Appeared in September/October 1995
Classical layouts did not suffer from double-row housing lining the fairways, or from the feeling of playing through someone’s backyard. So when developer William McKee decided to build a world-class golf course on family land in the Blue Ridge Mountains, he knew he would have to do things differently from what was becoming standard in the mid-1980s. He would avoid the glitz that had become de rigueur: illuminated fountains, island greens, railroad ties and luxury liner clubhouses. Instead, he would rely upon enduring values—and a stunning natural setting.
The site was the former summer haunt of a legendary Confederate Civil War general named Wade Hampton III. In 1984 Tom Fazio was just beginning to make his mark in golf course design. He had been active for nearly 20 years by then, working with his uncle, George, on a number of well-regarded courses before setting out on his own.
The true genius of modern architecture is fitting playable holes upon rugged land. The real problem at Wade Hampton was routing the holes over ground that displayed an elevation change of 1,100 feet—including Chimney Top Mountain, 4,500 feet above sea level. Yet Fazio managed to create holes that complement the character of the site. The course varies in elevation by only 110 feet. Indeed, most of the holes play downhill, with the climbs reserved for the walks from green to tee.
Befitting classical playing values, Fazio kept cross hazards to a minimum. Most of the water is lateral and generally on the left side. The thinking here is that high-handicappers fade the ball while strong players tend to play with more of a draw.
Many tees are perched on rocky platforms and offer inspiring views. Fazio is not afraid to display sand—especially off the tee—signaling players to make strategic decisions about carrying or playing around the bunkers. Between the sand and the lateral streams, golfers always have a road map of the hole, with optional paths indicated in advance. At Wade Hampton there are no blind shots, though the sides of a few greens do fall off sharply.
The course opens with a downhill par 5 designed to ease golfers onto the layout. Particularly evident here is the subtle shaping, whereby natural-looking lines of contour mask any evidence of the construction process. The golf gets more demanding at the long par-4 2nd, and from there on each hole presents a distinct look and feel.
Fazio has given the par 3s a rough-hewn look while managing to avoid any repetition. The 173-yard 11th, for instance, plays through a narrow of woods to a long green. By contrast, the 196-yard 17th is set on open terrain, with two fir trees providing goal posts for the tee shot. The exposed granite face of Chimney Top Mountain provides a dramatic background for the golf theatrics below.
Despite—or because of—its isolation in the mountains, the golf course has drawn widespread attention. Here in a small, hilly corner of the world, a golf course made possible only through the most advanced techniques of design, construction and maintenance, exudes the enduring appeal of a modern classic.