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Wade Hampton remains a residential gem

Editor’s Note: This story originally ran in Golfweek’s Ultimate Guide, published Nov. 7, 2014. Wade Hampton founder William McKee passed away Oct. 27, 2014.

CASHIERS, N.C. – It has been 20 years since my first visit to Wade Hampton Golf Club, and this time I’m even more impressed than the first time around.

There aren’t many real estate courses from the 1980s that have aged so well. Most start to look tired, especially after the resident membership takes over from the developer and has to operate it via committees – most of which are reluctant to spend close to what the founders spent when they were intent on attracting initial home buyers. But a revisit to Wade Hampton, opened in 1988, confirms why this gracious, low-key property in the Great Smoky Mountains, 65 miles southwest of Asheville, is the perennial No. 1 on the Golfweek’s Best Residential Courses list and among the top 15 of all U.S. Modern Courses (post-1960).

It starts with a course that is a rarity in golf: a mountain layout that’s an easy walk and joyous to play. That’s because the Tom Fazio routing occupies the gentlest ground, with the more intense terrain flanking the fairways. And homes are tucked so far up and away into the dense woodland that a first or second tour of the course betrays almost no evidence of real estate. You have to look hard for it, and where it does exist, it’s never on more than one side of the hole. And the homes meld into the landscape. They’re done in a modest, Adirondack-lodge style with cedar shingling – none of the showy glass and steel modernism designed to draw attention to their presence.

Back in the mid-1980s, a real estate agent named William McKee bet the veritable family jewels on a vision of a tasteful golf club that would provide a temperate refuge for Southerners looking to escape the region’s torrid summer heat. The town of Cashiers was a quiet outpost at 3,500 feet above sea level, with hiking trails, fishing and hunting and rustic woodlands. McKee’s family had a large tract of land that included the famed old High Hampton Inn.

After some complex negotiations, he managed to free up a 711-acre parcel for his residential golf community. He then persuaded Fazio to ply his trade on the heavily wooded, rock-strewn site. The design team that created the course included Fazio’s chief shaper, the legendary Lou Capelli, along with three young associates then at the start of what would prove to be productive and distinctive careers: Tom Marzolf, Mike Strantz and Dana Fry.

McKee was enamored with the idea of a classic golf club rather than an up-tempo country club. That meant no tennis courts, no swimming pool, no banquet hall. He had toured the classic East Coast clubhouses and drew inspiration from the likes of Seminole, Pine Valley, Shinnecock Hills and National Golf Links of America. The goal was intimate comfort. In this he took solace from legendary Hilton Head Island, S.C., golf property developer Charles Fraser.

“He would take me to a big, gaudy clubhouse and show me the empty ballroom or main dining room with no one dining,” recalls McKee. “And then he’d take me to a rustic little clubhouse where the rooms were small and busy. And he told me the secret of successful clubhouses.”

According to McKee, Fraser told him “people always want to know what’d be going on in the next room. So make the rooms small enough so they have a flow-through to what’s going on next door.”

At Wade Hampton, that has meant a modestly scaled golf house, 15,000 square feet of functional space and another 5,000 square feet of backstage utility rooms. The pro shop looks and feels like the kind of haberdashery you’d find at a European hotel. The men’s locker room sports wooden half-length lockers with old-fashioned, wire-mesh netting so that your golf clothes air out. It’s a small but revealing touch. And just out the back door, adjoining the locker room and the lunch room, is a charming patio, replete with wicker rocking chairs, lazily turning overhead fans and an unimpeded view from behind the green looking down the length of the par-5 18th hole.

Inside, longtime members don’t hesitate to introduce themselves to visitors. It’s all part of a certain welcoming hospitality that in too many places today is a lost tradition. The membership here hails from throughout the South. Such folks would have learned in elementary school that Wade Hampton III, 1818-1902, who owned the land on which the club now sits, was a prominent Confederate general and served South Carolina during Reconstruction as governor and then senator.

A plurality of the members are from the Atlanta area, with growing percentages drawn from a widening circle that includes Jacksonville, Fla., Birmingham, Ala., New Orleans, St. Louis and Memphis, Tenn. Most of the club’s 275 members are on-site homeowners. In an effort to expand the club’s recruitment bases, a select number of national, nonresident memberships also have been opened.

With the golf season running basically from late May through early October, the club does about 11,000 rounds per year. Women’s play comprises an unusually high percentage of the tee sheet – slightly more than 20 percent, according to director of golf operations Pete Mathews. With tees ranging from 5,044 yards to 7,330 yards, the course can accommodate any level of play – up to and including a national championship, which Wade Hampton did last year, when it was home to the 2013 U.S. Senior Amateur.

The course starts off winding through a low-slung valley, then picks up steam and takes on more dramatic ground at the par-3 sixth hole, a 158-yard drop shot to a green perched over a rocky stream. From there, the holes utilize the foothills of some rugged, heavily wooded land. The tempo increases on the back nine and reaches a crescendo at the par-3 17th hole, 196 yards through two fir trees that form goal posts for a sprawling green that’s at the foot of Chimney Top mountain. The massive granite outcropping forms a stunning backdrop and screen for the 3-D film that unfolds as you watch a properly struck tee shot parachute onto the putting surface.

The aesthetics of the place would be awash were it not for a lot of behind-the-scenes (and below-the-surface) work undertaken to keep the golf course functioning. This is an environment that gets 100 inches of rain and 30-40 inches of snow annually.

Fazio said that well after the course opened, it took repeated efforts to plug up spongy areas that materialized from unseen springs and seepage through the underlying rock. Today, when it rains, the course’s SubAir systems start humming away to clear out water from the greens. The 12th and 18th fairways have been sand-capped to provide more drainage. Since arriving at Wade Hampton 11 years ago, golf course superintendent Thomas Bailey IV has overseen installation of 25 miles of drain tile. And the reason you can bump-and-run an approach shot into these greens is simple – but the product of considerable labor. Bailey’s crew hand mows the last 20 yards of approach area into the greens and treats the ground there to a greens-quality topdressing program.

Mathews and John Foster, the club’s general manager and chief operating officer, work hard to nurture a culture at Wade Hampton that respects tradition, yet is open to innovation. The club’s commitment to service and growing the game includes taking on interns from certified Professional Golf Management programs at universities across the country. The personnel, brought in and provided on-site lodging, serve the facility in every capacity, from cleaning clubs and parking cars to caddieing and picking the range. And every Tuesday at 7 a.m., Mathews presides over a 90-minute workshop devoted to some topic on where the game is going – everything from the importance of the Ryder Cup to turfgrass innovations to the future of the club pro.

Given such diligent care and forward-thinking practices, it wouldn’t be surprising if Wade Hampton Golf Club is still at or near the top of Golfweek’s Best Residential Courses list in another 20 years.

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