DESTINATION: APPALACHIAN HIGHLANDS
Updated: Jun 20
Nestled in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains in Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia lies the scenic and emerging outdoor tourism destination known as the Appalachian Highlands. The region is also known as the Tri-Cities, a name far less interesting that was derived from three similarly-sized cities that serve the 'Lost State of Franklin' area that also stretches into Western North Carolina.
The cities of Bristol (a border town whose main street is bisected by the TN/VA state line), Johnson City (TN) and Kingsport (TN) each offers something a little different, but collectively can satisfy nearly all tastes for food, culture, music and - of course - golf.
The area knows a little bit about playing host to visitors. Bristol Motor Speedway races and regional music festivals regularly draw crowds in excess of 100,000 people. It stands reason to believe that you can find a great rate on a place to stay in addition to welcoming merchants and restaurateurs that will make you feel like you’ve lived there for years.
About The Golf: Back in 2005, Golf Digest ranked all 330 metro areas in the country from top to bottom using factors such as course conditions, price, access, memorability and variety. The Appalachian Highlands region (better known then as the Tri-Cities) ranked number two on that list. People took notice.
If one were to look only at a list of the course architects that have worked in the region, one might think they are reading an advertisement for Pinehurst or Myrtle Beach. A.W. Tillinghast, Donald Ross, Tom Fazio, Bobby Weed, Rees Jones, Dan & Ellis Maples, Dennis Griffiths, Mark McCumber, Tom Clark, Arthur Hills and George Cobb have all left their fingerprints on the region.
The variety in the style of courses is refreshing. You can choose from traditional parkland designs, resort-style, links golf and of course some of the best mountain courses you'll find anywhere. Whatever your preference, you will find affordable prices without sacrificing anything from what you’d expect in big markets or fancy resorts.
Do your own homework based on the style of course you prefer and budget you’re on, but here are a few places to start looking…
Clear Creek (pictured) – Bristol, VA (Jack Sykes 1997; 6516/133/71.9; $36) Elizabethton – Elizabethton, TN (Wendell Ray 1938/D.J. DeVictor 1993; 6339/129/71.2; $34) Ridgefields – Kingsport, TN (Donald Ross 1949; 6809/135/73.5; Private-Call for Availability)
Crockett Ridge – Kingsport, TN (Ault, Clark & Assoc. 1999; 6868/130/72.8; $36) Tennessee Golf Trail at Warrior’s Path – Kingsport, TN (1972, George Cobb; 6601/123/71.5; $34) Cattails at Meadowview Resort – Kingsport, TN (Dennis Griffiths 1998; 6704/130/72.5; $48) GC of Bristol (pictured) – Bristol, TN (Founded 1894/Alex McKay 1958/Mark McCumber 1999; 6474/126/71.0; private)
The Virginian Bristol, VA (Tom Fazio) 7025/138/73.7; Stay at Nicewonder Farm for access to Troon managed course Graysburg Hills [27 holes] (pictured) – Chuckey, TN (Rees Jones 1978; 6834/129/73.1; $37 for 18/$45 for 27) Johnson City CC – Johnson City, TN (A.W. Tillinghast 1913; 6402/121/70.1; (Private-call for availability) Blackthorn Club at The Ridges – Jonesborough, TN (Arthur Hills 1997; 7147/135/74.5; (Private but call)
Notes from Best in Show:
- Johnson City CC is a really fun walk through history. There are only so many Tillinghast courses around, let alone the really early ones. I say walk because you can play on foot fairly reasonably compared to some of the other, more mountainous courses in the area. Let's face it, they didn't have carts back in 1913, so the green to tee treks are short and were designed for walking.
- Graysburg Hills lays claim to being one of Rees Jones' earliest designs. The man that would go on to be known as 'The US OPEN Doctor' laid out the original eighteen in the valley, while a new mountainous nine opened a few years later.
- Blackthorn hosts one of the best fields in college golf annually at the East Tennessee Invitational. ETSU has a very strong program due to a pipeline overseas. There was this one kid that signed a letter of intent to play there, but he turned pro instead. It worked out OK for Rory though - he's doing fine from what I hear.
The area is also home to two bucket-list worthy courses. Many publications list both courses within the top five courses in the state. You don't just have to know a member anymore either! If you do, then get them to take you to The Virginian (Tom Fazio 1993; 7110/130/74.4). The course hosted a Champions Tour event in 1994-95 and served as the site of the 2003 USGA Senior Amateur Championship (pictured above). The club is now under the Troon management banner and is rapidly expanding, adding a winery and boutique hotel, adding the specter of new stay and play opportunities!
If you know a U.S. President named Bush or a quarterback named Manning or Marino, maybe they’ll invite you to The Olde Farm (Bobby Weed, Golf Digest Best New Private 2000; 6885/127/73.4/Caddies required).
The Olde Farm, recently named the #1 course in the state by Golf.com (2020-21), has a heart to go with it's amazing assets. In 2018, the club hosted The American Legends, the largest single-day fundraiser in the history of the PGA Tour. The event featured Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Peyton Manning and others to help raise over $56M for the Mountain Mission School. We were fortunate to help capture some moments that day, which you can relive on this post.
Overall, golf in the Appalachian Highlands is one of those diamond in the rough destinations that provides cheap rounds with really good courses and conditions. Throw in the southern hospitality and you might wonder, “why haven’t I heard of this place before?” If you book your next golf trip or come in for a round and a race, you instead may ask, “how soon can we come back?!?”
Here are some other great shots from some AH area courses. Let us know in the comments section if you want to know which photo belongs to which course!
Appalachian Highlands Golf By the Numbers: Golf Digest Ranked the (Tri-Cities) metro region #2 out of 330 markets in 2005 “Metro Golf” Rankings (August ’05 Issue) Average peak 18 hole round: $38 Public courses: 15 Private clubs: 7 Total Number of Holes: 382
Food/Drink: Johnson City – Southern Craft, Holy Taco, Label, Wild Wing Café, Watagua Brewing Co. Kingsport – Chop House, Stir Fry, Main Street Pizza Co. Bristol – 620 State, Quaker Steak & Lube, Burger Bar, Cootie Brown’s
Area Attractions: - Bristol Motor Speedway & Dragway hosts the biggest crowds in motorsports & holds the world record for the largest crowd to ever watch a football game! - Birthplace of Country Music Museum which also runs the Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion - Appalachian League Baseball features the rising stars of America's past-time.
- Tannery Knobs Mountain Bike Park (view from park pictured) GO. ALL. OUT.
If you didn’t get enough while you’re there… (good plays for diehards on the way in/out):
North (via US 23) – Lonesome Pine, Big Stone Gap, VA (pictured) Northeast (I-81) – Draper Valley (VA) East (US 421/321) – Boone Golf Club (NC) South (I-26) – Grove Park Inn & Resort, Asheville, NC West (I-40) – Sevierville Golf Club, Sevierville, TN