Worth the wait: Cliffs' Mountain Park an S.C. gem

Cliffs Communities' Mountain Park course in Travelers Rest, S.C.

TRAVELERS REST, S.C. – Mountain Park is a long-overdue addition to the Cliffs Communities golf courses. Literally overdue, in that it has taken years longer than it should have due to various financial delays that postponed completion of a course on which construction started five years ago. Stylistically overdue, as well, because it stands in bold contrast to the prevailing aesthetic of lush, heavily manicured parkland that otherwise prevails at this residential chain of seven Cliffs properties straddling the North Carolina/South Carolina border.

Kudos to The Cliffs at Mountain Park designer Gary Player and his team for their persistence in seeing this project through.

Player, 78, has established himself in this country as a designer of merit and bold vision. For various reasons, his best work had been on other continents. Now it’s at Mountain Park.

It’ll be interesting to see whether the resident members of the Cliffs Communities can make the adjustment needed to appreciate this stunning new layout with its sprawling, almost indulgent use of sand and native scrub. The low-slung features and the serial waste bunkering have the effect of an English heathland – or the distinctive Sandbelt of Melbourne, Australia.

On this densely wooded, hilly site located midway between Asheville, N.C., and Greenville, S.C., Player and his chief associate, Jeff Leonard, have dared to cultivate a very un-lawn-like sensibility. It starts with the terrain.

Instead of opting for the high road through the uplands overlooking the Saluda River valley, they routed their course on the lowest-lying ground straddling the water. This involved the river as a strategic element throughout – all while situating the holes on the ground along the flood plain. Part of the construction process involved cleaning up the river, with trees, snags and debris removed to facilitate better water flow.

The golf features here have a vast horizontal template. And when the holes pass through partially wooded pockets, the playing envelope tends to expand dramatically beyond, a classic example of what landscape architects call “compression and release.” For a golfer, it means that there’s more ground than is immediately evident.

Each nine starts on wide-open terrain, then goes through narrower ground before opening again. The feel is akin to a succession of walks through classic gardens, though in this case the immediate views of the hole to be played are enhanced by long, compelling vistas of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

In setting, execution and playability, The Cliffs at Mountain Park is a welcome treat.

• • •

Rater’s notebook: Cliffs at Mountain Park

1. Ease and intimacy of routing: 8

A Y-shaped routing, unencumbered by any interior housing, not quite out-and-back, with a midpoint crossover for the nines and readily walkable on a site that presents 30 feet of elevation change.

2. Quality of feature shaping: 9

Features blend in naturally, including grade-level green sites, with bunkers integrated into play thanks to mowing lines that blend into the fairway side of the hazard.

3. Natural setting and overall land plan: 8

Clubhouse (under construction) sits astride the course, not lording over it. Evidence of (future) housing is way back and behind rather than in front or around. Holes meander into natural pockets formed by the river valley. There’s a brief flirtation with an open, Florida feel at Nos. 10-12, but the course quickly reverts to a scrubby, partially wooded heathlands sensibility.

4. Interest of greens and surrounds: 7

Putting surfaces, 6,500 square feet on average, are generally accessible (at some point) along the ground but tend to fall off at the back and require proper flight to get close to hole locations. Lots of chipping areas and bailouts long and to the side, from which recovery requires imagination and skill, with any number of clubs possible.

5. Variety and memorability of par 3s: 7

From the 6,744-yard black tees, club selection ran the gamut from 3-hybrid on the 216-yard 16th to a sand wedge on the downhill 120-yard seventh hole. On all of these holes, run-out of the ball at the green requires thought and planning from the tee.

6. Variety and memorability of par 4s: 7

A good mixture of long and short holes, with several landing areas touched by the Saluda River – always on the left side, often very close in play, and thus demanding special care for anyone playing right to left. Course does get tight early, on Nos. 3-6.

7. Variety and memorability of par 5s: 8

Good mix of water, sand and mounds, and always an interesting second shot for position to the green. Most compelling (and perhaps most controversial) is the 15th hole, where towering sand dunes short of the green conspire to mask the path in and obscure the proximity of the river on the left. Frankly, I loved the uncertainty.

8. Basic conditioning: 9

MiniVerde Bermudagrass greens; Diamond zoysia fairways and tees; fine fescue roughs. Well-established central playing surfaces despite 83 inches of rain (twice the norm) through October and 60 days less sun than normal. Rough and outlying areas of switchgrass always need time to mature, but already the place is a fascinating mix of diverse textures.

9. Landscape and tree management: 6

Good variety of wooded river valley and more open areas. Heavy tree coverage along eastern elevations above the sixth and seventh greens has impeded sun and airflow and hindered growth, but is not easily resolved because of terrain. Middle tee on the par-5 fourth hole needs to be opened considerably. A few trees centrally in place work because there’s room around them to play.

10. “Walk in the park” test: 9

A joy to walk, with a great mix of long views and immediately compelling shots to consider.

Overall: 7.4 (not cumulative)

Full fate will depend upon clubhouse, subsequent real estate buildout and maturation of fescue/sand waste areas, but at the outset The Cliffs at Mountain Park should be a very serious candidate to join the Golfweek’s Best Modern Courses list.

To contact: 864-660-1133; cliffscommunities.com

The course: Par 72, 7,213 yards; 74.0 slope/139 rating (men), 67.4/118 (women)

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