When people think of "The South" in the context of weather, heat and humidity is the default response. But things are a little different in the mountains.
When I lived and worked in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, I would often hear about people's summer weekend trips up to places like Greenville, Grandfather Mountain, Linville and Cashiers, all situated at sufficient elevation that the mugginess of the coastal and midland regions dissolves to a more pleasant warmth as one trades out seaside views for mountain vistas.
Georgia has its own such region as well, tacking in a crescent shape from the Georgia-Alabama border north of the Atlanta suburbs and past the areas where the Peach State meets Tennessee, North Carolina and South Carolina, respectively. All 28 of the state's 4,000-foot-plus peaks are in one of five counties in this area. It's beautiful, relatively uncrowded and the people are relentlessly friendly.
But it hasn't been on the radars of traveling golfers outside the region. A handful of nice courses can be found in the area, but several of them are private: The Farm in Rocky Face, Currahee in Toccoa and the Waterfall Club in Clayton, to name but three.
But one golf course seems poised to lift Georgia's Blue Ridge Mountains from regional curiosity to legitimate golf destination - that's how good it is.
Old Toccoa Farm - America's best new public golf course?
Having salivated over photos of rugged bunkers and wild contours for a couple years, I was worried that Old Toccoa Farm, located five miles north of the town of Blue Ridge, might underperform my lofty expectations. It actually exceeded them.
I played the course by myself on a perfect late-October day, and it gave me a more visceral jolt than any golf course has upon a first round since my introduction to Mike Strantz's Tobacco Road half my life ago.
Architects Dave Axland and Dan Proctor, who comprise Bunker Hill Golf, took a 400-acre site with more than 300 feet of elevation change, plus a dead-flat river-bottom, and produced one of the most exciting public golf courses to open in the 2010s. It came in just under the wire, as it finally became an 18-hole course in late summer 2019. Nine holes opened in 2015, a mix of eventual front-and back-nine representatives, including the course's four flattest tests along the winding Toccoa River: 7, 14, 15 and 16.
In this part of the course, Axland and Proctor let themselves use strategic bunkering to interfere with golfers' intentions a bit more than they do on the rest of the course, where severe ups and downs required that most bunkers serve to save golf balls from bounding off into oblivion. As a result, golfers get to start each nine with the rollicking terrain that defines the site, before brief quieter interludes. A full 18 holes in the woolliest terrain would have been overwhelming.
Given the site’s amount of inhospitable rise and fall, it’s a wonder that Axland and Proctor were even able to get 18 holes onto it at all, much less 18 outrageously fun and playable holes. There are plenty of places to lose a golf ball, but like Tobacco Road and its twisted sister Tot Hill Farm, there is almost always more room than a first look from a tee box might suggest. A perfect example is the short par-4 11th hole, where the fairway appears to be pinched between hills, seemingly forcing a layup. But driver is the smart play, as the landing area spills over the hill into a 70-yard wide basin, setting up an uphill short iron to the green. It's a shot that will make anyone who plays the proper set of tees feel like a hero.
Old Toccoa Farm is part of a real estate development that has been slow to get going, but partner Peter Knutzen and his team have been steadily selling homesites. Other amenities will include a riverside pavilion for the community's avid anglers, as well as cottages meant for stay-and-play guests. Green fees are currently in the $80 range; even with a modest future increase, the course will remain one of America's most fun, dollar-for-dollar.
Brasstown Valley is also worth a look
Some 20 years Old Toccoa Farm's senior, Brasstown Valley Resort & Spa is the main resort option in the Georgia mountains. It lies 45 minutes east of Old Toccoa Farm, just outside the town of Young Harris, named for an influential 19th-century judge and philanthropist in the area.
The golf course, a Denis Griffiths design, has its own mountain flavor. Whereas Old Toccoa Farm is raucous and rustic, Brasstown Valley is broader and more stately, with big, smooth-edged bunkers and man-made mounding that often mimics the far-off ridges that surround the course. Brasstown Bald, the highest point in the state, is visible from several points on the back nine. One standout hole here is the short par-5 11th, where a seeming wall of bunkers confronts a player looking to go for the green in two. The course saves its toughest tests for the end; 17 is a long, downhill par 3, and 18 is an uphill-all-the-way par 4 whose landing area tightens up abruptly. Green fees are fairly reasonable, topping out at $89.
Owned by the state of Georgia, Brasstown Valley has a prim 102-room lodge and 32 cottages. Rates are reasonable, accommodations are pleasant and the service is predictably friendly. As word gets out about Old Toccoa Farm, Brasstown Valley stands to benefit, as its lodgings will be perfect for golfers who want to play the new course and inevitably take in a round on-property as well.