KODAK, TN - As you drive deeper into the east Tennessee countryside, down into the lush French Broad River valley, you begin to replay particularly disturbing scenes from the movie Deliverance in your mind's eye and swear you hear the plaintive strains of banjo music drifting through the trees. Then suddenly you see the sign pointing you toward River Islands Golf Club and, thank God, civilization.
OK, so River Islands Golf Club is not actually in the middle of nowhere, but it feels a bit isolated. However, since this awesome Arthur Hills track is ranked as the seventh-best course in the state (third-best public course), and is like nothing this Northerner has ever played before, it is well-worth the 20-minute drive from Knoxville, or longer drives from Maryville or the Gatlinburg area.
What makes River Islands so memorable is its remarkably ambitious routing, which takes you out down into a river valley, onto two islands in the middle of the river, and back up out of the valley. Then, after a snack at the turn shack (where you can enjoy the toe-tappin' tunes of the only jug-band I've ever seen on a golf course), you turn around and head back down into the valley, back onto the islands, and finally up to the clubhouse. Actually, there's no jug-band. (Gotcha!)
Arthur Hills, architect of over 130 courses in the US, seems to be repeatedly blessed with spectacular and unique pieces of land with which to work. And the 100+ acres on which River Islands sits is no exception. With water in play - and I mean really in play - on nine holes, and typically treacherous Hills-style undulations from tee to green on many holes, this is a course that you not only WANT to play many times, you NEED to play it many times in order to learn how to play it right. In this way, it reminds this Michigander of the Thoroughbred Golf Club in Rothbury, MI.
Despite the unique layout of the course, it is not in the least quirky or gimmicky. In fact, as you approach many of the greens here, you may get the strange feeling that you've seen them somewhere before, like, say, on a poster from Ireland. Mr. Hills respects and admires the tradition of the game, as is obvious from the mix of hidden swales and traps, deep grass bunkers, partially obscured putting surfaces, and rolling, rollicking undulations from tees to greens.
Open since 1991, River Islands was an instant favorite with state and national golfers. The Zoysia fairways and bentgrass greens are generally in fantastic condition, with only a hint of distress here and there due to the high humidity in the river valley and stifling summer temperatures. Actually it is truly amazing that the greenskeeper can maintain such top-notch conditions, given the aggressive routing over the river and through the woods, as it were.
General Manager Mike Murray presides over the proshop and clubhouse, whose dark-wood interior seems to whisper "old money." His advice for first-timers here (besides - don't take a canoe-trip downstream)? "These Zoysia fairways make for perfect lies. Hitting from them is like hitting off a tee. So stay in the short grass."
I don't think there's a weak hole in the entire layout, to be honest. The four sets of tees (7,001, 6,300, 5,790, and 4,873 yards, from blacks to reds, respectively) are set up to make the course tough enough for scratch players but manageable for higher handicaps. The only potential issue is the big jump from tips to men's tees, especially if you like to play courses in the 6,500-6,700 yard range.
From the par-4, 401-yard 2nd, which runs dramatically downhill to a shallow, wide green fronted by a rocky gully through the monstrous 636-yard 6th, which runs cheek by jowl to the river, you may not believe how lovely this course is. And when you tee it up on the 195-yard 3rd, which plays over the river and onto the first island, only to see your well-struck 4-iron bound backwards down the riverbank and into the murky depths, you may not believe the yardage on the scorecard.
According to two regulars, the card is right but shots don't quite carry as far down by the river, which makes the 579-yard, par 5 4th all the more daunting. With the river running along the left side of the fairway from tee to green, you can kiss even mild pull-hooks good-bye. And, in case you didn't learn your lesson on the 3rd, the 5th is yet another par 3 (186 yards) where you leap-frog to the second river island, and which also plays longer in the heavy air. I'm not quite sure what it meant when my playing partners watched my ball plug in the bank short of the green and exclaimed, "Leave it to a Northerner to bring a sheep to a goat-f***ing contest!" but I assume they felt I had chosen the wrong club.
On the back nine, the 14th will grab your attention. At 548 yards it is reachable, but you'll need a big tee shot not only to reach the green in two, but just to see it. The fairway stretches uphill from the tee, only to retreat back downhill toward a green that you would expect to find in the British Isles: contours, bunker, grass bunker, and a therapeutic view of the river that will calm you down as you tally up your strokes.
Heading back over the railroad trestle-style bridges to the islands where 15 and 16 are found, you'll notice that the tips on the par-3 15th and the par-5 16th are considerably harder - and farther back - than the men's tees. On the 15th, where there is trouble long, left, short, and right, 'A' players will need to shape a 202-yard long-iron, whereas us mere mortals have a more reasonable (though still challenging) 180-yard shot.
The 16th is really the place where most golfers will be happy that they never got their handicaps into the single digits: From the tips, the hole measures 529-yards, and the tee shot needs to carry a good 230 yards (half over water) and through a chute of trees just to reach the fairway. From the blues, the hole is only 435 yards, and you can still hit a tree and bounce safely into the fairway (fortunately for me). The green on this semi-signature hole is truly a work of art: deep, narrow, and perched ever so delicately above the river. Just beware of the marauding raccoon in this area (see spot shadow in photo), which shows no remorse at stealing candy bars and chips from golf carts.
If you play golf and find yourself anywhere in East Tennessee, River Islands is a must-play. The staff is courteous to a fault, and the course, as you can tell, is an experience. The only glitch occurred when the group who was supposed to play in front of me didn't show, and since there was no starter, I was left guessing whether or not to tee off. The facilities include a full practice area (range, putting green, short game area), stocked pro shop, and a comfortable snack bar and grill. And with greens fees ranging from just $42-59 with cart (no walking allowed - who would want to with over eight miles of cart paths?), this has to rank as one of the better deals east of the Midwest.
Just pray it never floods.
River Islands Golf Club
9610 Kodak Road
Kodak, TN 37764
General Manager: Mike Murray
Yardage: 7,001 (black), 6,300 (blue), 5,790 (white), 4,873 (red)
Slope: 133, 129, 117, 118
Rating: 75.4, 72.0, 68.1, 69.4
Rates: $42-59 with cart
Other information: no metal spikes; no walking allowed; carts must stay on cart paths at all times; currently without PGA pro, but lessons can be arranged.
Practice Fac.: A
Club House/Pro Shop: A
Pace of Play: B+
Overall Rating: A