When it comes to course architecture, “great”, “mountain” and “golf” are not words that get strung together often, if ever. You can have great golf near the mountains or nestled in the valleys at the base of some beautiful mountains. That happens all the time, going as far back as the Donald Ross era and places like The Broadmoor at the base of Mount Cheyenne in Colorado or Highlands Country Club in North Carolina, which sits in a relatively flat spot between Asheville and the Georgia line. On the other side, you can find plenty of holes carved out of mountainsides, with disjointed routings and cart paths that look like black diamond ski slopes. A lot of those courses are visually spectacular, breathtaking even. But, for the most part, they’re architectural stinkers.
Almost never can you have both great design and a mountaintop location. It’s the geography, or geology, or topography or whatever “-ology” makes it all but impossible to find usable routings and grow decent grass on the rocky slopes and in the shadowy draws of the mountains.
Architect and former PGA Tour player Bill Bergin should know. “Sapphire Valley (one of the good ‘mountain’ courses just outside Cashiers, North Carolina, and within hiking distance of a ski mountain) is one of my mountain re-dos but it’s on a flatter piece of land than what I’m working with now at a project in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida,” Bergin said. “The difference is, Sapphire is at 3,100-feet elevation.”
Bergin didn’t set out to become a mountain-golf expert. An Atlanta native, and four-time All-SEC player at Auburn, Bergin played the tour in the ’80s and was, according to Paul Azinger, “one of those guys you hated to see pull up because you knew you couldn’t beat him.” But PGA Tour life in the days of Monday rabbits wasn’t what it is today. Fall outside the top-60 on the money list and you were hocking the Winnebago and looking for an assistant pro job at your local club. Bergin, married with two children, was looking for something else. So, he went to work in design with Bob Cupp, bringing a tour-player perspective to the dirt, but without the inflated ego.
You understand his work ethic when he pulls onto a job site in his converted Sprinter, a rolling office and camper that Bergin and his son, Matt, use as their hotel and design studio when they’re on the road.
That road takes them up the ridges and into the hollows of Appalachia more often now than they expected.
“We’re doing a ton of mountain work,” Bergin said. “Highland Falls (North Carolina), Waterfall (on the rocky corner where Georgia meets South and North Carolina), Cullasaja (North Carolina), Sky Valley and Big Canoe (both along the Appalachian ridgelines of Georgia): I didn’t start out with that in mind, but that’s where we are.
“I guess it’s because my philosophy works really well in the mountains. I believe on any hole, you usually have a dangerous side, a side where there is trouble. If (the architect) pushes the hole away from the danger, it limits the amount of room you have to work with. But if you push the hole toward the danger, yes, it presents a challenge, but it also leaves you more room on the safe side for those who want to play away from the danger.”
Nowhere is that philosophy on display more than Bergin’s masterpiece, the one spot in the southeast where carving holes out of the mountain actually worked. It’s called McLemore and it’s situated on a ridgeline of Lookout Mountain more suited for hang gliding than golf. The nearest actual town is Cloudland, Georgia, so named because more often than not residents have to look down to see the clouds. Chattanooga is about 2o minutes straight down from the first tee.
Here, Bergin achieved the near impossible – great mountain golf. Not great valley golf with mountains nearby or great meadow golf in one of the region’s many hollows. But ridge-cut golf in a setting that will make you gasp out loud.
“At McLemore, I had a couple of goals,” Bergin said. “The first one was to make it fun and playable. If you’re on vacation, you want to have a good time. It doesn’t matter if it’s a second home, or you’ve made a road trip up there, or you’re staying there in one of the stay-and-play cottages or you’ll be staying in the future hotel (which will sit between the first tee and the 18th green), you want to enjoy yourself. So, our goal in design was to create more space for you to not play perfect golf.
“We gave you room, which isn’t always something that’s available on mountain courses. We also made the greens both fun and challenging. I believe in big greens complexes but not necessarily giant putting surfaces, although these greens (at McLemore) are bigger than you’ll find in a lot of mountain settings. I may be a little different in this thinking, but I believe if you’re 60 feet away on a putting surface and you’re a 15-handicapper who doesn’t play a lot, you’re going to 3-putt much of the time, so it’s still a challenge. It’s a little like playing pool. If you have a lot of green on the table, it’s a harder shot and if you have less green on the table, it’s an easier shot. It’s not that different in putting, which is why we soften (the contours) and make the complexes bigger.”
As will always be the case in the mountains, there are some treks between holes. But the views make even that part worth it. Dense, cool forests and rock outcroppings make you want to stop the cart and build a fire.
Back on the course, Bergin’s bunkers are a mixture of Donald Ross and Seth Raynor, mostly flat-bottomed and straightforward but with angular grass faces and subtle surrounding slopes that strike the perfect balance. A not-very-good player can get out of them. But it takes an expert and an “A” game to get it close.
If you only played the first 17 holes at McLemore, you’d be rightly impressed. But when you weave your way down the serpentine path between the 17th green and 18th tee, a stretch Bergin calls “Lombard Street in the mountains,” you end up on the most visually arresting finishing hole in America, and one of the most amazing feats of architecture in the game.
For those who appreciate such things, imagine the best of Cape Kidnappers and Old Head with No. 8 at Pebble Beach thrown in and you get a sense of what you experience on the final hole at McLemore. Granted the nearest ocean is a six-hour drive but the par-4 – carved out of a ridge 100 feet below the level of the clubhouse and on the edge of a cliff that drops 1,200 feet to the valley floor – gives you that same wide-eyed feeling of wonder, as if you’ve entered some sort of portal and been transported to golf paradise.
“Building 18 presented a lot of challenges,” Bergin said. “We had to get irrigation down there and you had to clear trees. We couldn’t haul (the trees) out, so we had to burn them. We cut and blasted rock and pushed material out toward the cliff and it was dicey at times. But now I have these magnificent boulders to use as targets and features. Then we had to fly the bridge (from the tee to the fairway) in by helicopter.”
The result of all that work cannot be overstated. As Bergin correctly put it: “Even with the great photography that we have, it’s still better in person. You’re just drawn to the edge of the cliff.”
And it’s places like McLemore that draw you back to the mountains. As Bergin, the new King of Appalachian Golf, said, “the views are spectacular. You’re breathing fresh, crisp mountain air. You just feel lucky to be there. That’s why people go.”
Top: An aerial view of the majestic 18th at McLemore. All photos courtesy of McLemore.
© 2021 Global Golf Post LLC
We are sorry that this post was not useful for you!
Tell us how we can improve this post?