Ten Hidden Gems in the Heart of Appalachia
Updated: Nov 26, 2020
The word 'Appalachian', as a noun, calls to mind an ancient mountain range stretching its spine from Alabama to Canada. These hills are the proud owners of some of the most beautiful landscapes in North America. Appalachia, however, is an entirely different animal.
The word 'Appalachia', as an adjective, can mean a great deal of things from culture, to music, nature, a people and - for now the majority of my adult life - home.
Yet, ask five different people to draw a border around Appalachia and you'll get as many different boundaries. Anyone could argue successfully that Appalachia covers portions of West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and beyond.
Rich in natural resources, these here hills have been mined for just about everything imaginable throughout its history. It's most sought after resource over the years - coal - is hidden deep within the earth, requiring maximum effort - and sometimes sacrifice - to obtain.
The hidden gems we've searched for (golf courses) are a bit easier to find for three simple reasons...
They're on top of the ground rather than buried within
Golf Bloggers with nothing better to do than obsess about finding great golf courses
For the purpose of our exercise here today however, we're focusing on it's heart, proudly beating throughout Northeast Tennessee, Southwest Virginia and Western North Carolina with the Aorta extending down to the extreme northern reaches of South Carolina and Georgia.
We're also providing only those courses that are open to the public 365 days a year with no strings attached (like required lodging to gain access) and don't require a Benjamin to play them. So... if you're looking for information on The Greenbrier, Primland, The Homestead, Grove Park or Linville, their sites do a great job of detailing them (and we'll probably do that another time).
The courses in Appalachia are primarily mountain courses, which is a nice way to say, "hold on to your butts!" [Editorial note: If you're picturing Samuel L. Jackson saying that line in Jurassic Park right about now, you're getting the full effect of what we mean!] What we mean is, the courses are as diverse as the culture and landscape surrounding them. For that purpose, we've attempted to list courses that oppose each other in style, geography and mission to provide as comprehensive a list as possible.
Also, please note this is just to give you a starting point, an 'App Golf 101' if you will. Half the fun of playing a hidden gem is finding one on your own, so we half left plenty of them out there for you to discover. We've played all of these within the past couple of years, so what you see if pretty much what you'll get when you show up!
Soooo, without further ado and in no particular order whatsoever...
#1 - Mountain Glen | Newland, NC | George Cobb | 18 holes | Regulation
The first time you drive by this course on NC-194, you think, "Man, that place looks FUN!" the highway runs parallel to the entire out and back front nine, giving you plenty of insight to the parkland design found in the NC High Country. Just over a ridge from the Linville area, this is a classic design (actually feels a lot like a Donald Ross course) that is about as enjoyable a course as you'll ever play. It doesn't beat you up much the way other tree-lined courses may, but its not a pushover either as precision is key. There is just enough mountain golf here to say you've dipped your toes in the chilly, clear waters of Appalachia! All these factors make Mountain Glen the perfect course with which to begin our list!
PHOTO NAVIGATION TIP: Use the arrows on the left/right of the photos below for the slideshow to scroll. You can also click the photo to expand.
#2 - Sugar Mountain | Sugar Mountain, NC | Frank Duane | 18 holes | Executive
Recently voted the second best 'short course' in America by the community on Golf Advisor,
'Ole Esval' as its also known finds its place by offering an executive course experience among the high peaks and posh second home community clubs in the area. Only open half the year (the course lies within Ski Sugar), its a nice alternative and change of pace to work on your game. Tight fairways box in the big hitters, so best to give up some yards to keep it in play. Duane was RTJ's right hand man for two decades, so you certainly see some of his mentor's design characteristics.
#3 - Graysburg Hills | Chuckey, TN | Rees Jones | 27 holes | Championship
Those that follow us regularly may have seen our feature story this summer on Graysburg. It's long been a local favorite. Easy to access on/off I-81 near where it meets I-26, this early Rees Jones design runs through a idyllic valley framed by steep slopes and capped by farms on both ends. A more peaceful round in nature will not be found many places. Check out that full feature for a deeper dive, otherwise just hit us up when you're passing through and we'll come out for a few holes! Play all 27 for $45 in season or play all day for just $35 in winter.
#4 - Gatlinburg | Pigeon Forge, TN | William B. Langford | 18 holes | Regulation
This golf course is incredibly misnamed. The course is the municipal course for the city of Gatlinburg, a mountaintop resort town found 10 miles up the slopes from Pigeon Forge, where the course is actually located. If coming to the 'Myrtle Beach of the Mountains', bring your clubs because this course is only a couple miles from Dollywood and tops out at $65 in peak season. Bob Cupp's team renovated/restored this course a couple of times, most recently in 2007. Langford didn't work much in this part of the country, but we're glad he did. You'll be glad if you bring a real camera to capture the Smoky Mountain views, especially those off the cliffhanger par-3 12th hole, dubbed 'Sky Hi'!
