Golf a Big Attraction in the Mountaineer State

By: Joel Zuckerman


It was 20th century writer, poet and playwright Gertrude Stein who coined the somewhat ambiguous phrase, "there is no 'there' there." It's highly unlikely Stein (kind of a literary Kim Kardashian - mostly famous for her minor fame) was referring to West Virginia.

Stonehaven's 16th Hole

This, despite the fact she was born less then 30 miles from the state border outside Pittsburgh,= and came into the world in 1874, little more than a decade after West Virginia became the 35th state in 1863, separating itself from neighboring Virginia.

West Virginia is definitely "there," but it is a state with an indistinct reputation, something of a hazy identity. Most folks couldn't pick it out on a map despite the fact it is hands-down the oddest-shaped state in the union. (The silver-and-bronze medalists in this arcane category might be Idaho and Texas, respectively, though they are far, far in arrears when it comes to curious silhouettes.)

Some call it the northernmost southern state. Others say it's the southernmost northern state. Cynics might decree it is "flyover country," but it's indisputably not "fly-into" country. There isn't an international airport within West Virginia's boundaries (most air traffic comes from Pittsburgh.)

Palmer Course at Stonewall

However, 100 million souls live within a five-hour drive of one of its borders, as the state is flanked by Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland and Kentucky. Major population centers in the general vicinity include Pittsburgh, Columbus, Ohio, and Washington D.C., among others.

Another dichotomy: The state's best-known tourist attraction and certainly its marquee resort is The Greenbrier. Yet this genteel hideaway, bastion of the privileged, which has existed in one form or another since the 1830s, does not reflect the state's ethos as a whole. The Greenbrier is sleek and sophisticated, and quite pricey. West Virginia, in sum total, is more laidback, homier, rustic and a traveler's bargain.

Betty Cutlip is the director of marketing for the State Tourism Department. "People here are very hospitable, extremely friendly, we have a low crime rate, and outdoor activities abound. This is a family-friendly state, and hiking, rock climbing, white-water rafting and mountain biking are among the popular activities. We have numerous state parks, plenty of golf and a large percentage of the U.S. population lives within five or six hours' drive of some portion of West Virginia. International visitors tend to come to the eastern part of the state, which is in close proximity to Washington, D.C."

Front Entrance to the Greenbrier

Cutlip goes on to explain that a love of the outdoors isn't the only prerequisite that would precipitate a West Virginia journey. "The history buffs love us because we were the only state born during the Civil War," said the Charleston native, who has spent nearly 30 years employed by the state Tourism Board. "We separated from Virginia, which was pro-slavery, and sided with the Union Army. We also have Hatfield-McCoy buffs, the famous border war between the two families on either side of the Kentucky state line. We had Revolutionary War skirmishes. Harper's Ferry is a big attraction, which is where famed abolitionist John Brown tried to commandeer a weapons arsenal to help free the slaves."

The Appalachians and Alleghenies are the main mountain ranges in the Mountaineer State, which contains nearly 50 state parks and almost a million acres of the Monongahela National Forest, which is rife with streams, rivers, woodlands, campsites and hiking. All told, it is one of the most recreational-based states east of the Mississippi, and golf is a growing part of its appeal.

"Our golf topography is as varied as the rest of the state," explains Cutlip, herself an avid player. "We have all sorts of elevation changes, mountainous and valley courses, and there's nothing uniform about the landscape, which is often the case in better-known golf locales like South Carolina and Florida."

Entrance to Stonewall

Certainly, this is the case at the handsome Oglebay Resort (www.oglebay-resort.com) outside Wheeling, in the northernmost part of the state. Well over 300 rooms and cottages are present along with 54 holes of championship golf on these 1,700 hilltop acres, alongside unique resort attractions such as the Good Zoo, a 1.5-mile train ride, and glass museum. The Arnold Palmer Course is of particular note, a lovely valley track with long-range views and a half-dozen par-3 holes interspersed among some lengthy par-4s. Flat lies are at a premium as the course winds up and down; the first couple of holes and the final few are separated from the majority of the playing fields. Hole Nos. 4-16 are in a large adjacent valley, perhaps a five-minute cart ride, to the one nearer the clubhouse.

Further south towards the center of the state in Roanoke is the impressive Stonewall Resort (www.stonewallresort.com), nestled within the nearly 2,000 acres comprising Stonewall Jackson State Park. The welcoming Adirondack-style lodge overlooks Stonewall Jackson Lake which, with 82 miles of shoreline, is the second-largest lake in the state. This AAA Four-Diamond Property features a superb Palmer-designed golf course. There's not a house or condo to be seen the length and breadth of the property, so virtually every hole is an entity unto itself, the fairways isolated green corridors with few, if any other, golf holes in sight. Among other accolades, the Stonewall Course has been named among America's best resort courses, within the top-100 public-access courses in the nation and the second-best public-access course in the state.

First Tee at Old White

There is a fair amount of traveling to be done to get to much of West Virginia's golf riches. John Denver sang famously about the state's country roads, a song imbedded in the brains of at least half the citizenry over 40, a pop anthem that has been played millions of times on thousands of radio stations worldwide. (And a bigger, punchier publicity boost has likely never occurred in the state's 150-plus-year history.)

But plenty has happened road-wise in the 40-odd years since Denver equated West Virginia to "almost heaven." Specifically, a comprehensive revamping of the interstate highway system, which makes traveling the Mountaineer State a breeze. The true amazement is that the views afforded on the latticework of interstates rivals anything one might see on a country road, a blue highway, byway, winding parkway or scenic overlook. Verdant-yet-starkly defined ridgelines (which blaze in autumn color), plunging gorges funneling to rushing rivers, and miles-long views abound on roadways throughout the state, making the journey itself as much of an attraction as the final destination.

