High Country golf can hold its own

By Patrick Jones, Contributor

BOONE, N.C. -- In his book "It's Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life," cycling legend Lance Armstrong credits this mountainous region known as the High Country as instrumental to his athletic and emotional comeback following a life-threatening illness.

"Boone began to feel like the Holy Land to me, a place I had come to on a pilgrimage," he wrote about his time living, convalescing and training in the area.

After rediscovering his health, form and passion here, a re-energized Armstrong added to his biking legacy by collecting additional Tour de France titles to ones he had won prior to his sickness.

"If I ever have any serious problems again, I know that I will go back to Boone and find an answer," he said.

Golfers seeking sustenance and revitalization for their souls and swings should also consider this blessed-by-nature area tucked into the northwest corner of the state. With courses accessible to the public designed by masters such as Donald Ross, George Cobb and Ellis Maples, you will find an array of the state's best layouts that utilize stunning vistas, swift-running mountain streams, and flourishing mountain laurel and rhododendron in the heart of their designs.

Boone, with a population of approximately 15,000, is located at an elevation of 3,300 feet in the Blue Ridge Mountains approximately 100 miles northwest of Charlotte, 160 miles east of Knoxville, Tenn., and 115 miles west of Greensboro, N.C. It is a bustling town that is home to the Appalachian State University Mountaineers of the Southern Conference. It is also a jumping off point for some of North Carolina's best snow skiing (Beech and Sugar Mountains) and white-water rafting among other outdoor pursuits.

Boone shares the High Country label with other nearby towns such as Banner Elk, Blowing Rock and Linville. Grandfather Mountain - at an elevation of almost 6,000 feet - is the geological hub and dominant visual reference for this entire region.

If clean air and high altitudes elevate your game, there's no shortage of uplifting golf opportunities here.

Linville Golf Club, Linville

Donald Ross carved this gem of a course out of the mountains in 1924 in an era when earth-moving technology consisted of beasts of burden -- mules and men. Almost 80-years-old, it has matured beautifully and continues to rank as one of the state's best courses regardless of region.

Ross's Pinehurst No. 2, built 17 years earlier and 200 miles distant in the Sandhills Region, has long been ranked North Carolina's finest layout, but Linville is not far behind. In the 2003 voting of the North Carolina Magazine Golf Panel, the state's de facto course ranking body, Linville was No. 7 on the list.

Bill Dicus, the men's and women's golf coach at Appalachian State, and for 15 years the former head professional at the nearby private Linville Ridge Country Club, called Linville Golf Club one of the top 100 golf courses in the country.

"You just don't find very many of the good old Donald Ross courses like (Linville)," said Dicus. "It's one of the finest golf courses in America that the public has access to."

Imprinted with the signature of Ross's designs - turtleback greens - it puts a premium on approach accuracy and short-game savvy.

To play this course without insider connections, you must stay at the nearby Eseeola Lodge. Cottages, suites and deluxe rooms are available at this upscale rustic accommodation almost at the foot of Grandfather Mountain. Rooms offer handmade quilts, authentic antique furniture and nightly turndown service among other classy touches. Eseeola Lodge was built in 1926 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The lodge's dining room features a massive stone fireplace as additional ambience to a first-class dining and service experience. The Key Lime pie here rivals that baked on Duval St. in Key West.

Hound Ears Club, Blowing Rock

Hound Ears, a resort, community and golf course named after dog-eared-looking rock formations in a mountain ridge above the club, offers another exceptional mountain golfing experience in the local area.

Its par-3 15th hole, which plays to just 110 yards from an elevated tee, is one of the most attuned with nature and photogenic holes some golfers will ever play. The downhill, winding cart-path drive from tee to green that borders a plunging mountain stream is captivating by itself. It's tough not to be mesmerized by the surroundings on this hole regardless of whether your ball is on the putting surface, in the stream or swallowed up by one of the four bunkers protecting the green.

Hound Ears was designed by George Cobb and opened for play in on January 18, 1964 (the same day the Beatle's "I Want to Hold Your Hand" went to No. 1 on the Billboard Charts).

Tom Jackson added his architectural imprint and redesign services to some of the holes on the back nine in the late '70s. The aforementioned No. 15 pearl was exclusively his creation.

"The golf experience at Hound Ears is special," said Dicus. "It's such a nice setting. The aesthetics of the course are very inviting and it's very much a shot maker's course. "

Hound Ears Club is open for play for guests of the property, who have numerous choices for accommodations. The main clubhouse features comfortable suites that offer separate living rooms and private balconies overlooking the 18th green with a view of Grandfather Mountain. The Hound Ears Lodge is also just a pitching wedge away. The clubhouse and lodge offer a total of 29 guest rooms. There are also numerous privately owned homes and condominiums within the community, ranging from two to five bedrooms, that can be rented weekly or long term.

There is fine dining, a fitness facility and six clay courts on the property.

Head Golf Professional Peter Rucker has been here for over two decades and can provide all the local knowledge you need.

Boone Golf Club, Boone

Located just south of Boone on Hwy. 321, this Ellis Maples design was built in 1959. It is an affordable and fun public golf facility that is certainly worth a visit if you are in the area. It plays to 6,401 yards off the back tees and you will frequently find yourself hitting less club on approaches than you are likely accustomed to due to the welcomed luxury of additional carry at higher altitudes.

"For a daily fee course, Boone (Golf Club) is tough to beat," said Dicus. "For that type of golf course, they do a tremendous job keeping the golf course in good condition and playable."

Private area courses

This author can offer no advice on how to gain access to some of the exclusive private courses in the area such as Grandfather Golf and Country Club (Ellis Maples) and Elk River (Jack Nicklaus), both rated in the Top 10 in the state. Diamond Ridge, a Tom Fazio course in Banner Elk, just opened for play this spring. Linville Ridge, across the street from Grandfather, is another you should play -- if you can find a way.

Other public choices

Hawksnest Golf Resort is at 4,800 feet and will take your breath away with its dramatic elevations. Another option is The Village of Sugar Mountain, which offers an executive course with just one par-5. Both are located in Banner Elk. Mountain Glen in Newland is a course that Dicus recommends visitors give a try if time permits.

What else to do

Don't miss Grandfather Mountain if you're in the area. It is privately owned but worth the $12 admission. Visit its Mile High Swinging Bridge and Wildlife Habitat areas for bears, bald eagles and cougars, among other creatures.

For arts, antiques and crafts lovers, the Wilcox Emporium Warehouse is a 60,000-square-foot smorgasbord of gift ideas from 200 vendors in downtown Boone.

The Mast General Store in Valle Crucis, opened in 1883, is the ultimate country store with creaky hardwood floors and bottles of Nehi Soda. It carries so many items, a former owner advertised the store this way: "Quality Goods for the Living, Coffins and Caskets for the Dead." It's so old-time that you'll expect Daniel Boone to be in line in front of you.

Kids and adults will enjoy the Tweetsie Railroad, also just outside of Boone, featuring a 3-mile train trip and a petting zoo.

Where to eat

Speaking of Daniel Boone, try his namesake Daniel Boone Inn in downtown Boone, just off the Appalachian State campus. You will be served fried chicken, ham biscuits and all of the home-style vegetables, breads and desserts you can handle.

Patrick JonesPatrick Jones, Contributor

Patrick Jones was the senior producer for ESPN's "Lower Your Score with Tom Kite" CD-ROM instructional golf training series. He spent six years as a full-time sports writer and was awarded first-place honors for column writing from both the Florida and Texas sports writers associations.

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