#5 - Sky Valley CC | Sky Valley, GA | Bill Bergin | 18 holes | Championship
A lot of places we find are on the way to somewhere else. SVCC is exactly one of those courses for us! We found it due to its location near US-23 on the NC/GA line, it served as a great warmup on the way to Atlanta. What we found was an incredibly underrated and scenic course with incredible golf shots to be made on every hole. Sky Valley is also the highest course in terms of elevation above sea level in Georgia. If you find yourself travelling through the Clayton, GA or Franklin, NC area, give this ol' girl a spin. Its also one of the best options for an 18-hole round that is open to the public near Highlands & Cashers, NC. It is the highest priced course on the list, topping out at $91 for a weekend morning tee time in the peak season, but often run much less depending on day/time/season and juniors (17&U) are always just $25.
#6 - The Rock | Pickens, SC | N/A | 18 holes | Resort
Another course we picked up on the way to another destination, The Rock has been welcoming guests near the Table Rock State Park area about 45 minutes north of Greenville, SC. Affordable golf in good conditions is tough to find, as are public courses in this microregion that is littered with high-end private clubs. The Rock seems to have benefited from new ownership. While we only had time for nine, a return trip with more time to play is certainly on the docket for the next visit. If $26 to ride 18 (or $20 to walk) in the afternoons sounds like the deal of the century, it's probably because it is! Plus, how often do you get to tee off next to a waterfall?!?
#7 - Orchard Trace | Hendersonville, NC | Flaughn Lamb | 18 holes | Par 3
This is here for a couple reasons, the main one is the reason we found it, LIGHTS! Yes that's right, when we have the opportunity to actually play together, it makes no sense to go to bed early. We also recommend you visit Orchard Trace because of its owner, operator and architect, Mr. Lamb. He not only created something that should be treasured in today's golf landscape, but he himself is a treasure. Stop in the comfy cottage-esque clubhouse and spend a few minutes with him. You'll be better for it. We know we are! Check out the aerials of the course when he built it too. You'll want to tell all your friends to come play here. It could use a little polish, sure, but man is this place fun! This one may 'feel' more like Appalachia than any course on the list - and that's a wonderful thing!
#8 - Bald Mountain at Rumbling Bald | Lake Lure, NC | W.B. Lewis | 18 holes | Resort
While you may not recognize the name of the course, chances are you've seen it before. If you've ever watched Dirty Dancing, this course and resort was one of the two main shooting locations for the movie. While it's not a movie you'll often quote while playing elsewhere, you'll probably catch yourself yelling at a putt saying, "Put THAT Baby in the corner!" No? You won't? What was that? We're dorks? Ok, so you won't quote it as often as you do Happy Gilmore, but if Appalachia is Americana, then so is this course.
Rumbling Bald also has a second 18-hole course designed by Dan Maples that just underwent a facelift that we hear made a big difference. Perhaps another trip down to Lake Lure is in the offing.
#9 - Cleghorn | Rutherfordton, NC | George Cobb | 18 holes | Championship
The only architect with two courses on the list is George Cobb. While he fit Mountain Glen on gentle, tight land, Cleghorn stands in contrast with its cavernous tree-lined corridors and large greens. Cleghorn has had its ebbs and flows, but with the Tryon International Equestrian Center writing the checks, it'll only make a really good course even better over time. These photos are the oldest among the group here (2010-11 probably) and came right after some work had been done to the course. You may not see bright flowers if you played it today, but like us, you've also probably never said, "Man, that lie out of the flowerbed really helped my score today"? Another easy on/off access course from US-74 on the way from Charlotte to Asheville, NC and you'll never pay more than $50 to play it.
#10 - Marion Lake Club | Nebo, NC | Russell Breeden | 18 holes | Regulation
Considered a 'locals course' by ours truly, you're not going to build a trip around Marion Lake Club (not to be confused with Lake Marion CC in Santee, SC). However, at just $30, you'll find enough intrigue here to not feel cheated. You'll find a shared fairway (not a double fairway, a shared fairway) that made more sense after we found out it used to be the first and 18th holes that shared it. After a new clubhouse was built along the most main road you'll find, the road now bisects the nines giving it two distinct feels. The front plays over a set of railroad tracks a couple of times in a backwater valley, while the back nine brings the thunder with big views of the lake and the reason it's on the list, the view of the mouth of the Linville Gorge from the 17th green (you may have noticed the first photo at the top of the page). Friendly staff + good price + big views = Win!
We hope that gave you some ideas as to where to begin your golf journey in the Heart of Appalachia! If you like what you saw and read here, follow us on social for somewhat daily posts. If you want to go REALLY deep into the topic, you'll also want to give our friends @appalachiangolfsociety a follow on Instagram as well!
As always, our interactive map and course tracker are loaded with pics and info to help you find your next place to play. Feel free to reach out with questions about places we've played or with tips to put others on our list!