Coal Country. If you've been there, driven through it, or call it home, you know there's not much out there except mines and vast wilderness everywhere you look. To find a golf course out here is rare, which is part of what makes Raven Rock Golf Course - located north of the Virginia/Kentucky state line - so unique. It uses the two most abundant things you'll find - strip mines and wilderness - and mixes them into a delightful concoction of golfing bliss.
Introduction I first learned of Raven Rock way back in 2004 while traveling down US Route 23 from Huntington, WV to Atlanta. The road is a rather fun and scenic way to traverse Eastern Kentucky Coal Country. It winds through forested peaks and valleys, so it stands to reason when I saw a sign for a golf course with a pretty cool name, I made a mental note to come back to it one day.
Well, 14 years later, that day finally came. Its just as remote coming from the South (about a 90 minute drive from the Tri-Cities in Tennessee), but even more fun to get to through the beautiful mountains of Southwest Virginia.
Come to find out, the TECO Coal Company that at one time mined the land for its resources, designed and built the course as a reclamation project. It's one of three such courses spread throughout the widespread region (StoneCrest in Prestonsburg, KY and Twisted Gun in Wharncliff, WV being the others).
What you get is a diverse landscape that blends manmade and natural features with long-view scenery for days and days!
Like we said, it's an old strip mine, so let your imagination run wild! The guys that designed the course basically just built what they could and fit in some goofy holes where needed, but its a real golf course to a degree. However, unless you live in the region, chances are this is a one-time - or at least a very rare play - so have fun with what it is.
There are some nice houses you see on the way in and an intentional 'gateway', so right away you feel like this might exceed some of the reviews you read online. On that note - those reviews that you find on Google or Facebook are all over the map.
With a course this different, you're bound to get a lot of different opinions and reviews. Then again, everyone takes their coffee the way they like it too.
It's honestly what kept me from playing it for fourteen years... I didn't want to drive all that way and play some beat up goat track. Trust me, it's not that at all. It's also not a five-star course, so please don't think I'm saying that either! There's also a severe lack of a good website, social media presence and quality photos on the web.
Sounds like a perfect candidate for a visit from the #GolfCrusade? Yep. Let's go...
I was going to make the trip up earlier this year, but saw they were building a new clubhouse. Since there is no driving range and only a small practice green or two next to the first tee, this area would have been a big 'N/A' had I not waited until they were finished with construction.
The clubhouse isn't huge, but it is very nice. It fits perfectly to the brand of the course and history of the area. It looks like a hilltop cabin that has a moonshine still in the basement. And I mean that as a great compliment. It's got a little restaurant in it, though I didn't stick around to sample anything. The pro shop is small, so don't expect much in the line of merch or clubs for sale, though there are a few.
In other words, come ready to play!
Course Vitals It. Is. Diverse. Can't say it enough. While its surrounded by hardwood forest, long grasses and dramatic mounding gives it a distinct links feel inside the boundary. If you want to score, play small ball and put blinders on. The views WILL distract you. If you want the experience, soak it in, but play small ball anyway.
A perfect example of this comes right out of the gate. The opener seems incredibly normal when you look at the hole tee to green. However, look left from the tee box and its a whole different ballgame.
That's kind of how it goes on the front nine. If you wear those blinders, you're playing just about any (somewhat) normal golf course. But, if you let your eyes wander, you can get lost out here (not that that's a bad thing!).
If you haven't already guessed, the views are spectacular. This isn't a complaint as much as it is an observation, but some of the prettiest views are shot with a camera and not a club. Take the second hole as an example. Here it is as you play it:
It's actually a nice little hole. You've got a nice linksy look, framed nicely by hardwoods, contrast is provided by the white roof of the maintenance building, with a really nice long views of the mountains. Truth be told, I was pretty happy with both shots here (tee and photo). However, when you see this hole from 9th teeing area, its a whole new world:
It's not a shot you can hit, but if you could, the third fairway would make a nice landing area for a sweet par four playing over the bunker with death beyond the approach shot.
