Lenoir City, TN - Stepping to the driving range on the way to the first tee, it's clear that Landmark Golf Club in the foothills of the Smokies is a course destined for distinction in the Midwest and may, in fact, already be there.
Raymond Lumpp, a starter who recognizes that only a fool or a pro would take on these 18 holes without a few swings on the driving range, is the perfect welcoming presence. He offers to delay a 10:30 tee-time without even being asked and then gives a needy golfer a few words of advice from Harvey Pennick:
"When you don't have much time," Lumpp says, "take a few swings with a nine iron." A Pennick-quoting starter? Every course needs one.
The course, known formally as Landmark Golf Club at Avalon, is one of 300 courses designed by architect Joseph L. Lee. Like its namesake, that eternal paradise of King Arthur and the other heroes of the round table, these 18 holes have stretches that are heavenly.
Lee is the designer of some of the nation's finest courses: the PGA National Golf Club in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.; La Costa Resort and Spa in San Diego, California, site of the PGA Tour Mercedes Championship and Cog Hill Golf Club in Chicago, Ill., site of the PGA Tour Motorola Western Open, to name a few. It should not come as a surprise if one day the PGA holds an event here. The golf is that good, that inspiring, that awesome.
From its opening in 1997, the course was envisioned as a Tennessee magnet for great golf, drawing from a seven-state region: Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama, Mississippi, Indiana, Ohio and even Michigan. But visions can sometimes go awry. When Landmark, best known for its Myrtle Beach properties, took over the course in December, the first thing the new owners did was attack some nagging challenges.
Landmark Golf Club is thick with big kidney-shaped sand traps that guard fairways, greens and stretch annoyingly into places where only the truly errant shot would land. Number 8, for instance, has seven traps. They begin to meander at the 150 yard marker and continue in toward the green in a swooping display of intimidation and worry.
Because the bunkers here are high-lipped and sometimes get heavy rain, they have a tendency to erode. Bad drainage systems haven't helped. So reconstruction started with the traps. Since December, 42 of 86 bunkers have been repaired and the sand replaced with fluffy white sand of varied grain size. Trucks of sand continued to arrive each day.
That is only the first tier of work that is underway. Another $1 million in improvements is coming to the clubhouse. "We will have all the work completed by Spring 2002," said Scott Krahl, project director. "All that the golfers will notice is steadily improving conditions."
"Our goal is to establish Avalon as one of the premier semi-private golf facilities in the Southeast."
As for the course itself, there is no need to change a thing. Holes mingle picturesque vistas with secluded dales and dells. An early series of holes sweep along a ridge top before dipping down to a lower elevation. There are no parallel fairways, and even on shots where the pin cannot be seen because the hole is a dogleg, target landing zones make perfect fairway targets.
The course has Midlawn Bermuda grass on fairways, roughs and tees. The greens are Crenshaw bent grass, which gives them a true roll, a fine, soft feel underfoot and great bite on wedges and approach shots.
Because Tennessee is a rocky place, the course has dramatic but understated natural rock accents.
"You'll see it along highways, where rocks emerge from the red clay and topsoil. Our rock is native stone and most have not been altered in any way," Krahl said. These hazards rarely come into play - some are no larger than a sofa and couple of living room chairs - but they bring texture and reference points to the fairways.
For sheer drama, few holes can match No. 17. If a golfer can really get the graphite on this par 4, he stands a good chance of picking off that rarest of all birds: a double eagle. The card lists 17 at 360 yards but that's from the tee to the center of the fairway and across a lake that protects the entire fairway and even wraps around the green far below. It's total carry over water. The only question is how much of the apple to bite?
Go for the green and you're looking at more than 300 yards of carry over the water from the white tees to the edge of the green. Sand traps protect it from a roll-on drive. Still, crush the drive and get up and down from here and it's a birdie. Hole out the chip and you have your double eagle.
Of course, top-shelf golf anywhere, demands first-class overnight accommodations.
Nothing in the Midwest region can top what's offered at Blackberry Farm, a 1,100-acre resort and spa about a 40-minute drive west of the course on the border of the Great Smokies Mountain National Park. It is an oasis of fine dining and accommodations, and it even comes with its own private trout stream. Leave your rods, flies and waders behind because Blackberry Farm will supply all the equipment needed for a dusk fishing trip prior to a gourmet dinner.
The fishing is extraordinary. There really are six-pounders pulsing through Hesse's Creek on the property, about a five-minute stroll from the main guest house. You can wade with and wave that fly rod, and the stealthy among us can probably even catch these skittish monsters. Look at your forearm. That's how big the fish are in this stream. Two-pounders are everywhere.
Blackberry Farm itself is a small hotel with only 44 rooms but it offers miles of mountain trails and a full-service spa for the golf widows who want to travel with husbands but do not actually want to visit a golf course. The five-star dining in the main lodge overlooking the Smokies and the ridges that fade into the distance finds its equal only in the best restaurants of a major city, such as New York, Chicago or Los Angeles.
In fact, Blackberry Farm is considered one of the top four small resorts in America, according to Zagat Survey.
A recent dinner menu offered: a buttermilk cornbread soup, salad of roasted red and golden beets with artichokes, fennel and oranges, while just one of the seven entrees was tenderloins of pork and Millbrook venison, Zinfandel jus with celeriac potato puree and tarragon roasted carrots. Desserts were equally complex.
The resort is a perfect complement and ending to a Tennessee day. First, some quality golf at Landmark Golf Club at Avalon, followed by some stealthy trout fishing and then a repast at Blackberry Farm.
It will be an unforgettable day of beauty, challenge and memories.
Landmark Golf Club at Avalon
1299 Oak Chase Boulevard
Lenoir City, Tennessee
Weekend - $56.25
Weekday - $47.50
Twilight after 3 p.m.- $38.00
Yardage - Slope:
Blue - 6,764 yards - 72.2 - 131
White - 6,300 yards - 71.3 - 125
Gold - 5,841 yards - 68 - 121
Red - 5,261 yards - 71.1 - 123
Green - 4,798 yards - 70.3 - 119
1471 West Millers Cove Rd.