Interior of Lakeview Resort

Far in the southeast corner of the state, near White Sulphur Springs, is the venerable Greenbrier (www.greenbrier.com). The golf pecking order at the resort has flip-flopped in recent years. Earlier, it was the Greenbrier Course, the only resort course in the world to have hosted both the Solheim Cup and Ryder Cup, that was considered the premium experience. At that time Old White played second fiddle. But after a four-year closure and comprehensive renovation by architect Lester George, Old White, approaching its centennial anniversary in 2014 and currently the host site of the PGA Tour's Greenbrier Classic, takes center stage. It was originally designed by Charles Blair Macdonald, the first-ever U.S. Amateur champion back in 1895 whose architectural resume includes world-class gems like the National Golf Links on Long Island, the course at Yale University and Bermuda's Mid Ocean Club.

Old White's opening tee shot drops gently to a lush fairway, wide but tree-lined. It's an inviting beginning to a fine parkland experience. Classic features were reintroduced during the renovation. There's the Biarritz green with its massive swale at the par-3 third, and the Redan green at the par-3 eighth. Add in chocolate-drop mounding covered with shaggy fescue and strategic cross-bunkering throughout, and the end result is a challenging and interesting layout on a flattish piece of property.

Old White's Third Hole

The hotel itself is a vivid color riot, a crazy quilt of pastel wallpaper, black-and-white-tile floors, imposing, magnificent chandeliers, and richly-colored carpet. "Romance and Rhododendrons" was the decorating theme conceived by celebrated decorator Dorothy Draper, who redid the massive facility in the late-1940s. Draper and staff used 30 miles of carpet, 15,000 rolls of wallpaper, 45,000 yards of fabric and almost 35,000 individual decorative and furniture items in this comprehensive facelift. The end result is startling in scope. Each public room has a completely different look, but it flows together seamlessly in a collective whole.

The history of the Greenbrier is even more colorful than the interiors. The property is several hundred years old, and at various times in the 20th century served as an army hospital and an internment center for foreign diplomats during the war years. The single most popular attraction on the property is "The Bunker," which for decades was a secret underground fortress built to house and safeguard key government personnel during the Cold War years.

Then there is the world-famous Greenbrier Spa and the resort's latest addition, the elegantly understated casino, like the Bunker, built entirely underground. Though the Greenbrier is at the zenith of West Virginia's resort options, it keeps some mighty fine company.

Stonewall's Palmer Course in the Fall

For example, little more than an hour away from both the Greenbrier and the state capital of Charleston is the exceptional Resort at Glade Springs (www.gladesprings.com). Despite the fact it hosted to 2006 NCAA Men's Golf Championship, it is perhaps the finest 54-hole facility that 98 percent of all golfers have never heard of. Recently purchased by native son Jim Justice, the entrepreneurial titan who bought the Greenbrier in 2009, Glade Springs has 200-plus lodging options: rooms, suites, villas, lodges, and even larger manor houses. The golf is as varied as the accommodations and the other activities, which include horseback riding, skiing, Geo-caching, laser tag, bowling, et al.

The Stonehaven Course has spectacular elevation changes as much as 80 feet per hole, gorgeous rock outcroppings, and a serenely wooded setting. It makes a round feel as much a nature walk (or ride, as the case may be; attempting to traverse this mountainous property on foot would tax even the fittest endurance athlete) as it does the typical pastime of "whack-the-ball-through-the-meadow." Housing is prevalent throughout, but set back and tasteful, and in no way detracts from the atmosphere. Add to this gem the original Cobb Course from the 1970s and the newer Woodhaven Course, and the end result is a destination that could absorb and intrigue even the most fanatical traveling golfer for a weeklong immersion.

Back in the northern part of the state near Morgantown - home of the flagship university WVU - is the 36-hole Lakeview Resort (www.lakeviewresort.com). About 240 rooms and condos are available for those who love golf, Mountaineer football weekends, or both. Right on property is the original Lakeview Course, dating from 1954. Tight, tree-line, and with some precipitous drops from tee to green (notably two front-side par-5s - the fourth and seventh), wayward tee balls will be punished, assuming they can be found. When the course crosses the bridge over the interstate (an eerie experience by golf cart) the terrain widens appreciably for a few holes. But for the most part these playing fields are constricted.

The Mountainview course, dating from 1985, is a few short miles away. Though located within a housing development, it's a little wider, more forgiving and slightly more pastoral than its older sibling.

"There are little more than a hundred courses in the state," concludes Cutlip. "South Carolina has four times as many, Florida has more than a thousand, but what we have here is quality over quantity."

Well said. How to describe the golf options in West Virginia? Few and far between doesn't paint the whole picture. Instead, from this correspondent's perspective, try few, far between and mostly fantastic.

Joel Zuckerman, called "One of the Southeast's most respected and sought-after golf writers" by Golfer's Guide Magazine, is an award-winning travel writer based in Savannah, Ga. His seventh and latest book, entitled "Pro's Pros - Extraordinary Club Professionals Making Golf Great!" is scheduled for release in April 2013. This is the first-ever golf book to shine the spotlight on the beating heart of golf - the unsung, yet hard-working club professional. Joel's course reviews, player profiles, essays and features have appeared in 110 publications, including Sports Illustrated, Golf, Continental Magazine and Delta's Sky Magazine. He has played more than 800 courses in 40-plus states and a dozen countries. For more about Joel, visit visit www.vagabondgolfer.com.


CBS Sports Official Partner