A year ago I knew absolutely nothing about McLemore. I knew about the “thrift shop” rapper Macklemore, but nothing about McLemore ... the Golf Club. I’d driven through Chattanooga, Tennessee a half-dozen times the past decade (27 miles from the McLemore), and seen 3 million billboards for Rock City and Ruby Falls — give or take a hundred — but I’d never once heard mention of the surreal golf perched “above the clouds” on Lookout Mountain and certainly hadn’t seen any of professional photographer Evan Schiller’s incredible aerial pictures of it. You might be thinking: “Well, the course did only open in October 2019.” And you’re right. But there was a course here before. How did I never hear of it?
Naturally, I had heard of architect Bill Bergin and knew all about the prestigious course-building resume of his design partner — Rees Jones — but the former Canyon Ridge Golf Club had evaded my radar even after reopening as McLemore. And I probably would have gone another year or so without fawning over The Highlands Course were it not for Schiller’s incredible picture of their signature closing hole.
“Wow,” I said, paraphrasing Macklemore. “This is freaking awesome!”
How “signature” is the 18th hole at McLemore Club? Well, Golf Digest — with the club only open for play a few months — wasted no time in declaring it “The Best Finishing Hole in America Since 2000.” The Best??? Yep ... that’s what they said. Big words. HUGE words. So I couldn’t wait. I couldn’t let another year go by without playing “The best 18th hole” built in the past two decades. And neither should you.
The golf course was developed by Scenic Land Company (appropriately) and “officially” sits in Rising Fog ... err ... Rising Fawn, Georgia. I asked the head golf professional, Doug Amor, what made McLemore so much better than the course that literally sat on the same grounds a year ago. “It’s so very different,” he said. We were standing where the 18th hole used to be, near where the new clubhouse was opening in three weeks (adjacent the six-hole short course), overlooking the ridge the new 18th hole was carved into. “Just wait. You’ll see.”
He was wrong. We didn’t see. Unfortunately, we saw very little beyond our outstretched hands on our four-hour roller-coaster ride across the golf course. We played in, around, and through a fog bank unlike any I’ve seen. You couldn’t laser the pin with a rangefinder from the fringe.
“It was crystal clear yesterday,” Doug said at the turn, cringing immediately upon reading my facial expression. “Sorry.” No apology was needed. My son, Dylan, and I still loved every bit of what we did see and experience. We never saw more than 150 yards out at any point on the front nine, and only occasionally got glimpses of full holes on the back, but it was easy to tell that this course — whatever held it back before — is on a stellar, new and fast track for superstardom.
“It was like playing night golf without glow balls,” Dylan said. “And might just be the course I’ve played once that I most wish I could play again.” (Trust me, that is saying something.)
The par-71 Highlands Course stretches to 7,005 yards (9,205 yards if you add in the elevation) and consists of canyon (five), cliff (three) and highland (nine) holes. The math tells you that’s 17 holes, but rest assured there are 18 ... hole 8 just isn’t listed on their website in any of the categories — decidedly a highland hole. Yes, the opening and closing holes will get most of the glory for their unparalleled drama, but Dylan and I agreed our favorite hole architecturally (one of my favorite 4-pars in America) is No. 2 — a Canyon hole that drops into a valley then transcends a pond and waterfall to a narrow but well-shaped, receptive green. And we also agreed on our favorite 3-par, No. 7, dug into a rugged ridge but ultimately a canyon hole.
“Other than the visibility – or invisibility — I have no complaints,” Dylan said on the car ride down the mountain. Ditto. I understand some resist playing (and praising) courses where they “have to” ride, but the “ride” at McLemore is almost an “amenity.” It is its own unique and stunning experience.
I won’t tell you to “take my word for it” when discussing the greatness of McLemore, and not because I don’t think it’s great. It is. But I also know that, no matter how much I enjoyed it, being able to see the course while you play would be so much more fun, and that 90 percent of you who will experience it at some point will do so under much more favorable circumstances than ours. “You have to come back now,” the Doug insisted. We will. No doubt.
Living in Minnesota, McLemore isn’t exactly on my way to anywhere. But the club has another irresistible draw. For those of you contemplating a visit, there’s a nine-hole golf course down the road that’s pretty sweet in its own right. “You’ve probably heard of Sweetens Cove,” a kind, young attendant asked me, while trying in vain to keep our cart seat dry.
“Sweetens what?” I replied with a smile, then interrupted when he started to explain. “I know it well.” (We had just been there.) Those two courses — McLemore and Sweetens Cove — give the Chattanooga area a remarkable and diverse one-two punch. And both are knockouts.
McLemore is private, but also public, in the sense they allow stay-and-play visitors. On-site accommodations range from three to seven bedrooms, plus a Lodge and Cottages with a variety of bed-bath arrangements, setting them up to host corporate events, golf groups and weddings of pretty much any size. I’ve always contended that were I to be married today, I’d do so on a beach in Hawaii or at Top of the Rock in Branson, Missouri. But after seeing McLemore, it would certainly make the short list.
Whose work is more evident in the design — Mr. Bergin or Mr. Jones? That simple question turned into a reverse finger-pointing contest — both deferring credit, both claiming to share common visions on strategy, playability and fitting golf holes into the land. They obviously got along well in the process, but both gentlemen had no qualms insisting Scenic Land Company President, Duane Horton, deserved the most credit for the ambitious makeover. He wanted something unique and special — spectacular — and he certainly got it.
The future is bright for further development, including another potential course, a Hilton hotel and a few more exclusive homesites. We were told GPS will be installed on the carts, assuring no one else will ever have to take on the course blindly (which would be nice). And the restaurant — The Creag — is now open and serving Chef Anthony Hooper’s favorite dishes. So what is McLemore missing? I honestly couldn’t tell you. It was one of my five favorite rounds of 2020, and I envy anyone who gets to play it in 2021.
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Stay: The McLemore Club does have a limited partnership with The Read House, listed by Trip Advisor as the “No. 1 Best Value” of 125 hotels in Chattanooga. Been there. Done that. Loved it.
Family Fun: Rock City Gardens, Ruby Falls, Lookout Mountain Incline Railway, and Raccoon Mountain Caverns.
Hot Eats: Maple Street Biscuit Company for breakfast. Community Pie for pizza. Hickory Pit for Bar-B-Que. Urban Stack and Champy’s are all phenomenal. Clumpies Ice Cream Co. for dessert.