America’s Best Golf Road Trips, Part II: The Appalachian Mountains Trail, from the Homestead to Sweeten’s Cove
Buckle up, folks, and welcome to the second installment of America’s Best Golf Road Trips, a six-part GOLF.com series in which our well-traveled writers will guide you through some of the most thrilling itineraries for golfers with a nose for the open road. (Check out Part I here.) Each journey will be built around golf but we’ll also sprinkle in a few other sights and stops along the way. Bon voyage!
Country road, take us home. But, please, take us to some great golf courses along the way. This killer itinerary does just that, on a trip that starts near Sam Snead’s birthplace and follows a winding path through Virginia and West Virginia, en route to Tennessee. The mountain scenery is stunning. The hot springs are soothing. And the barbecue isn’t shabby, either. Hungry for all that? Hop in, and off we go.
Starting Point: Charlottesville Albemarle Airport
End Point: Sweeten’s Cove GC, South Pittsburg, Tenn.
Days: 4 days
Courses: 4 (though you could easily play more!)
Day 1: The Omni Homestead Resort (Virginia)
At some point during your stay at this historic resort, which sits on Sam Snead Highway, across the road from a restaurant called Snead’s 12, you are probably going to notice: the legacy of one man looms large around these parts.
Slammin’ Sammy, the legend himself, was born and raised less than two miles away, and, at age 17, he landed a job at the Homestead, as a maker of hickory-shafted clubs. Five years later, Snead was promoted to head pro at the Cascades Course, one of two sublime 18-hole layouts here. Before long, he moved on to bigger things, like, you know, an 82-win PGA Tour career.
But back to the glories of the Homestead itself. Of the Cascades Course, Snead once said, “If I could play only one course, this would be it.” And no wonder. Designed by William Flynn (the author of Merion, among other classics), the layout oozes Golden Age greatness, all nuanced slopes and angles in an artful routing that rolls naturally over pine-fringed terrain in the shadow of the Allegheny Mountains, rugged peaks that compose part of the Appalachian range.
Widely regarded as the top public-access course in Virginia, the Cascades Course has staged such big-time events as the U.S. Men’s and Women’s Amateur Championships, the Curtis Cup and the NCAA Division I Men’s Championship.
Its sister course, the Old Course, has a rich pedigree, too, and a claim to fame reflective of its name: it is home to the oldest continuously operating first tee in the United States. That tee opened for play in 1892, when the layout consisted of just 6 holes. The course was soon updated, stretched out and improved by Flynn and, later, Donald Ross.
Like a lot of old courses, it is not especially long; it tips out at less than 6,100 yards. But there’s ample intrigue packed into its modest frame, thanks to fairway contouring that yields all kinds of quirky bounces and challenging lies.
Cap your day at Woody’s, a casual eatery named for the late (and lovable) Homestead caddie and staffer, Woody Pettus. We recommend the Homestead Burger (charred tomato aioli, lettuce, cheddar, pickles, thickly sliced tomato) paired with a Bailey’s-infused milkshake. You earned it.
Day 2: The Greenbrier (West Virginia)
Golf wasn’t in the offing at the Greenbrier in 1788, when the luxury resort welcomed its first guests. Mineral hot springs were the main draw, the same natural waters that supply the Greenbrier’s spa today. As for golf, there’s now plenty of that, too, with four courses from which to choose.
These include the Meadows, a 1911 Seth Raynor original that was later reworked by Dick Wilson and then Bob Cupp; the Ashford Short Course, a nine-hole delight; and the Greenbrier, the only resort course in the world to have hosted both the Ryder Cup and the Solheim Cup.
But if you only squeeze in one round during your stay, make it 18 on The Old White. Designed by the C.B. Macdonald, the grandfather of American golf architecture, and later modified by his disciple, Raynor, the course unfolds as an educational celebration of golf design, with template nods to some of the world’s most famous golf holes.
The par-3 8th, for instance, tips its cap to the Redan at North Berwick, while the 13th is patterned after the Alps at Prestwick and the 15th pays tribute to the Eden at St. Andrews.
Is there a signature hole? We wouldn’t say so. But there is a signature experience at the Greenbrier. You’ll find it at the spa. It’s called “The Greenbrier Treatment,” and it includes a soothing soak in the salubrious waters of White Sulphur Springs, followed by your choice of a 25 or 50-minute massage.
By the time you’re done, you’ll be as loose and limber as a young Sam Snead, who, for the record, worked as a head professional at the Greenbrier, too.
Day 3: Downtime in Knoxville, Tenn.
It can’t be all golf, all the time, can it? OK, sure, it can (and if you really want to play, we’d suggest Island Point Golf Club, a sweet Arthur Hills design at the confluence of two fivers).
But since you’ve just covered a roughly four-hour leg, the longest stint behind the wheel of this road trip, you might also want to take a day to relax. Options abound. Among them is to wander the Old City in downtown Knoxville, a vibrant district dotted with cool bars, idiosyncratic shops, artist’s studios and other one-of-a-kind outposts. A 20-minute walk from Old City takes you to the verdant grounds of World’s Fair State Park, where the World’s Fair was staged in 1982.
Here you can admire Knoxville’s iconic Sunsphere, a 266-foot tower with a giant gold-dust filled, glass-paneled ball on top (for the time being, because of Covid, visitors aren’t allowed in the tower itself). It’s the most striking structure on the city skyline.
By now, your stomach might be grumbling. Maybe you’d like some barbecue, which is big in Knoxville. No place does it better than Sweet P’s Downtown Dive, a local favorite in Old City. Never mind that you’re in Tennessee, the dry-rubbed St. Louis ribs are what you want to order. And don’t forget your sides of collard greens and mac-and-cheese.
Day 4: Sweeten’s Cove
You could, in theory, start your day with a detour to Dollywood, the rollicking Dolly Parton-themed amusement park, which sits in the Smoky Mountains, some 25 miles away. But we know you’re itching to get back to playing, so prepare for a wild ride of a different kind.
Set in a valley, 30 miles west of Chattanooga, Sweeten’s Cove is an iconoclastic charmer with a bootstrapping story that belies its lofty standing in architecture circles (GOLF Magazine ranks it as the 7th best nine-hole course in the world.) Designed and built on a shoestring by the then-unknown architect Rob Collins, it soon became a darling of the Instagram set, who captured stunning images of the place that set social media afire.
What the golf world saw was a rambunctious layout with huge, unruly greens and holes that invite all styles of play, from aerial bombing to creative, bounding bump-and runs. The bunkering is rough-hewn, and the routing allows for various alternative loops, which many golfers take advantage of on slow days.
Slow days are rare, though. The secret is out. Sweetens Cove sells all-day passes, ($90 on weekdays and $100 on weekends gets you all the golf that you feel like playing) but they get snatched up quickly by the ever-growing legions of devotees.
The course’s admirers include Peyton Manning and Andy Roddick, who were so smitten by it that they became part owners of the operation. You get the picture. This place is a must. Be advised, though. Sweetens is all about the golf, not the creature comforts. The clubhouse is a shed. For a post-round meal, your best option is to ring up a delivery from Domino’s (Rory’s fave), which is three miles away.
Just outside the shed, there’s a fire pit with seating and views of the course. Relax. Enjoy. That country road has done its job. It has brought you to a place where you belong.