One of the things I have learned on my Top 100 quest is that throughout the history of American golf many of this country’s very best golf courses have been the result of one man’s ambitious dream and a deep love for the game of golf. You have George Crump at Pine Valley, Henry Fownes at Oakmont, Hall Thompson at Shoal Creek, Dick Youngscap at Sand Hills, Mike Keiser at Bandon Dunes . . . there are simply too many examples to list them all. If we were going to compile a comprehensive list of golf courses born of one man’s vision, Wade Hampton Golf Club in Cashiers, North Carolina would most certainly be on it.
In the case of Wade Hampton Golf Club the man with the vision was William McKee. Since 1922 the McKee family has owned a large parcel of land that had once been the summer retreat of former South Carolina governor, U.S. senator and Civil War general, Wade Hampton III. Shortly after the McKee’s acquired the property in 1922 they established the High Hampton Inn which still operates today as a high end, rustic mountain resort with a lodge, cottages, golf and tennis. Amazingly, the inn is still to this day owned and operated by a member of the McKee family. Sometime in the mid 1980s a young and ambitious William McKee struck a deal with the other members of his family that would deed to him a large parcel of raw, undeveloped land where he could chase his dream of establishing a world class golf club.
As young men with dreams are wont to do McKee got right to work on fulfilling his vision once he was the official owner of the property. He placed a call to Jack Nicklaus’ golf course architecture firm to let them know that he was looking for someone to design a golf course and to his sheer amazement the Golden Bear himself showed up in Cashiers! After similar meetings with several other architects McKee finally settled on Tom Fazio who had been in the golf course architecture game since the early 1970s, had a strong portfolio of courses, but was not the juggernaut that he we know him as today.
My visit to Wade Hampton Golf Club ended up being over a couple of days and while I was there I had the opportunity to share a few meals and play a couple of rounds of golf with McKee so it was interesting to hear all of the background on building the course. I had a TON of questions and as would be expected McKee loved to talk about his baby, so he indulged my every inquiry. We had a great time discussing all kinds of golf nerd topics like topographic maps, bulldozers and turf qualities. It was a unique experience to see a golf course through the eyes of the person who had spent his entire life on the property and had been intimately involved in the project from the time when it was nothing more than acres upon acres of trees. I’m getting a little ahead of the story, so let me stop here and go backwards a bit to explain how I found myself in this unique position.
Wade Hampton was one of the clubs that had been a bit of a concern for me in regards to my Top 100 quest. The club has a reputation as being very exclusive and after five years on the Top 100 journey I had yet to meet a member. There were a couple of guys at my club in Virginia who were members, but I did not know any of them personally and didn’t feel that they were approachable so I never really considered that as an option. As they say, when it rains it pours and literally within a 30 day time period two different opportunities to visit the club materialized from two different members. No one is ever more surprised about these serendipitous occurrences than me.
With two invitations graciously extended I wanted to play with both guys and after some scheduling acrobatics was able to arrange a time when when we could all play together. It wasn’t easy, but it worked out great because the time of the trip ended up being in October which is exactly the time of year I had always hoped that I would be able to visit. With the fall foliage in full bloom I was sure that October would be the peak time of year for golf at Wade Hampton. To top it all off one of the members is good friends with Mr. McKee and told me that we would probably be getting a chance to spend some time with him during our visit to the club. I could hardly wait for October to arrive!
When October finally did arrive, I loaded up my car and made my way south from Virginia. From where I live there is no convenient way to fly into western North Carolina, so even though it was a long trip, driving was the most sensible way to get there. Winding through the mountains makes for a gorgeous drive so that took a little bit of the sting out of the 7+ hour drive.
I arrived in town the night before our first round and after a great meal at one of the local establishments we went back to my friend’s house to retire for the night. The next morning we were up and had a little time to kill before our tee time so we went to Bucks, the local coffee shop where everyone goes to get their caffeine fix, breakfast and use their phones. The cell service in Cashiers is pretty spotty, which I actually found to be one of the area’s real charms.
