- The Washington Times - Friday, October 10, 2003

ASHEVILLE, N.C. — It took 12 years of persistence, a new spa and a reluctant architect to get the golf course at the Grove Park Inn — designed by Donald Ross — the attention it deserved.

Now, restored to its classic Ross-style risk-and-reward splendor, the 18-hole layout actually merits its $145 price tag for a round of golf — and is an ideal complement to the famously romantic environs of the Grove Park.

The Grove Park, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, has hosted eight U.S. presidents since it opened in 1913. Though just a few minutes from downtown Asheville, the inn offers sweeping views of the Blue Ridge Mountains that nestle western North Carolina’s largest city. Autumn is peak season for the resort because of the scenic foliage, but the course is open year-round.

The addition of the 40,000-square-foot subterranean spa and the renovation of the golf course were part of $73 million spent upgrading the resort since 1998.

“Before, the resort was more history,” says Phil Werz, a public relations manager for the Grove Park. “It was just a place to kind of get away, get out of the big city. The spa is the reason they come here now. People love to try new things.

“When people come for the spa, they fall in love with the resort and they get into the history. You are almost coming in the back door now.”

The renovated golf course fits perfectly with the Grove Park’s new profile.

“It’s hard to equal this place as a romance destination,” says Dal Raiford, the resort’s director of golf. “But when the romance has finally worn you out, you can play golf and she can go to the spa, and you can have an equally wonderfully romantic experience.

Mr. Raiford submitted plans to redo the course 12 years before they finally were approved in 2001. Having just spent $42 million on the spa, the Grove Park owners agreed to invest $2.3 million to try to recapture Ross’ original design.

The course needed every penny. It had deteriorated to the point where the head of the Donald Ross Society called it a “goat farm.”

The Grove Park charged $95 for a round that included a shot off the kind of artificial grass mat normally found only at low-end driving ranges — not a layout designed by the architect of famous North Carolina courses such as Pinehurst No. 2 and Pine Needles.

In those days, a big part of Mr. Raiford’s job was fending off angry customers who wanted their money back.

Even Kris Spence, a Greensboro, N.C., golf-course architect who had renovated several Ross courses, was reluctant to take on the Grove Park challenge.

“I guess my first reaction was sort of disgust, to be honest with you,” he says. “There had been so much character there that was lost. It was difficult to envision doing a proper restoration.”

To make matters worse, there were no old drawings or notes from Ross to help Mr. Spence return shot value to the property — just aerial photos.

He began digging — sometimes by hand — to uncover old bunkers or tee boxes that had been grown over.

“The course started to reveal itself, and I knew early on we were going to create something special,” Mr. Spence says.

When the course reopened in May 2002, perhaps its most stunning portion was its former laughingstock — the mat hole.

While digging around, Mr. Spence found an old fountain behind an adjacent estate house the resort recently had purchased. The first reaction was to remove it.

Instead, Mr. Spence ended up incorporating a series of tee boxes in front of and above the waterfalls, creating a stunning 170-yard par-3 with a view of the mountains.

“We’ve taken this little 90-yard slop hole and turned it into a hole that if you have to protect a one-shot lead there you’re really working,” Mr. Raiford says of No. 17.

“That nothing hole, lacking a view, lacking strategy, has been turned into one of the strongest par-3s in the state. It was all made possible by preserving property,” Mr. Spence says.

The transformation of the course is stunning.

“What we’re proud of is we’ve taken the history of the golf course and upgraded it to where it’s nearly the aesthetic equal to the inn,” Mr. Raiford says.

The lavish spa, completed in early 2001, is a good place to head after a round, with foot massages and other services on offer.

Jaime Huffman, the spa’s executive director, says the spa attracts an increasing number of male clients. “Men typically think it’s too frou-frou, it’s too feminine. Now they see lots of spas that are featuring gentlemen’s treatments,” she says. “The industry is moving toward trying to cater to men, too.”

One North Carolina bank rented the spa for four days — at $30,000 a day — to treat employees during a fall 2002 convention.

Miss Huffman has 44 massage therapists on her staff and uses as many as 52 during peak periods.

Together, the spa and golf course have helped fuel a surge in business at the Grove Park, says Mr. Werz, the public relations manager. “This resort had stagnated to the point where we understood we needed to do something to stay competitive in the industry,” he says.

• • •

The Grove Park Inn Resort & Spa, 290 Macon Ave., Asheville, N.C., is served by a regional airport. If you’re driving, from Interstate 26 or Interstate 40, take Interstate 240, Exit 5B, for 1.3 miles, then turn right on Macon Avenue.

Fall is peak season at Grove Park, with prices ranging from $209 for a room for two to $1,199 for cottage rental. Many customers book a year in advance for peak and holiday seasons; rates are lowest in January, February and March. The golf course is open every day of the year. Golf is $145 per round; golfers who are not staying at the resort can book tee times no more than three days in advance.

For more information: 800/438-5800 or www.groveparkinn.com.

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