The small town of Hendersonville is the county seat of Henderson County in the northwest of North Carolina, not far from the Eastern Escarpment. It might be regarded as a little bit off the beaten trail for golfing in the Tar Heel State but it’s here in the Blue Ridge Mountains that Donald Ross laid out an 18-hole course for the members back in the day.
Originally planned in the late 1920s as a residential development called Laurel Park Estates, with a grand hotel built on Hebron Mountain, this ambitious project ground to a halt due to the Great Depression and the municipal authorities took over ownership of the assets. The first nine holes eventually appeared in 1933, with the second nine arriving soon after.
Members originally leased the club from the city but it was purchased just after World War II, allowing the construction of additional amenities such as a swimming pool and tennis courts to proceed. Today, the golf course extends to a modest 6,523 yards and with only two par fives on the scorecard it plays to a par of 70.
The mountains of North Carolina have no shortage of highly regarded golf properties ranging in origin from the golden age of architecture to the modern era. Unsurprisingly, Donald Ross courses are well represented here, and many of his finest Appalachian works receive significant attention in ranking publications. Among his best in the area are Roaring Gap, Asheville Country Club, Linville, Biltmore Forest, and the Asheville Municipal Golf Course.
With such bright spotlights on so many of these Ross mountain designs, it was a tremendous surprise this past summer to discover the thought-provoking, roller-coaster-like Hendersonville Country Club. Perhaps falling in the shadow of many other nearby greats, HCC superbly exemplifies Ross’s most well-regarded skill: routing strategic courses that never grow tiresome on any property.
Arriving at HCC, the player can see most of the course from the clubhouse located atop a large hill. By the finishing hole, one is grateful that Ross found this rollicking property when he did, as any modern architect would probably have turned to dynamite and construction equipment to soften the landscape. Ross thoughtfully situated his holes to highlight the gorgeous natural features of the course without making the climbs and descents unfair for the average player. This unmatched vision – to design courses playable by golfers of all abilities – demonstrates Ross’s superb talent as an architect. He never shied away from a challenge.
While not a requirement for an enjoyable round, it is a pleasure to play courses that are well-manicured. The immaculate conditions at HCC, particularly the firm fairways and greens, add to the enjoyment of the contoured land, forcing the player to think wisely about shot shaping.
Among the most standout holes at HCC include:
• #1: Plummeting down into a valley, the opener at HCC previews many of the day’s forthcoming challenges. While the hole is not lengthy, the green is guarded by a terrifying false front making it imperative control a wedge.
• #4: The par three 4th showcases a stunning natural backdrop of mountains stretching for miles. Do not let the view distract you from this interesting one-shotter which, while open to a run-up shot, may fool players with a number of knobs protruding before and onto the putting surface.
• #5: Arguably the best hole on the outward nine, the par five 5th brilliantly fits the land. Playing downhill, any straight drive will pick up added yardage, likely enticing the golfer to attack the green in two. To accomplish that feat, players must navigate a diagonally bisecting creek and a four pronged green complex. Even from a lay-up position, this uniquely shaped putting surface leaves no margin for error if a brave approach is even slightly awry.
• #8: The tee shot at the 8th plays slightly downhill, and a swampy area with tall fescue grasses gobbles up any miss left. As was so often the case with Ross, the greensite chosen is perfect for the hole, perched on a small plateau. Virtually any approach shot will be blind, and given the slight right-to-left cant of the putting surface, the best angle generally requires players to challenge the thick rough and wetlands.
• #10-#12: The back nine begins with three consecutive par fours, all running against a severely sloped hill. While potentially monotonous, each plays differently. The 10th, with a drop downwards at the start, stunts and even rejects many drives, lengthening the already meaty hole considerably. The 11th offers a wide fairway, but it is uncomfortably pinched in the ideal driver landing zone. The 12th, significantly shorter than the prior two holes, has a severely canted right-to-left fairway that is nearly impossible to hold with any type of tee shot. As always, Ross’ ability to turn one topographical feature into three truly distinct adventures is remarkable.
• #13: The short, par three 13th, is a throwback too rarely encountered in the game today. At just 136 yards from the tips (and 98 yards from the forward tees), virtually any player will have a short wedge in hand. Despite its length, Ross’s skill in creating unexpected challenges shines. To unsettle the player, Ross has the hole drop so severely that the green is blind. Adding to the nerves is a bunker short which prevents bounces onto the green, and a frightening shallow putting surface with no room to bail out long. Too few architects have the bravado to build a hole like this today, yet it arguably the most fun on the entire course.
• #14: From the tee, the rumpled fairway at the 14th gives the impression that one must aim right. In fact, hidden width exists just beyond the knoll on the left side of this fairway, demonstrating again that Ross could add deception to the land he was given.
• #15: With a blind tee shot over a pond, the 15th demands a right-to-left tee shot which can pick up significant yardage through a speed slot. The bunkerless green complex is a thriller thanks to the shortgrass collection area long, and the two-tiered surface which can require bouncing a wedge shot in to hold the front portion.
Any player traveling to the mountains of North Carolina will be presented with countless options for great golf experiences. Flying under the radar, Hendersonville Country Club is a must-stop for any Donald Ross enthusiast. It is difficult to imagine any other architect creating such a strategic, fair, and thought-provoking design without the use of modern equipment. Holes lie so elegantly on the landscape and greens are banked in the most natural locations. Hendersonville is truly a hidden gem.