Almost heaven: West Virginia offers great golf, hospitality in a lofty setting

Almost heaven, Blue Ridge Mountains -- all the good things that John Denver sang about in "Country Roads" -- make for the elements of great golf. That's West Virginia.

For visiting golfers, West Virginia offers an opportunity to play in one of the most dramatic settings in the country. Whether it's the luxurious resort lifestyle of The Greenbrier or one of West Virginia's state parks, West Virginia offers the gamut of destination golf, most of which is quite affordable.

Here's a look at golf trip worth considering.

Pete Dye to die for

My week in West Virginia actually began in Pittsburgh, which is just north of the West Virginia border. From there, it was about a 90-minute drive to Pete Dye Golf Club , a private venue that's accessible to guests at the nearby Stonewall Resort, which is actually located inside the Stonewall Jackson Lake State Park.

Pete Dye Golf Club provides quite a 1-2 punch for the resort, which also has an Arnold Palmer Signature course. Ranked no. 46 on Golf Digest's list of America's greatest 100 courses, this might be the best overall Dye-designed course I've ever played. Not my favorite, mind you -- that's probably the Straits Course at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin -- but the strongest in terms of design.

There isn't a boring hole on the course, which was carved out an old coal mine site, and it's more playable than most Dye courses. Fairways are generous, but as you get closer to the hole it gets more and more interesting. Plus you get to drive through an old mine shaft on your way to the seventh tee, and the views of the Appalachian Mountains are sensational.

The Arnold Palmer Signature Course at Stonewall Resort is in sharp contrast to the Dye Course. A championship layout designed by Palmer's right-hand man Erik Larsen, the course features several blind shots, thick rough and tall fescue around the sometimes-tight fairways. There's elevation change, plenty of water hazards and some difficult greens. Fortunately, there are six sets of tees, so if you play up a little, it's quite manageable.

Opened in 2002, the course also improved a lot over the past few years with better drainage and firmer fairways, said PGA Professional Randy Henley, director of golf, grounds and marina at Stonewall Resort.

On the day I played it, it had rained heavily the day before, yet we were off the paths on most holes. Two years ago, GPS was added to the golf carts, and in recent months, the course has been trimmed back to widen the landing areas.

"It's as healthy as it's ever been," Henley said.

Resort at Glade Springs

A little more than an hour southeast of Charleston, the state capital, lies The Resort at Glade Springs, a comprehensive family and group destination that features three very different golf courses (two of which I got to play on this trip) in addition to comfortable lodging, four restaurants and an array of activities, including whitewater rafting, bowling, tennis, rock climbing, skiing and fly fishing.

The Stonehaven Course is probably the resort's most picturesque of the three. Designed by Tom Clark, it tips out at just more than 7,200 yards, winding up and around 69-acre Chatham Lake through hardwood forests, rock outcroppings and elevation changes up to 80 feet per hole. Simply put, the course has a great variety of memorable holes, including the par-4 16th, which has one of the most dramatic tee shots in West Virginia.

But while the Stonehaven Course has a little more wow factor, the Cobb Course (designed by George Cobb) has the championship-level golf pedigree. With more than 200 feet of elevation change, it's played host to the West Virginia Open several times, is a Monday qualifying site for the PGA Tour's Greenbrier Classic and staged the 2006 NCAA Division II Championship. Its finishing stretch is as good as it gets, starting with the par-4 16th, which features forced carries over water both off the tee and the approach.

The third course (which I didn't play) is the resort's newest, another Clarke design that opened in 2010. The Woodhaven Course has two distinct nine-hole loops -- one overlooks Glade Creek Gorge and plays up and down a series of swales, while the other journeys through a steeper valley with natural rock gardens and the native areas.

Best of all, the courses at Glade Springs are most affordable, well less than $100 in most cases and even less expensive if you book a package at this wonderful resort.