After our stop at Bucks we headed over to the club, hit the locker room and then took carts up to the practice tee and putting green where we met up with our caddies. I always love a practice green that has a great view as it always seems to sets the right tone for the round and the view here is pretty nice.
When it was time to tee off we decided to play the McKee tees which are a healthy 6,839 yards. That’s a little longer than I like, but with about 5% extra distance from the elevation I thought it would play pretty close to my usual preference of 6,600 yards.
Hole 1 – 534 Yards – Par 5
Wow, what a view to start the round off. The aggressive line is to hit driver on a line just to the right of the pot bunkers on the left side of the fairway. From there the green in reachable in two. The safe shot is a shorter club with a spot to the left of the pot bunkers as an aiming point.
The approach shot into the green from about 130 yards out. The swale on the left is a bunker which needs to be avoided on layup shots. Players who find this bunker will be faced with the dreaded long bunker shot into the green.
Hole 2 – 412 Yards – Par 4
Next we have a lengthy par 4 with the bunkers on the right side of the fairway in play off the tee. The fairway narrows a bit so shots that fly up the left side may end up in the rough.
A view of the approach into the 2nd green.
Hole 3 – 194 Yards – Par 3
The first one shot hole of the course couldn’t be in a prettier setting. This tee shot is going to be a long iron or hybrid for most players and anything to the left of the green is dead. Right is a little bit better, but short is definitely the safe miss here.
Here’s a closer look at the natural waterfall behind the green. For those not aware, western North Carolina is waterfall country with an inordinate amount of natural falls throughout the entire area.
Hole 4 – 562 Yards – Par 5
Next we have another three shot hole but this one is not going to be reachable in two by many. There is a creek that runs along the left side of the hole so the best plan is to avoid the left side all together.
Here we have the approach into the green from about 130 yards out. Note that the creek that runs down the left side of the hole also runs along the left side of the green. The best miss here is to the right or short.
Hole 5 – 387 Yards – Par 4
This mid-length par 4 has a narrowing fairway up around the bunkers on the right so long hitters will need to place their tee shot in the right location. The bunkers on the right are in play for some and should be considered when selecting a club for the drive.
A view of the approach shot into the green. With this hole location getting close to the pin can be difficult because shots that come up a little short are likely to roll back down the hill in front of the green.
Hole 6 – 152 Yards – Par 3
This short little par 3 plays about 10 yards less due to the downhill. Being long here makes for a very, very difficult up and down.
The view from the back right side of the green. I loved that house tucked back in woods overlooking the green.
Hole 7 – 376 Yards – Par 4
Next we have another mid length par 4. Here players get to decide how much of the water they want to chop off. The more aggressive line will be further to the left while the safe shot is bunting a shot out to the left which will leave a considerably longer approach shot.
Here is a view of the approach shot from the ideal position in the middle of the fairway. The green has two tiers which makes distance accuracy of the utmost importance.
Hole 8 – 382 Yards – Par 4
After the hike up a long set of stone stairs players are greeted with this view of the 8th hole. This hole is not exceedingly long and the bunkers on the left and right are potentially in play off the tee. A really good drive can carry the three bunkers on the left and leave a wedge into the green.
Here is a view of the approach into the green. This is another multi-tiered green so make sure to get a good yardage to the flagstick for the approach shot.
Hole 9 – 421 Yards – Par 4
The front nine ends with a stout par 4 that calls for a long drive down the middle. Getting off the fairway to the left or right could make for a difficult shot into the green.
A creek runs across the front of this green site so shots that miss short are likely to end up wet.
Hole 10 – 551 Yards – Par 5
The back nine starts off with a par 5 that is going to play as three shots for most players. The line off the tee is right at the bunkers in the distance with a little fade on it. Note the first view of Chimney Top Mountain in the background.
Here is a look at a long shot into the green. There is a creek along the left side of this hole which will need to be avoided.
