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Mountain Air Country Club: Not Your Father's Country Club

By Shane Sharp, Contributor

BURNSVILLE, NC - Forget what you know about traditional country club environments. To understand what Mountain Air Country Club is all about, you have to wipe the slate clean. Forget blue blazers at dinner, women's outings on Tuesday afternoon only, men's locker rooms the size of dining halls and the ladies' locker rooms the size of a shoe closet.

Forget about activities being limited to golf, tennis and more golf and tennis, because that's not the way it works around here. But remember to pay close attention to Mountain Air Country Club.

Chances are, it is the model for future private
equity golf clubs around the country.

"Our membership right now is primarily Baby Boomers, and they are used to gender equity and environmental awareness," says Mountain Air President and CEO Randy Banks. "And we are even looking ahead to the next generation and they will be even less traditional than the Baby Boomers and they are not used to the structured hierarchy of the old country clubs."

Mountains Air's setting - 4700 feet above sea level and 2000 feet above neighboring Burnsville - provides an eco-country club environment that is missing from the sprawling suburbs of the South's larger cities. The architectural flavor is a Canadian Rockies meets Smokey Mountains blend that is taking home design awards hand over fist. The prevailing attitude is laid back and loving life, a state of mind brought on by the club's unique setting and its family owned and operated atmosphere.

"For most of our residents, these are second and third homes," says Jim Briggs, a Community Consultant with Mountain Air. "They live here in the summer for weeks at a time. We are finding that more and more of them are staying for longer periods of time."

And why not? The club recently completed a $10 million mountaintop village center that houses the new clubhouse, proshop, the Falling Leaf Lodge, the Chautauqua Activity and Fitness Center, a market, post office, coffee shop, and Orville and Wilbur's Bar and Grill. At the center of it all is a massive practice putting surface where members can fine-tune their short games while taking in one of the most breathtaking sunset views in the Carolinas.

No, this ain't your father's country club. Mountain Air retains a full time naturalist, a fully stocked nature and camping store, and a host of scenic trails that have actually made hiking the No. 1 activity of its 450 residents according to a recent survey. A bonfire pit and climbing tower are perched on a hill adjacent to the village and an amphitheater that will host a variety of local music acts is under construction.

The Chautauqua center also features a teen center and kids activity center (yes, there are video games), a small movie theater, a sauna and massage facility, a conference room for member retreats and an executive center with fax machines and desktop computers is also in the works. Oh, and since future Gen-X residents and existing Baby Boomers have become increasingly dependent on the Internet for their work and play, the entire community is hotwired with high speed cable modem access.

"There is a bit of irony here that I think the residents enjoy. Up on the Mountain, you feel like you are in the middle of nowhere, but with all our amenities and connections to the outside world, you aren't isolated from the real world," says Briggs.

One of those connections to the real world is a paved, mountaintop runway (the highest east of the Mississippi) that is usually buzzing with turbo prop planes on summer weekends. Mountain Air is home to some 80 pilots who relish the chance to fly in from Florida, South Carolina, or other first home origins for a weekend getaway chalked full of golf, hiking, or just relaxing by the pool.

The Real Estate

Four generations of the Banks family have called this heavenly property in western North Carolina home, but not until the early 1990's did patriarch Bill and his son Randy decide to develop the mountain into a state-of-the-art residential golf community. The risk was substantial - the family invested every last penny of its estate into making Mountain Air what it is today. The reward has been beyond the Banks family's wildest dreams.

Since 1996, 275 units have been built on 271 lots, housing 450 residents and 337 full-fledged members. The majority of single-family residences at Mountain Air are golf villas, condominiums and cluster homes, but 50 detached custom homes are strewn throughout these steep hillsides and dozens of others are either planned or under construction.

That a single edifice could be constructed upon these extreme slopes is in itself a marvel of modern architectural technology. Foundations for homes on Mountain Air's severely sloping lots are often raised over 30 feet, garages are literally hung off the base adjacent to the house, and small front yards and driveways are created with backfill and retaining walls.

The catch? None of this remarkable residential engineering comes cheap: homesites start at $250,000 and homes and villas $250,000 to $1.3 million. The caveat? What you get for the money - the views, the lifestyle, the amenities, the family-owned atmosphere and the golf course - exceeds anything you'll find in neighboring parts of the Carolinas.

Briggs says that Mountain Air is currently 58 percent complete, and that full build out is expected by 2007. By 2005, the club's amenities and golf course will be deeded to the members and Mountain Air will be debt free.