The 18th has a similar conundrum. A really nice par five finisher - always a nice sight by the way - with a more than generous landing area and a slightly uphill finish. Here's a panoramic look from behind the green on the home hole:
Great segmenting on the fairway playing into a "natural" arena. Now look at the view from about the 10th tee box (more on that hole later), well above and behind the 18th green:
While the green is hidden by the vegetation in the foreground, the view could be on the scorecard! While you can't see into Virginia, the state line runs along the top of the mountain in the distance and the low gap/blasted terracing into the hillside in the distance is the US 23 corridor crossing the border. This really gives you the feel for the impact the mining operation once did and the positive rehab the golf course has brought to it.
If you are a frequent visitor to The Golf Crusade, you know that sometimes we like to highlight a memorable hole or stretch of holes at each course. Because each hole at Raven Rock poses its own unique challenge, it's hard to identify a 'gauntlet' you have to survive. If I were forced to pick a stretch that can break a round or make a memory, I'd have to go the 8th thru the 11th.
The 8th is a beautiful par three. While the elevation is relatively flat, it's not a flat hole by any means. The view above looks pretty unassuming, but that's only because you can't see the ravine you have to carry to make to the punchbowl green area. Looking at the flipside gives you an idea of why surviving this stretch is the appropriate adjective.
The 9th is a long, straight, down & up par five. An elevated tee shot with a wide landing area gives you a chance to let it rip for a change. If you take advantage, it'll set up a still challenging uphill approach to a cliffside green. Since the sun was overexposing everything on the 9th, you get a view of the 4th hole with its interesting volcano crater hazard from behind the 8th green.
As we pass the clubhouse and make the turn, there had to be a transition from the ridge-riding front side to the bottom of the property where the back nine resides. Most times you see that sort of transition, you get the opportunity to create one of the memorable, fall-off-the-world holes, usually in the par three variety.
Guess what??? BOOM!
If you're not playing the tips, you don't have to worry about this kind of shot, all the other tees play up around 120-150 yards and its pretty tame in elevation drop. However, the black tees are a different story. They play at a whopping 245 yards into one of the smallest greens I've ever seen!
As if that wasn't hard enough, those little leaves and weeds you see at the bottom of the photo above actually impact your shot. A weed-eater would fix that little problem, since the loft you have to use is so low that I clipped the weeds but somehow still made it greenside.
You'll also nearly drive by the back tees if you're not careful because they are nearly invisible driving by them. Looking back at the hole from behind the green, its impossible to find the teeing area! I've highlighted the location for the back tee in the photo below since its so hard to see. The folks in the carts are pulling up to the rest of the forward tees, but what fun is it to not play the tips, even if just on this hole?
If you've made it this far with any balls left in your bag - or confidence in your game - you've got one more exciting hole to go before a bit (and only a bit) of a breather comes. However, before you get to the 11th tee, you get a major wow factor (and the shit scared out of you if you take the turn too sharp!) one more time on your way to the box.
Your drive on the 11th comes out of a shoot into a pretty open fairway protected by bunkers on the right. If you can carry those, you get a short but visually challenging uphill approach to a green lifted above a rock wall (cast in shadow below).
A quick glimpse back on the 11th and a deep breath having not quit the game altogether.
If I make the place sound difficult, its because it can be hard if you don't play the course in front of you. If you play it just once, it's tough without local knowledge. I'd like another shot at it to see what I'd do knowing where to keep the driver in the bag. I was also first one out, after 90 min in the car, taking two or three hundred photos during my round and just enjoying a day on the course by myself in perfect weather.
Conclusion Again, it comes down to how you take your coffee. In my opinion, Raven Rock was better than expected. The conditions were so-so due to all the rain we had this year in this part of the country. They hadn't been able to mow rough (there's a lot of it even with the faux-fescue) in a few days and it showed. I lost some balls in the rough and others took me awhile to find. That isn't their fault. I also played like poo, but that's not their fault either.
We say if you like adventure, trying new courses or enjoy the spontaneous round on the road, then pack your clubs and swing by. GolfNow will get you out almost any time of day for just $25 so what can you complain about? Visiting this place in late fall when the leaves change must be something to behold.
COURSE RATING: 3.5 Stars
Last Played: 2018
Enjoy some of the best of the rest of the photos harvested from Raven Rock!
Phone: (606) 832-2955
GPS: 586 Cs-2072, Jenkins, KY 41537