Jackson County golf - GolfCarolina.com

By Patrick Jones, Contributor

JACKSON COUNTY, N.C. -- After-dinner excitement at the historic, upscale and rustic High Hampton Inn in the town of Cashiers is getting to call out BINGO on a full stomach. Once the card game concludes in the inn's lobby, it's time to meander out to the large wraparound porch and find a comfortable rocking chair. Next on the total relaxation agenda is to feel the coolness of the mountain evening descend and envelope you as you relive the highlights of the day's golf round.

By 9 p.m. or so, it's time to wander back to your room - sans television, phone and HVAC amenities - crack the windows to draw in the chilled night air, pull out your favorite golf publication for a quick tip, quiet the lights and drift off to a peaceful sleep with dreams of eagle putts dancing in your head. In this Walton's Mountain-ish setting, you might find yourself involuntarily mumbling "Good night, John Boy" before your head hits the pillow.

It's the perfect ending to a perfect day of golf in this cradle of high-altitude championship courses.

With publicly accessible layouts named Highlands Cove, Trillium, Sapphire Mountain, Smoky Mountain Country Club and, of course, High Hampton, this locale in the far southwest corner of North Carolina offers a lineup of distinctive courses in rarefied air at elevations rising above 4,000 feet.

Carved in, on top and around the Blue Ridge Mountains, Jackson County golf offers inspirational views and dizzying drops. For instance, from the tee box on No. 9 of the Highlands Nine at Highlands Cove, you come eye to eye with 4,900-foot Whiteside Mountain, a monolith that boasts the highest vertical sheer-face drop east of the Mississippi River. The tee shot on this 397-yard, par-4 hole skydives 300 feet down to the fairway, meaning a mid-iron is all you need to hit to put yourself in good position for a short approach shot.

Trillium Links & Lake Club, designed by Morris Hatalsky, a four-time winner on the PGA Tour, also has its share of sheer drop-offs from tee to green, most notably the 179-yard, par-3 ninth. Named the Valley Trail hole on the scorecard, it could just as easily be called Look Out Below for its steep plunge down the mountainside. Aviator goggles are optional equipment for Top Flites seeking a suitable spot to land.

In the array of breathtaking holes in Jackson County that require physics formulas and slide rules for proper club selection, the mother of all mothers, the end of the search for the Holy Travail, is No. 2 at Sapphire Mountain. Regulars call the 203-yard, par-3 the Oh, S_ _t hole. That's the epithet first-time golfers tend to utter when they get a glimpse of the demands about to be made on their nerves and playing (in)ability.

The tee shot must clear a gaping ravine to reach a narrow sliver of a green. Miss the putting surface slightly right and your ball rolls down a steep embankment toward a creek. Miss the green barely left and your ball ricochets wildly off a wall of granite. To get a feel for quaking at the knees over this tee shot, imagine yourself as a disoriented fighter pilot with a sputtering engine trying to land at night on the deck of an aircraft carrier in choppy seas.

In an unusual act of kindness, architect Ron Garl, a Florida flatlander no less, abutted the drop area to the front of the green, allowing golfers the chance to chip and save bogey if their tee shot goes into a tailspin.

Jackson County, without question, offers its share of thrilling, challenging and scenic golf shots.

The city of Sylva, home to Western Carolina University and its Catamounts of the Southern Conference, is the county seat. Dillsboro and Cashiers are the other towns of note. The state lines of Georgia and South Carolina both lie just over the horizon from Cashiers.

You may already be familiar with this area without even knowing it, particularly if you are a movie buff. Many of the early scenes from "The Fugitive," starring Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones, were filmed here. The train wreck scene when Dr. Richard Kimble (played by Ford) escapes was shot near the Tuckasegee River outside of Dillsboro. Jack Lemmon and James Garner stood outside the Jackson County Courthouse in the comedy "My Fellow Americans." Sandra Bullock and Ben Affleck starred here in "Forces of Nature."

While we're dropping names, tennis champion Andre Agassi spent his honeymoon and hit the links with his first wife, starlet Brooke Shields, at the High Hampton Inn.

Burt Reynolds has frequented the area. He is a big fan of local artist Bill Whiteside, who produced a life-sized Egg Tempera painting of Reynold's character in the movie "Deliverance." The headwaters of the Chattooga River, where the movie was shot, are nearby.