"It is a dream come true," says Banks, taking a late dinner at the clubhouse on a cool summer evening. "We went into this with a full head of steam and no regrets. If we were half-hearted about any of this, it would not have worked out like this."

The Golf Course

Head Golf Professional Bill Krickhan is struggling to select the right club on the first hole of Mountain Air's Austin Mountain Nine - a 235-yard par three that features a 200-foot drop from tee to green. This one shotter has become the stuff of local legend because of tee shots that hang in the air for close to ten seconds. The green below is plenty big enough to allow room for error, but club selection is of the essence seeing as how an eight-iron with a little wind behind it could travel 240 to 250 yards from this height.

"It's hard to explain this course to people who haven't seen it," Krickhan says. "How can you describe these elevation changes and do them justice?"

Almost beyond explanation is the fact this Scott Pool/Jim McQueen designed layout has been overlooked by North Carolina Magazine's prestigious golf course ranking panel since it opened its full 18 holes in 1995.

"We just hadn't been able to coordinate it (in the past), but the panel members were here just a couple weeks ago, and they were awestruck," Krickhan says. "We have 100-mile panoramic views, holes with 300-feet of elevation change, near perfect bentgrass greens and bluegrass fairways, and mixed in with all of this is a darn playable course design."

With holes like the 564-yard par-5 second hole on the Austin Mountain Nine and its 388 feet of drop from tee box to fairway, it would be easy to dismiss the course as ornamental and overdone. But despite its grip-it-and-rip-it appearance, No. 2 features a risk/reward opportunity that layers it with multiple strategies. Take a one wood off the tee and rip a 350-yard right to left turning drive (quite possible from this elevation) and you're looking at 5 or 6-iron into the green. Play it safe with an iron or fairway wood off the tee and you bring the small pond on the right into play on your second shot.

"You have to think your way around this course," Krickhan says. "Even though it's not long, you simply can't over power it. Mountain courses will come back to bite you if you try to muscle them."

With over 1300 feet in elevation change, blind tee and approach shots, and heart stopping scenery, Pool and McQueen realized that the course had plenty of brawn on its own. There was no need to fashion the greens in the severe molds preferred by Pool's mentor, legendary golf course architect Pete Dye. Still, the relatively benign looking putting surfaces feature more break than meets the eye.

And with plenty of mountain pitfalls confronting the average golfer, Pool and McQueen didn't think it was necessary to stretch the layout to ridiculous lengths. The Slickrock Nine plays to just 3,157 yards from the championship tees and the Austin Mountain Nine to 3,268 yards. Five sets of tees are available to accommodate a variety of skill levels, and at 4,489 yards, Mountain Air's female members find the course particularly inviting.

"I like to say that you gather knowledge about this course every time you play it," Krickhan says. "The first time you putt here you may roll the ball ten feet past the hole and scratch your head. Of course, you don't know that the greens break hard towards the mountain clearings. These are the things you pick up on over time, and that is what makes this course so great."

So great that the members are calling out for more. A third nine is already under design and is scheduled to open in 2004, and a new practice facility with a driving range, a golf and tennis learning center and another food and beverage center will open in early July.

"That will be the final feather in our golfing cap," Krickhan says. "It will mean so much to our members because now they will be able to fine tune their games here as well as play. They are always asking me where they can go hit balls and now I can tell them right here."

It doesn't take long to realize that everything Mountain Air's members could possibly need or want is indeed, right here.

The Essentials

Mountain Air Country Club
P.O. Box 1037 Burnsville, N.C. 28714-9901
Pro Shop: 828.682.4600
Sales Information: 800.247.7791
Website: www.mountainaircc.com

The Falling Leaf Lodge

Prospective residents are invited (and strongly encouraged) to come spend a couple nights in the new Falling Leaf Lodge. The lodge is located in the mountaintop village with convenient access to the clubhouse, pro shop, Chautauqua center, and practice putting green. While not open to the public for stay and play, the Falling Leaf Lodge features many of the amenities of a five star resort. Concierge service is available during the day, in room fireplaces burn throughout your stay, and guests have full access to fine dining at the clubhouse, casual eats at Orville and Wilbur's, the outdoor whirlpool and fitness center.

Shane SharpShane Sharp, Contributor

Shane Sharp is vice president of Buffalo Communications, a golf and lifestyle media agency. He was a writer, senior writer and managing editor of TravelGolf.com from 1997 to 2003.


 
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