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Mountain Mama: The Raven Golf Club at Snowshoe Mountain Resort

By Dale Leatherman, Contributor

"Great things happen when men and mountains meet."

SNOWSHOE, WV - With apologies to poet William Blake, this is especially true if the man is a golf course architect. When designer Gary Player met West Virginia's Cheat Mountain, the result was The Raven Golf Club at Snowshoe Mountain.

Ranked the number one public access course in the state, according to several national publications, The Raven is in the top 25 of Travel & Leisure Golf's 100 best courses costing under $100 to play. Golfweek 2002 places it fifteenth among the country's resort layouts and sixty-second among modern courses. Washington Golf Monthly, calls it one of the 100 "must-play" courses in the Mid-Atlantic Region - an area with a plethora of good courses .

Christened Hawthorne Valley when designer Gary Player clipped the ribbon in 1993, the course was renamed when it became the flagship of Intrawest Corporation's Raven Group, the crème de la crème of the company's many resort golf courses. By any name, it is a wonderful showcase for nature and as tactically demanding as a game of chess.

The Raven winds along the wooded flank of Cheat Mountain, which towers over most other Eastern ski mountains at 4,848 feet. The summit is home to the tundra-loving Snowshoe rabbit and Snowshoe Mountain Resort, the Mid-Atlantic's largest ski area.

Scraps of snow still dot the ski slopes when the course opens and players embark on a cart path that is part roller-coaster ride, part nature trail. At the first overlook, on the cliffside tees of the fourth hole, the path zigzags down to a flat more than 200 feet below, and a red-tailed hawk floats over the fairway, his cries echoing off the surrounding mountains. This is his turf. In the fall his white belly stands out like a flag against the brilliantly colored hills.

In Blackberry Glade, when the par three sixth hole crosses a sharp ravine, a pair of twin fawns scuttle away on shaky stick legs, their mother waiting patiently, her big eyes turned to the humans with caution but no fear. Hunting is forbidden here, and the animals know it. Regular golfers will watch the fawns mature and lose their spots as the season progresses toward fall.

From the rim of Hawthorne Basin, it's more than a 100-foot drop from the ninth-hole tees down to where Cupp Run, swollen by spring melt, roars through a bramble-filled gorge and cuts across the fairway below. The surrounding mountains, tinged with the green of new buds, seem to hover protectively over the valley. In the fall, these hills will be ablaze with color.

Golfers from urban areas often return to the clubhouse wide-eyed, and spilling stories of close encounters with white-tailed deer and Canada geese, and sightings of black bear, red fox, beaver - and even a resident pair of the trademark ravens. Wildflowers and blooming trees flourish on the fringes of the course, humbling the man-made swatches of green.

Player made abundant use of the site's natural elements, arranging huge boulders as the underpinnings for greens and tees perched on the brink of dramatic overlooks. These structured features are balanced by the wildness of streams, lakes, ravines and rock outcroppings. Every hole has its own unique character and test of strategy.

Even the loquacious designer seems a bit awed by his collaboration with the mountain.

"I have yet to see a course that compares with this one for mountain beauty," says Player. "The challenge here is different. Hitting from high up, you have difficulty judging distances. You have an altitude problem as well, so judging your second shot is difficult."

Mistakes in judgment are often lost in high rough or abandoned on terrain too steep to try a retrieval. Don't expect to ease into danger after a few easy holes.

The course opens with a 557-yard par five on which a drive right of the fairway will hide in deep woods, the second shot must cross a gnarly stream bed to a skimpy plateau, and the approach drops to a green surrounded by foliage. The par three third hole is of moderate length (127 yards), but drops precipitously to a tabletop green fronted by a ravine. Perversely, it plays shorter than it measures, so that safe shots land on a steep, grassy hill behind the green or in a bunker. The green is tiered, so your chip off the hill can roll 10 yards to the lower level.

Get the picture? Ah, then there's the fourth hole, which drops 200 feet tee to fairway and has a breathtaking view of the mountains anytime of year. Miss the fairway on either side and your ball is history. What follows is one postcard-perfect hole after another. Nine is a double-greened, 359-yard par four that is meek on paper, but the intimidating gorge on the left of the fairway encroaches on the line from tee to green. The back green, that is. The seldom-used front green plays like a par three from the 239-yard white tees, which most men play.

The back nine is even tougher, and perhaps more scenic. The number one handicap is the eleventh hole, a 445-yard par four demanding a finesse shot over a gully to a slick green with a diagonal tier. Hole thirteen is a tactical gem. Golf Digest once included it in one of its "Top 18 Holes" collections. If you can avoid going through the fairway and place your drive on the lip of the lake, there's the go-for-it option on the second shot, a carry over water of about 180 yards. Safety lies in a second shot over the narrow part of the lake, past a grove of trees, to set up a clear approach to the green.

The numbers tell the story - 7,045 yards from the black tees, course/slope ratings of 72.1/130; silver tees, 6,397 yards, 70.4/126; white tees, 5,976 yards, 68.1/122; gold tees, 4,363 yards, 64.3/103.

Rounds on cart path-only days can average five hours and involve a lot of walking on hilly terrain.

If you have the stamina after playing this demanding mountain course, the 11,000-acre four-season resort offers hiking, fishing, kayaking, climbing, sporting clays, sightseeing, and some of the best mountain bike terrain in the East. The summer biking and adventure camps for children are outstanding.

Since its purchase by Intrawest, Snowshoe has evolved from a rustic ski area with minimal amenities to a four seasons resort with a mountaintop alpine village, luxury condos, and a variety of restaurants. Accommodations range from lodge rooms to single-family houses to condominiums. The condos in Highland House, Rimfire and Allegheny Springs front on the Village Plaza, a courtyard with shops, restaurants and outdoor entertainment.

You can find almost anything you want to eat at Snowshoe, but the most memorable dining experience is at the Red Fox Restaurant, owned and operated by charismatic world-travelers Margaret-Ann and Brian Ball. This is not just the best restaurant on the mountain, but one of the best in the Mid-Atlantic region, serving creative combinations of local and imported ingredients with excellent wines. The dishes are beautifully decked out, but you don't have to be. Smart casual is the norm, and the atmosphere is as comfortable as the deep-cushioned armchairs. The Balls also operate Foxfire, a lively "views, blues and brews" restaurant on the Village Plaza serving good ol' dishes such as barbecue, fried catfish, and hearty soups.

The Junction, slope-side in the village center, is worth a visit for the unusual décor - train relics dating back to the region's logging days, including the entire side of a boxcar. The menu is broad enough to please everybody, and includes specialty salads and barbecued wings. Steaks are the specialty at Good Time Bobby's in the Mountain Lodge. Auntie Pasta's does everything Italian and has a cozy bar. Cheat Mountain Pizza offers variations on a familiar theme, and the Boat House on Shavers Lake is the place for waffles or burgers. After a round of golf, you need go no farther than The Grille at the Raven Golf Club, which offers a lunch and dinner menu.

Snowshoe Mountain Resort

Snowshoe, WV 26209
Phone: (304) 572-1000
Web: www.snowshoemtn.com

Dale LeathermanDale Leatherman, Contributor

Dale Leatherman is a full-time freelance travel writer specializing in golf and adventure travel. For nearly 20 years her "beat" has been the Caribbean, where she can combine golf, scuba diving and other sports. She has also written about golf in Wales, Scotland, Australia, Costa Rica, Canada and the U.S., particularly the Mid-Atlantic region.

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