Whiteside's white church chapel art studio can be found just outside Cashiers on the road to Highlands. Whiteside has immortalized the mountain scenery and a number of the area's top golf holes with his realism artistry.

But let's focus on the resident golf courses starring in the area.

Highlands Cove

It's a 400-foot climb up the cart path to the first hole of the Highlands Nine. Be prepared to drop out of the stratosphere on No. 2, a 190-par, par-3 that plays 40 yards shorter because of the descent. The showcase hole, No. 9, is a definite Kodak moment for those who are awed by nature's handiwork. Whiteside Mountain and the exposed rock faces of Chimney Top and Rock mountains complete the jaw-dropping panorama from the tee box.

The Cove Nine gently rolls through lakes and streams on the valley's floor. Though not as intimate to the heavens as the Highlands Nine, it is nonetheless blessed with challenges. This Tom Jackson layout opened in 2002.

Trillium Links & Lake Club

A pencil sketch of Morris Hatalsky's smiling face fronts the Trillium scorecard. It is a sly-looking grin - almost a knowing smirk that you are in for a rollercoaster ride. This course has a number of scenic holes, but with a few blind tee shots - the 447-yard, par-4 sixth in particular - it would be wise to buy a yardage book, scout ahead when necessary or play with someone who has been around the track before.

Trillium plays to 71.3/140 from the tips, so choose your tees wisely. Some of the holes that you'll surely remember as among the most scenic in the area are No. 8, called Blue Ridge, and No. 12, appropriately named Hawks View. On a clear day, you can almost see nirvana.

Sapphire Mountain Golf Club

Along with the previously mentioned epithet No. 2 hole, which is among the most difficult you will ever encounter, there are four other memorable par 3s on this course, which was once called Holly Forest under previous ownership. The 13th hole, a 401-yard, par-4, has a tumbling waterfall from Fairfield Lake on the right side of the steep uphill approach shot. The sloping greens at Sapphire Mountain put putting touch at a premium.

High Hampton Inn & Country Club

High Hampton is a George Cobb design that sits at the foot of Rock Mountain and Chimney Mountain. Playing to a maximum length of barely over 6,000 yards (just 3,750 from the red tees), High Hampton was designed as a friendly layout for the resort's guests. The McKee family, which has owned the inn for generations, knew that if visitors came in and had a good round, chances are they would be back. No. 8, a 166-yard, par-3, that juts out into the lake under Rock Mountain's gaze, deserves its ranking among Golf Digest's "America's Great Golf Holes."

Smoky Mountains Country Club

Smoky Mountain attracts entertainers from Harrah's Cherokee Casino because of its location in northern Jackson County. Musicians Charlie Daniels and Frankie Avalon have been spotted on this Thomas Walker design in the town of Whittier. If you spot Frankie over a crucial putt, best not to remind him that he starred in that, uh, classic 1965 flick, "How to Stuff a Wild Bikini."

Other Jackson County attractions

A ride on The Great Smoky Mountains Railroad is a step back in time. Make sure to add it to your itinerary. Whether it's Thomas the Train for kids or gourmet dinner rides for the adults, it's a worthwhile side trip. Visit www.gsmr.com for a schedule of events.

A hike to the top of Whiteside Mountain will offer some of the most spectacular views anywhere on the East Coast.

The Cherokee Indian Reservation sits inside Jackson County. You can roll the dice at Harrah's Casino or troll for culture and crafts at the Ocanaluftee Indian Village.

Hiking trails, plunging waterfalls and whitewater rafting abound in this area.

Dining information

Fresh mountain trout - butterflied, baked, stuffed or sauced - from the Tuckasegee River is the regions's native delicacy. At the Balsam Mountain Inn, you can have trout cakes or stuffed trout with shiitake mushrooms among other options.

At the High Hampton Inn, reservations include buffet meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The delicious home-cooked entrees and desserts are always on the mark and you can eat until your heart is content.

In Dillsboro, be sure to try the Jarrett House. The Dillsboro Smokehouse and Dillsboro Steak & Seafood are other good options.

Sylva offers everything from fast food to an array of ethnic options. For the adventurous trout lover, the funky named Soul Infusion Tea House & Bistro offers a smoked trout quesadilla.

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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