Hole 11 – 168 Yards – Par 3
This drop shot par 3 plays just a little bit less than the yardage would indicate. There is really no good miss on this hole with bunkers all around the green.
Hole 12 – 312 Yards – Par 4
Here we have a short par 4 and the drive on this hole is pretty straight forward. I don’t see much point in hitting driver here as its unlikely to reach the green and even if it was possible the green is angled in such a way that it would be difficult to hold. A 200 yard shot is going to set up the best opportunity for birdie for most players.
A look at the very short approach into the green.
Hole 13 – 406 Yards – Par 4
This hole was my favorite on the course and is the beginning of six very difficult golf holes. I love a hole that calls for a draw off the tee even though I rarely can execute a draw on command. A good aiming point is the boulder in the ground in the distance where the fairway falls off. It’s one of the prettiest views on the course with Chimney Top Mountain in the background.
The approach shot also plays a little bit less due to the downhill.
Hole 14 – 405 Yards – Par 4
Here we have another drive from an elevated tee box. Long and straight is the best option here.
With the hole location in the photo below, shots that come up short are going to roll back down the hill and will require a pitch to get on the putting surface.
Hole 15 – 412 Yards – Par 4
Next we have our third 400+ yard two shot hole in a row. This hole has a generous fairway and the elevated tee box provides a little extra distance.
the approach shot into the green. When the hole is on the right like this, missing on the left side makes for a very difficult pitch.
Hole 16 – 440 Yards – Par 4
Finally we have our last two shotter in the five hole run of par 4s on the back nine . . . and it’s a long one. The best play here is to hit something out to the left side of the fairway. Just beyond the trees on the right is a pond which can be in play off the tee for some. The best angle for the long approach shot into the gree will be from the left side of the fairway so that is the best spot to place the drive.
Since the approach shot will so long for most Fazio left plenty of room for players to come up short and still have a chance to get up and down for par. I think for most it is a considerable victory just to reach this green in two.
Hole 17 – 190 Yards – Par 3
Here we get another view of Chimney Top Mountain as the backdrop to a tricky one shot hole. There is plenty of room to get a ball between the trees, but that does not stop them from being very visually intimidating . . . especially late in a close match.
Hole 18 – 535 Yards – Par 5
The closing hole is a nice par 5 that gives players an opportunity to undo some of the damage that may have been done on the last five holes. Reaching this green in two is probably not an option for most, but playing the hole from tee to green in three well executed shots will likely set up a makable birdie putt. There is a creek down the left hand side so players must be careful when choosing a line for their tee shot.
The approach shot into the green. Note the hazards on the left and right side of the neck of fairway leading up to the green. This is why it is not wise to go for the green in two even for players who have the length.
One last view back up the 18th hole from the clubhouse porch.
After a cool fall day of golf its nice to relax inside with a little fire.
I am a strong believer that golf courses do not reveal their subtleties until an intimate knowledge is gained and that only seeing a golf course once is akin to watching a movie with the volume muted. While I am far from understanding Wade Hampton after three loops, I felt like each time around I learned something new about the course and gained a little better understanding of it. I was very fortunate to have had that opportunity and I am always grateful to be able to see a Top 100 course more than once . . . particularly when the course is as good as Wade Hampton.
Many mountain golf courses are so visually stimulating that golfers are too busy taking in the views to notice that the course itself is lacking in substance. Nothing could be further from the truth at Wade Hampton. While there are stunning mountain views the golf course does not rely on them alone for it’s character and features a collection of fun, well thought out, and challenging golf holes that are among the most enjoyable that I have played. Additionally, Wade Hampton does not have many of the extreme features of mountain golf like the harshly sloped fairways and severe elevation changes. In fact, the course is not just walkable, but was designed with walking in mind which is a rarity among mountain golf courses and just one of the many factors that makes Wade Hampton great in my eyes. As one of my friends who also recently played the course commented “Wade Hampton is a golf course in the mountains and not a mountain golf course”. I don’t think I could have summed it up better myself. It’s an incredible place.