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Golf: A mountain treat in Gatlinburg, Tenn.

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By Elsa Bonstein, Golf Gab

My husband, Gene, and I went to Gatlinburg, Tenn., last week and we loved it.
We had heard it was a lot like Myrtle Beach, and that was a fine reason to go. I love our crazy, funky, touristy area with its Canadian and Minnesota tourists, its bike rallies, golf courses, shows and big buffets. They say Myrtle Beach is the blue collar capital of the world, and that’s fine with me. Heck, I’m the daughter of a Maryland chicken farmer, so I’m comfortable with blue collar.
Gatlinburg, Tenn., sits on the edge of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. As promised, there were lots of shows and attractions and great shopping (both in Gatlinburg and in nearby Pigeon Forge), but the area has much, much more to offer.
There are hiking trails, whitewater rafting trips, trout fishing, thousands of feet of ziplines through the tree tops, natural caves, horseback riding, skiing and many unusual and unique mountain crafts. There are old restored settlements and, best of all, Dollywood, a huge amusement park with everything from roller coasters to an American Eagle sanctuary, is in nearby Pigeon Forge.  
East of Gatlinburg, over the mountain and through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (a breathtaking drive through hairpin turns and mountain vistas), is Cherokee, North Carolina. In this reservation community, you’ll find many local crafters, a fabulous show about the Cherokee Nation, and Harrah’s Cherokee Casino. In nearby Bryson City, the antique Great Smoky Mountain Railroad offers various sightseeing trips though pristine forests, over deep gulches and mountain passes.
We did some of the above (not white-water rafting or canopy ziplines, thank you), but our favorite part of the trip was the golf.
We played four courses: Gatlinburg Golf Course, Sequoyah National, River Islands and Bent Creek.
The Gatlinburg Golf Course was our introduction to mountain golf. Lots of changes in elevation, downhill lies, sidehill lies and scenery so beautiful, it was hard to focus on our game. After an extensive renovation in 2007, Gatlinburg was named “Tennessee’s Best Muny Course” in 2009 by Golf Digest.
The 12th hole is a 194-yard, par-3 that drops 200 yards straight down the mountain. There’s a sign that warns, “194 Yards, Player Yardage: 164.” When you add in the wind, selecting the right club requires both skill and luck.
The 10th hole is a long downhill par-5 that gives the golfer a great view of the mountains. Playing downhill holes on a mountain course makes you into a golfing superstar because the ball carries so long and far. However, you soon realize that for every downhill hole, there is an uphill hole later on where your big-headed driver bumps up the hill like a weakly-hit 7-wood.    
The next day we drove over the mountains to Sequoyah National Golf Course in Cherokee.
Gene and I have played many beautiful golf courses in our time, but this one definitely ranks in the top three. Designed by Robert Trent Jones II, Sequoyah National is owned and operated by the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation. When it opened last December, it was named “Best New Course of 2009” by Golf Magazine. Each tee box has a sign that tells the golfer about Cherokee history and culture.
The course is not overly long, playing at 6,602 from the back tees and a reasonable 4,692 from the forward tees. The difficulty lies in the elevations on every hole. From the lowest point in the golf course to the high point is a vertical distance of more than 600 feet. There are rushing mountain streams, deep chasms and fantastic views of the surrounding Smoky Mountains.
The greens are sloping and undulating, but because they are not ripping fast, the golfer has a chance of sinking a few putts here and there. Standing behind the hole to line up your putt is a must on this course.
Our third round took place at a surprisingly flat course called River Islands in Kodak, Tenn., and quite frankly that was a relief after trudging up and down two mountain goat courses. The best way to describe River Islands is “a river runs through it.” Built along the French Broad River, the course plays on the banks and over four islands in the slow-moving river. Some of the water is on the sides, well removed from play, but still scenic. Other, more intimidating water comes into play on nine of the 18 holes.
The fairways at River Islands are Zoysia grass, a totally new experience for us. Zoysia grass is native to Southeastern Asia and Australia and has been cultured and imported to the states. Many homeowners swear by this drought resistant, low-maintenance grass, and I must say, it was wonderful to play on. The ball sat up on the fairway and it was like hitting off a tee each time, whether I used a wood or an iron or a hybrid. Admittedly, the ball didn’t roll as far on these fairways, but the enhanced lies made up for it.
The course plays a long and difficult 7,001 yards from the tips, but at a forgiving and gracious 4,873 from the forward tees. I loved it.
The third hole is a beautiful par-3 over rippling water with a bridge on the right. It’s a long carry (195 from the blues) to the green. The less brave souls can hit a 65-yard shot from the other side of the river.
Our last stop was at Bent Creek Golf Course in Gatlinburg itself. This course has a split personality. The front nine is an easy 3,325 from the tips, played in and around a creek that has been funneled into beds that crisscross most of the course. The carries are not difficult, just something to be aware of. It’s possible to get a good score on the front.
Then the golfer moves over to the back side and Bent Creek shows its teeth. Up and down hills, the switchback cart paths would test the driving skills of a rally race car driver. On the 14th hole, you must leave your cart and climb straight up a huge hill. The walking path consists of steps and switchbacks and when you get to the top, you’ve almost forgotten why you came because you are now a ball of sweat and your respiration and heart rate are dangerously elevated.
Seriously, the course was lovely, but with two distinct personalities.
I would play it again and I will definitely go back to Gatlinburg. We played four golf courses (there are more), saw one show (there are more), rode on the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad and went to Dollywood. My dear husband, who loves roller coasters, didn’t have anyone to ride with, so he didn’t.      
We’ll just have to go back with the grandkids.
GOLF GAB GROANER
Bruce was in big trouble when he forgot his wedding anniversary.
Alice, his wife of 30 years, had been wanting a new car, so when he apologized, she said, “All will be forgiven if tomorrow morning there is something in our driveway that goes from zero to 200 in two seconds flat.
The next morning, Alice found a small package in the driveway. She opened it and found a new bathroom scale.
The memorial service will take place at 10 a.m. Monday in the clubhouse.

Elsa Bonstein is a golf columnist for the Beacon. Reach her at elanbon@atmc.net.