Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Editor’s note: This story originally ran in the Feb. 22 issue of Golfweek.

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HARRISON, Tenn. — On a brisk fall day, Paul Carter showed a visitor the future of the Tennessee Golf Trail, and likely the game at large. Pointing to a nearly all-electric mower fleet lining the maintenance building off the 10th hole at Bear Trace at Harrison Bay, the course superintendent smiled.

“There are days when we’re not burning a single drop of fuel,” he said.

Sure, the price of oil has plunged, but that’s still quite a feat. Carter, a rising star in the industry, lauds his crew’s light environmental footprint.

“For a golfer, it means a quieter golf course,” he said.

Ironically, as if on cue, that silence was shattered as the clock struck noon. A siren from the nearby Sequoyah Nuclear Plant wailed at jet-engine-decibel level. One long minute later, the monthly warning drill had ended.

“If that thing goes off for real, you might as well finish your round because it’s all over for us anyway,” a Harrison Bay regular said jokingly.

It proved to be an ear-splitting contrast on the Tennessee Golf Trail.

The state parks’ nine-course network stretches more than 400 miles, from the Appalachian foothills in the east to the rolling plains in the west. Like siblings, they’re similar yet so very different. Harrison Bay, Tims Ford and Cumberland Mountain (No. 5, Golfweek’s Best Courses You Can Play list), all Jack Nicklaus designs in the Bear Trace family, pose the sternest tests for low-handicappers: 7,000 or more yards from the tips, with contoured greens. The trail’s “traditional” courses – Fall Creek Falls, Henry Horton, Montgomery Bell, Paris Landing, Pickwick Landing and Warriors’ Path – wind through hardwood forests and play a bit shorter, with run-up options to flatter greens. No condos. Just an abundance of natural beauty.

In fact, the trail’s strength also can be its weakness.

“You’ve got to work to get to our courses,” said Mike Nixon, a former PGA Tour player and Nashville native who oversees the trail as the state’s golf operations director.

I did, and here are three of my favorites:

Cumberland Mountain, in Crossville on the Cumberland Plateau, poses a stunning contrast in nines. The highland-meadow front side serves as a tuneup for Nicklaus’ elevated thrill ride on the homeward nine. Enjoy the view from atop the 11th tee, then take a rip at the drivable (for some) par-4 12th. The homeward holes grow progressively tougher, making the rustic wooden clubhouse all the more appealing.

Paris Landing, which abuts Kentucky Lake in Buchanan, offers a tempting fishing-golf doubleheader. Nearby Paris is “home to the World’s Biggest Fish Fry” in late April. The massive catfish atop the welcome sign at the city limits salutes the catch of the day, every day. As for the golf, lakefront views abound, though water doesn’t come into play. Stick a short iron at the downhill par-3 fourth and marvel at the gorgeous backdrop. It’s one of the best views on the trail.

Montgomery Bell, named after the local 19th-century ironmaster who armed Andrew Jackson’s cannoneers in the Battle of New Orleans, enjoys one of the trail’s most accessible locations. With Nashville only 30 minutes to the east on Interstate 40, Montgomery Bell appeals to the city folk, though its 6,311-yard length rolls out the welcome mat for all. You’ll have to keep it between the tree lines.

Walkers will find the Tennessee Golf Trail to be a refreshing step back in time. Roll off of one green and ease onto the next tee. The trail rates as a big value: $22-24 at the “Traditionals” for walkers in season, $30-$36 at the Bear Trace courses.

In his fifth year overseeing the trail, Nixon is checking off an ambitious to-do list: eliminating or renovating bunkers with an eye on ease of play, regrassing greens with Champion Bermudagrass at the most temperate sites and prodding legislators for upgrades to restaurants and lodging. In short, he wants the Tennessee Golf Trail to be a destination.

“We’ve got user-friendly golf courses that are inexpensive to play,” Nixon said. “They’re good courses; they’re scenic. Some of the courses are hidden. They’re not around many people, but that’s what parks are supposed to be.”

At Harrison Bay, 30 minutes north of Chattanooga, where Chickamauga Lake feeds into the Tennessee River, an “eagle cam” sits 50 feet up in a pine tree behind the 10th green. The camera (harrisonbayeaglecam.org) offers a bird’s-eye view for the nesting bald eagles who, in turn, provide an ongoing reality show for the golfer-voyeur.

Ultimately, all of that means little without the golf experience, and that’s where the Tennessee Golf Trail fills a growing void in the game: fun, affordable and scenic golf.

Just remember that if you find yourself standing over a putt at Harrison Bay at noon on the first Wednesday of the month, back off for just a minute.