In fact, the majority of golf in West Virginia in quite affordable. On the last day of my trip, I only got to play six holes before rain shut us down, but the Pipestem Resort State Park Golf Course can be had for as little as $33 during the week. And while it's not up to PGA Tour standards, this Geoffrey Cornish championship course is an enjoyable test. There's also a nice little par 3 there, and accommodations are most affordable. There are other treats as well, including taking a tram a hundreds of feet into the Bluestone Gorge to the Bluestone Dining Room, main restaurant at Pipestem Resort.

The Greenbrier: America's Resort

The Resort at Glade Springs is currently owned by Jim C. Justice III, who also owns The Greenbrier Resort, also known as America's Resort. While Glade Springs attracts the everyman, The Greenbrier has a long, rich tradition of serving America's elite and has been restored to reflect its storied history in recent years.

The Greenbrier has been around since 1787, attracting visitors who wanted to bathe in the curative waters of its sulfur springs. Early presidents were among the guests, and during the Civil War and World War II, the resort was converted into a hospital. Afterward, Dorothy Draper, whose color schemes remain today, redesigned it. Everywhere you turn, there are priceless artifacts, interesting stories and, of course, golf that includes four golf courses for guests and the ultra-private Snead Course at The Greenbrier Sporting Club designed by Tom Fazio. I got to play The Greenbrier and The Old White TPC Course s.

The Old White TPC Course is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, and it was all it's cracked up to be. Designed by C.B. Macdonald and Seth Raynor, the course was named for the Old White Hotel, which stood on the grounds from 1858 to 1922.

Though traditional in many respects, Macdonald modeled several of the holes after famous European holes, like the par-3 eighth after the "Redan" at North Berwick; no. 13 after the "Alps" at Prestwick; and the 15th after the "Eden" at the Old Course at St. Andrews .

The first tee, which is right next to the clubhouse of this 230-year-old resort, is a terrific opening stage. The starter even announced our names before we hit our tee shots. Of course, Old White was in as immaculate shape as The Greenbrier Course.

You might be surprised to find out that, though, when the PGA Tour talked about coming to The Greenbrier prior to 2010, it was the 1924 Greenbrier Course that was originally under consideration. After all, this Raynor design (renovated by Jack Nicklaus) already had a championship pedigree. It played host to the 1979 Ryder Cup, as well as the 1994 Solheim Cup.

The '79 Ryder Cup was the first to include European players outside of Great Britain and Ireland. Seve Ballesteros of Spain made his Ryder Cup debut at The Greenbrier, but the United States still won 17-11. Not long after, of course, the Europeans became a formidable foe, winning in 1985 and holding onto the cup for the next two competitions thereafter.

Two more highlights of my brief stay at The Greenbrier was a memorable dinner at 44 Prime, a premium steakhouse at The Greenbrier, honoring one of West Virginia's most beloved sports heroes, basketball great Jerry West. It's pricey, but the food lives up to it. Besides the incredible steaks and prime ribs, the side of lobster-mashed potatoes was pretty unforgettable.

And finally, I took the tour of the infamous Cold War bunker at The Greenbrier. It was Dwight D. Eisenhower, a close friend of former Greenbrier Pro Emeritus Sammy Snead, who ordered the construction of the 112,544-square-foot bunker built 720 feet into the hillside under The Greenbrier's West Virginia Wing as a secure fortress during the Cold War for federal leaders and Congress.

An amazing tour, to say the least, it was a chilling reminder that the good old days weren't so good after all, but even in times of peril, the good life, it seems, is just a few feet away.

Mike Bailey is a senior staff writer based in Houston. Focusing primarily on golf in the United States, Canada, the Caribbean and Latin America with an occasional trip to Europe and beyond, he contributes course reviews, travel stories and features as well as the occasional equipment review. An award-winning writer and past president of Texas Golf Writers Association, he has more than 25 years in the golf industry. Before accepting his current position in 2008, he was on staff at PGA Magazine, The Golfweek Group and AvidGolfer Magazine. Follow Mike on Twitter at @MikeBaileyGA and Instagram at @MikeStefanBailey.
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Almost heaven: West Virginia offers great golf, hospitality in a lofty setting
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