Appeared in February/March 2009 LINKS
A windless round at Lookout Mountain is a rarity. But every now and then when the air is still and the flags hang limp, the many sides of this singular course in northwest Georgia step forth in full relief, displaying its monumental scale, unrepentant quirk and sheer audacity.
Similarly, the club itself eludes simple classification. For starters, the address says Georgia, but the vibe is Tennessee, just across the border. And the rock to which the course clings isn’t strictly a mountain, but rather a rangy plateau that sits at 1,700 feet and straddles the two states.
The membership is exclusive, a redoubt of the Chattanooga gentry, but it’s not to be confused with stuffy. On any given day a boisterous mutt might round out a twosome, and
the lunch special may be a chili dog.
But there is little doubt to the course’s storied lineage. A decade now since a landmark restoration, Lookout Mountain has been reborn from a hodgepodge of holes with a pedigree to a tantalizing glimpse into golf in the Golden Age.
By altitude alone, Lookout Mountain is close to golf heaven. But it’s been a bit hellish to get here, beginning in earnest with the untimely death of Seth Raynor.
Raynor was the hottest thing in course architecture in the early ’20s, when Chattanooga developer Garnet Carter hatched plans for a grand resort with an anchor that was to be one of the greatest golf courses in America. Through social connections Carter engaged Raynor, who arrived on Lookout Mountain, cast a wary eye at the jagged terrain and suggested that he could build, well, something.
Raynor trod miles about the craggy terrain in search of a tract that struck his fancy, or could at least sustain 18 holes. He finally stumbled upon a canted plateau that flattens here and there but mostly rolls and heaves and bears wounds of glacial chaos.
Given 120 acres, Raynor conjured a cozy but comfortable routing that smooths the property’s steeper slopes by steering lines of play across them, skirts exposed rock formations and nears a death-defying cliff.Using the hardscrabble land to its fullest, Raynor even imagined a tee atop an available boulder.
Although the land rises and falls more than 200 feet, its free-flowing expanses and inscrutable humps, the fast-running fairways and ubiquitous wind lean seductively toward links gems.
Raynor’s hand-drawn plan suggests several well-imagined template holes, the kind he and his mentor, Charles Blair Macdonald, wield to great effect at courses like the National Golf Links and Fishers Island. Lookout Mountain’s layout shows striking riffs on the Road hole at St. Andrews, the Redan of North Berwick and Prestwick’s hilly Alps. In Raynor’s artful etching, dozens of pill-shaped bunkers dot fairways and flank typically squarish greens.
How unlikely it must have seemed that the Golden Age was coming, of all places, to a lonely hill in north Georgia.
But the disasters that struck were legion. By the time ground was broken Raynor had suddenly died of pneumonia. He was an overworked 51, and Macdonald later would write: “Sad to say he died ere his prime.”
Raynor’s associate Charles Banks trucked in tons of soil, only to watch it wash away in a flood. Straining to build all those bunkers, Banks hit rock, managed to dig a few and called it good. The course opened in 1926 and even drew a visit from a curious Bobby Jones, who, according to a local report,made an offhand remark about a discernible lack of grass.
Clearly,“improvements”were needed, and changes spewed forth by the decade. Acting with ill-advised zeal, successive greens committees choked the grounds with trees and yielded serpentine bunkers at odds with Raynor’s stark geometry. Greens were rounded off.
While the well-meaning tweaks mirrored popular changes in styles, the results served to further muddle Raynor’s unfulfilled intent. The course conceived of a strict purpose had
become a mishmash.
The turnaround began in the early 1990s, with the discovery of the print of Raynor’s
design. At first, it hung in the men’s grill, little noticed. Eventually, a small handful of members, among them Doug Stein, looked harder at the print, and slowly a light went on.
“It’s crazy,” says Stein. “All these years we were sitting on a treasure and we didn’t even
The job of realizing the full vision of this gem that had been left unfinished for decades
fell to Brian Silva, renowned for his sympathetic restoration of classics, most notably
Seminole Golf Club in Florida. The biggest hurdle was not the land itself but the majority
of the membership, which was pleased with the course it had. But Silva joined Stein and another Raynor convert, longtime member King Oehmig, in a selling and educational
effort that eventually carried the day.
Silva expanded greens that had shrunk and rebuilt two putting surfaces at the 10th and
17th, injecting both with Raynoresque vigor. With trees being felled to open mountain vistas, Silva got down to the guts of the matter, blasting through the sandstone Banks couldn’t crack to dig the angular, box-like bunkers that give the course the Raynor mark.
The result is a shortish 6,602-yard layout that refuses to bow to power. Again and again, as at the rolling 445-yard 2nd hole, the trick is to choose the proper path, thread through bunkers and hope to play the right bounce.Miss a typically towering green and the recovery shot is likely blind, and might be played from a cavernous bunker far below the putting surface.
Raynor’s genius shines in the way he steered the layout across the challenging landscape.
The slant of playing corridors and the speed of the fairways make for an unpredictable
romp across holes like the short 375-yard 9th.
Tacking here, angling there, watching the ball bounce and skitter, a round at Lookout
Mountain has a joyous arcade-like quality, a game of golf in a house of mirrors. The line
between success and disaster can be precariously thin, as at the par-5 10th, Cape, which
offers multiple risks and rewards.
The inward nine is a history lesson of template holes, including the celebrated Road, the
456-yard 15th hole. The Alps, the 418-yard 11th, requires a blind short iron over a hump,
and the 203-yard Redan, the 13th hole, is that rare par 3 that offers multiple lines of approach.
The club has yet to add several sprawling bunkers penned in by Raynor, and two particular
holes could use additional work: At the 390-yard 5th, the narrow fairway banks steeply toward a deep ravine and needs to be widened and softened. As for the tedious 490-
yard par-5 14th, a notoriously slippery slope, is any of that dynamite left?
But those are very much the exceptions. If confounding at times, Lookout is unique and
thrilling. Its rebirth is something to cherish. After all these years there is finally no doubt
that, yes, Seth Raynor was here.