By all rights, I should have given up the game of golf years ago. There was the time, in the beginning, when I dutifully followed my husband to the practice range and proceeded to hit every golf ball in my bag with robotic precision. It was only as I swung at the last one that I noticed the huge baskets of range balls provided beside me.
There was the time I unknowingly wore a pair of my husband's many golf shoes that I had nervously pulled from the trunk of our car upon arriving at a friend's course. It was maybe on the second hole when I noticed I was sliding a bit in my backswing and I was too embarrassed to say a thing. Note to self: I can play a full round in a pair of men's size 10 shoes, though not very well.
Perhaps I should have hung it up when I got a big laugh from my foursome when I asked my young caddy for my “five arm,” or the day I discovered that my 51 handicap was the highest of all the women in our club, including one extraordinary lady who happened to be legally blind.
Why, 35-plus years into my golf odyssey, do I continue the struggle? Quite simply, I live on this beautiful plateau in the Blue Ridge Mountains and giving up the game would be like cutting off the proverbial nose to spite my face.
It's not enough that drop-dead vistas of waterfalls, craggy mountains, lakes, and streams gift wrap each one of the public and private golf courses in the Cashiers-Highlands area. It's the rare place where you can ask a good golfer (of hole-in-one stature) to name her favorite hole, and she chooses a particular one because of the breathtaking flowers planted around the green.
It's the place where Justin Thomas can break the course record at Mountaintop Golf and Lake Club one day, shooting a 64, and a University of Alabama sophomore, Robbie Shelton, can go out the next day and shoot a 61, according to Micah Hicks, the private club's director of golf. He also remembers the Bryan Brothers (George and Wesley) agreeing to caddy for the club's member/guest tournament and using the time up here to shoot a trick shot video at Mountaintop and Old Edwards Club. The video went viral on YouTube, raising enough money for Wesley to go on tour, where last year he won the RBC Heritage championship.
There is a laid-back culture in this mountain air that attracts players of all levels. Tom Fazio, who is renowned as the golf course architect of more than 120 courses worldwide, is a part-time resident of western Carolina and a frequent local player. The designer of both the Mountaintop and Wade Hampton golf courses, he and his wife are partial to Mountaintop which allows family dogs to ride along on a round. Their dog Maggy frequently accompanies them and avails herself of the dog treats that are available at the course's comfort stations.
The setting here allows golfers to get up close and personal with all sorts of wildlife as well. Golfers at the Country Club of Sapphire Valley remember the year that a mother bear and her cubs took up residence in a covered cart bridge on the sixth hole. After several heart-stopping encounters with golfers, the mama bear was “nudged” to a more remote area by a team of maintenance staffers.
For years, there were sightings of a three-legged bear called “Tripod” by the locals, and area golfers experience the occasional sightings of deer, bobcats, and turkeys. A sun-worshipping garter snake hung out on the same drainage pipe day after day one season, to the point that he came to be known as Freddie.
People like me, as well as the good golfers, find pleasure in the “good walk spoiled” as John Feinstein famously wrote in his book of the same name.
For someone new to the Plateau, there are numerous golf venues. The immediate area features 15 golf courses, three of which are public. The public courses are all different but together can provide an overview of the special nature of mountain golf.
v The oldest is High Hampton, recently purchased by Daniel Communities, which is planning an extensive upgrade of the golf course-among other major improvements. A fun local legend explains the fact that for years the golf course had only 11 holes. The story goes that a previous owner, E.L. McKee, got the bill for those first 11 holes, was shocked by it, and cut off the project there. It would be decades before the other seven holes were added. High Hampton boasts some recent color, too, as the television version of the classic Dirty Dancing was filmed there in 2016, and many people on the staff were enlisted as extras.
v Sapphire National Country Club offers a true traditional mountain golf experience. Rated four and-a-half stars by Golf Digest, the course showcases mountains, valleys, and waterfalls and a memorable fifteenth hole island green.
v For a real change of pace, check out the Red Bird Links in Sapphire Valley. An executive course, which consists of six par three holes and three par fours, it's a great course for beginners as well as more seasoned players interested in polishing a short game. A weekly golf clinic is available during season, as well as a junior golf program, and the winter finds the course used for “foot golf,” a family-friendly game utilizing soccer balls.
Like all golfing paradises, there are funny stories in those majestic mountains, another factor that keeps people like me coming back. One full-time resident, who has been know to tee it up on “mild” days in January, recalls an older gentleman who loved the game and had, in fact, “shot his age” several times. On one memorable outing, everyone drove onto the fairway from the tee box to hit their second shots. The gentleman struggled to find his ball, temporarily stopping the play, until he remembered that he hadn't hit a tee shot.
There are countless stories of determined golfers falling into water in search of errant golf balls. What these stories all seem to have in common is white pants. I also heard the story of one friend trying to help another who had fallen into a pond, only to fall in himself for a double-whammy.
Water, of course, is a huge component of the mountain golf scene, to the extent that one local golfer walks a course early some mornings, retrieving lost underwater balls as he goes. He donates his considerable yield to the First Tee Foundation which promotes values like integrity and perseverance in young golfers, a comforting thought to golfers like me who have left many a ball behind in the water.
Then there was a gentleman from Japan who had very limited experience with the game. His host explained that the containers of sand on the cart were for divots. At the end of the round, the host discovered that his guest had carefully placed each and every divot he made into the container.
As I write these stories, I'm beginning to feel better about my golf game. Did I mention the time I won a nine-holer season championship, only to be informed, post-award ceremony, that I had not played enough rounds to qualify? I can't make this up, but my Waterford bowl prize was taken away and handed to the second-place winner as I sipped my celebratory champagne.
And still, as long as I live in this beautiful place, I can't find the heart to quit. Nine and dine anyone?