugh Morton – Hugh MacRae’s grandchildren. Aggie was a champion golfer and inherited the Linville River Valley at the base of the mountain that her brother transformed into a tourist attraction. Since Linville Golf Club had become so popular and crowded, she decided in the mid-1960s to build her own course and lured a Donald Ross protégé to design it – Ellis Maples.
“I loved Donald Ross’ golf courses, but he was dead by that time, so I decided Ellis would be the next best thing,” said Aggie, who died in 2015.
Building Grandfather was no small task considering the rocky terrain split by river gorges and covered in trees and mountain laurel. Aggie had very specific ideas for taking advantage of the space to develop 18 distinctive holes that prominently featured views of Grandfather Mountain looming above it. The result when GG&CC opened in 1968 proved to be as beguiling as it is challenging.
“Pound for pound, hole for hole, the loveliest 100 Greatest Course I’ve seen,” said Golf Digest’s Ron Whitten.
Grandfather has consistently been mentioned in the same breath as Pinehurst No. 2 as one of the best handful of courses in a state filled with top-100 caliber tracks. With two such acclaimed courses in such an idyllic setting, the golf tap burst in Avery County.
Across the street from Grandfather – and up to the top of another mountain – is Linville Ridge. Originally designed by George Cobb and upgraded in 2007 by Bobby Weed, the Ridge offers majestic views with its 13th hole (at 4,949 feet above sea level) marking it as the highest elevation course east of the Mississippi River.
Around the corner in Banner Elk are a couple of raving beauties for anyone lucky enough to find their way onto them. Jack Nicklaus designed Elk River in 1984, with nine holes carved into the rolling hills and the other nine in the valley around its namesake river. The bald eagles nesting high behind the sixth green often swoop down to grab a trout for dinner.
Diamond Creek is a 2003 Tom Fazio creation that boasts a 100-foot waterfall down a granite cliff behind its par-3 17th green and checks in at No. 86 in Golf Digest’s most recent top-100 list. If you have the clout to play there, you can probably also get a table at the renowned Artisanal Restaurant right outside the entrance.
Linville’s most famous contribution to the golf world, however, is something called “SP55” – a chalk-white sand made from granulated quartz. The residue waste of a mining process for feldspar and mica in the nearby Spruce Pine Mineral District, the quartz sand caught the eye of Augusta National co-founder Clifford Roberts, who had a seasonal home in Avery County.
“The sand is unlike any other in the world. Some people call it sugar sand because you can’t tell it from white sugar.” – Alex Glover
For years, the mining companies only wanted the feldspar and mica that they got out of the rock, which was used in manufacturing glass, porcelain, joint compound and insulation. The 25 percent of it that was quartz was just waste and often buried in holes to get rid of it until the computer revolution found valuable use for it in semiconductors.
Some of those holes where Spruce Pine sand was deposited were bunkers at Linville Golf Club. Linville’s golf season from May to October is exactly opposite of that at Augusta National, where Roberts presided as chairman until his death in 1977.
Roberts believed the bunker sand at Augusta National was too inconsistent and coarse, so in the early 1970s he met with Claude Greene, Linville’s club manager and a mining businessman, to broker a deal for bringing Spruce Pine’s waste sand to spruce up Augusta’s bunkers. Greene refused payment for sending what he only considered mining detritus, and instead was told by Roberts he could play Augusta National whenever he wanted and reportedly received six badges to every Masters in return.
“What they use for trap sand was rejected (for semiconductor use) because the chemistry wasn’t quite right,” Alex Glover, a retired head geologist for the Feldspar Corporation, told the Mitchell News-Journal.
“When you crush it, grind it and separate it, it gets broken down in the process. … It’s pure and clear when you look at it under a microscope. It looks like uncut diamonds. It’s those little facets that reflect light and make it appear to be so crystalline and white.
“The sand is unlike any other in the world. Some people call it sugar sand because you can’t tell it from white sugar.”
The first shipment of SP55 to Augusta came in 13 coal boxcars, but the black coal dust spoiled the pristine white that Roberts coveted. Greene sent another shipment using clean boxcars, and the white bunkers have been a staple of the Masters ever since. (Tiger Woods also told the Los Angeles Times that he had three truckloads of the famous Spruce Pine sand delivered to his home in Florida to fill some of the bunkers on his backyard practice facility.)
That sand is just a little piece of the special nature of golf in North Carolina’s mountains.
Top: The approach at Linville Golf Club’s daunting, 472-yard, par-4 third (Photo: Scott Michaux, Global Golf Post)
© 2022 Global Golf Post LLC
If you love great journalism like this, you will love GGP+. Click here and subscribe for just $48 (20% off).
We are sorry that this post was not useful for you!
Tell us how we can improve this post?