Sunday, August 17, 2008

”Because they’re there.” That’s why mountain climbers say they climb mountains. Oh, they may also get off on the ex-

hilaration they feel as they risk life and limb to “summit” various high altitude peaks. But we all know those guys have a screw loose (or they wouldn’t turn nouns like “summit” into verbs). So their answer, as tautological as it sounds, somehow makes sense to us. After all, if the mountains weren’t there, these guys would be spelunking or skydiving or stepping into dry suits and exploring the depths of the Barents Sea or something like that.

Golf in the mountains is, blissfully, a very different kind of pursuit - but one that’s equally captivating. Golfers don’t plan visits to mountain courses in order to write new chapters in history or go where no man has gone before. But they do often take on today’s mountain tracks in order to test themselves.

Golf played “at altitude,” if I may be so bold as to arrogate that phrase, has a lot to recommend it. In years past, city folk from America‘s larger urban areas fled the steaming summer temperatures of the cities and flocked to higher altitudes for the cool mountain breezes. Long before there were even autos to get them there, moneyed golf enthusiasts didn’t wait for the mountains to come to them when the thermometers started bubbling.

They hopped on trains (often with their servants and steamer trunks) and disappeared for extended periods of time up into the Berkshires, Blue Ridge, Smokies, White Mountains or Green. Mountains were America’s original air conditioners, and golfers were keen enough to know that a cool night in a rustic hotel beats one of tossing and turning in a sweltering city bedroom any day.

Today, golfers routinely escape the super-heated cities and suburbs in air conditioned living rooms on wheels - so it’s not for creature comforts that we roam into the hills with our clubs. It’s the experience of playing those courses that we’re after today - mountain golf really is different from its sea-level sibling.

For one thing, the 3-iron you hit at 4,000 feet is going to go farther than the one you hit at the shore. The thinner air we find at mountain courses makes every shot carry farther, and I have yet to meet anyone who’s not looking to achieve that.

But in truth, it’s not just playing high up that makes mountain golf so attractive. It’s playing a course where elevation change is such a constant part of the mental gymnastics that we as golfers so love to routinely perform. What club do I hit from 180 yards when the green is 120 feet below me? Does a 15 mph tailwind cancel out the extra club I need to hit to a green 40 feet above my head? These are the questions that, like pilgrims to the Oracle at Delphi, we trek up and down our favorite mountain courses to get answered.

Anywhere there’s a ski area, you’re likely to find a good mountain course. In places like New England, the American and Canadian Rockies, the Sierra Nevada in California, and even the more mountainous parts of Arizona and New Mexico, building golf courses is one way ski-area owners can put heads in beds in the apres-ski months. So chances are, all the amenities that you could want as a winter skier you’ll find as a visiting golfer in summer.

Of course, if you’re really the adventurous type, you could combine mountain golf with mountain climbing or mountain biking, the way the guys who used to play in an event called the U.X. Open used to do. They’d grab a few clubs and play a “course” laid out across the sides of mountains over a series of singularly unforgiving holes routed beneath, betwixt and between snowless ski trails and dormant chair lift lines. But if you don’t fancy that sort of rugged communing with nature, you’ll find plenty of bona fide mountain courses to plug into your GPS. And if anyone asks you why, you can always just tell him, “Because they’re there.”

Blue Ridge Shadows

Front Royal, Va.

Some of the most spectacular views of the gathering Blue Ridge Mountains can be seen from the tee boxes and greens of Blue Ridge Shadows. Forget that it’s one of the finest courses to open in the region in some time, this is the Skyline Drive of golf courses.

Tom Clark’s 7,400-yard course isn’t on a vast piece of land, but it is by no means crowded. The layout rocks and rolls on ground north of Front Royal and just off I-66, making it accessible to much of Northern Virginia. Several holes play in a low-lying area toward the front of the property, but the best ones are up above where the golf and the views are dramatic.

Carroll Valley Resort

Carroll Valley, Pa.

In a region steeped in history and surrounded by natural beauty, Carroll Valley Resort is convenient, affordable and cozy. The golf is awfully good, as well. Just 10 miles from Gettysburg, Carroll Valley is close to more than 20 museums and attractions that bring history to life.

The Carroll Valley Golf Course winds its way over rolling hills, around giant trees, a lake and bunkers. The Mountain View Course is nestled in the valley of a serene mountain range. Dining at the Inn at Carroll Valley features innovative regional cuisine, or head to The Tavern on the Green for more casual fare.

Caverns Country Club

Luray, Va.

Since the site’s founding in 1878 by a tinsmith and a local photographer, visitors by the millions have flocked to Luray Caverns. While it isn’t the East Coast’s biggest tourist attraction, it is the most popular cave in eastern America and a great family getaway.

On top of the cave, Caverns Country Club provides dramatic golf with the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Shenandoah Valley as the backdrop. The 6,499-yard course rolls along the mountains, providing vistas of both the valley and mountains.

Nemacolin Woodlands Resort

Farmington, Pa.

Nemacolin Woodlands, about an hour southeast of Pittsburgh, boasts three diverse hotels - the elegant European-styled Chateau Lafayette, the charming Tudor-styled Lodge and the ultimate in luxury, Falling Rock.

The golf traveler finds Falling Rock overlooking the scenic and challenging Mystic Rock Golf Course, an expansive Pete Dye-design. The course has hosted a PGA Tour event and ranks as one of Dye’s best mountain courses.

The resort features an array of amenities, including the world-class Woodlands Spa, an adventure center and 16 restaurants and lounges.

Stonewall Resort

Roanoke, W.Va.

During an early nine-hole golf exhibition at Stonewall, course designer Arnold Palmer said the course “will change a lot of peoples’ minds about golf in this region.”

It has. The course is a long, sprawling championship course laid out over acres of frolicking farmland surrounding an Adirondack style lodge and the vast man-made Stonewall Jackson Lake. The course, with a half-dozen tee boxes on each hole, succeeds in striking the balance between difficulty and playability.

Stonewall Resort is a traditional Appalachian-looking getaway with all the modern conveniences and trappings of privilege associated with a first-class resort.

Wintergreen Resort

Wintergreen, Va.

Located in the heart of the spectacular Blue Ridge Mountains, this 11,000-acre resort is a virtual playground, with nearly 6,000 acres set aside as permanent forest land and a host of exceptional amenities.

Devil’s Knob, carved out of the crest of the Blue Ridge, blends into the mountain as if Mother Nature had that planned all along. Designer Ellis Maples sculpted the mountaintop layout with tee boxes tucked into the trees and with greens that seem to grow out of the forest. More than 3,000 feet below, Stoney Creek’s expansive fairways and generous greens play to a sensational Blue Ridge Mountain backdrop.

The Woods Resort

Hedgesville, W.Va.

The Woods offers two very different golf experiences. Stony Lick, a 3,700-yard, par-62 course, is all par 3s (most of them challenging) and par 4s (most of them relatively easy). It makes for a great second 18 of the day and a fine place to introduce beginners or juniors to the game.

The resort’s main course, Mountain View, is routed through 500 heavily wooded acres and offers a fine challenge for skilled players from the back tee or a fun test for higher handicaps from the regular tee. Its fairways meander over a rolling plateau with magnificent panoramic views.

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