You're not coming to Asheville for "championship" golf as it's generally understood (i.e., as code between marketing mavens and trophy-hunting players that translates roughly as "really hard, time-consuming and expensive"). As befits the groovy vibe, man, aesthetic beauty, the warm glow of history and good old-fashioned relaxation rule the day. Forced carries are, like, so 1980s.
The local star is the Grove Park Inn course, a 1926 Donald Ross redesign and former Tour stop (the Land of Sky Open) that in 2002 underwent a $2.3 million yearlong overhaul by the previously unknown Kris Spence. The cover of its yardage book offers the Ross maxim "Golf should be a pleasure, not a penance," and it's not a slight to say that this is one of the neatest little tracks anywhere. It has a quirky, Rube Goldberg-like routing jigsawed into just eighty-six acres with, according to Raiford, eighteen "showcase" Ross greens as opposed to the usual six. Raiford falls into a reverie talking about the "connection to history" that Grove Park offers, the chance to "listen to the ghosts in the trees." After a loop up and down ground once walked by Jones, Sarazen, Nelson and Snead, you realize, belatedly, that he is no wide-eyed radical, just a tuned-in deep thinker.
Mount Mitchell Golf Club, an hour northeast of the city, is another low-key charmer. Set in the Pisgah National Forest and designed by the Englishman Fred Hawtree, the course offers views that are almost overwhelming in their beauty; the 6,495-yard layout itself, traversing mostly level terrain and the South Toe River, is more finespun. It's an easy walk but no cakewalk: The narrow, three-tiered first green sets the tone for a delightful trek where straight and smart will get you around without damaging the handicap. This is an everyday course in the best sense of the term, a layout one could enjoy seemingly indefinitely.
Hardcore golfers will want to head ninety minutes up the road from Asheville to a big-rep Ross, Linville Golf Club, which requires a stay at the rustic Eseeola Lodge—no hardship there, but likely too far out of the way for those on a short vacation. Long weekenders can content themselves with Reems Creek Golf Club, by Hawtree and his son, Martin, a pretty mountain layout steep enough to require carts.
For the full Asheville experience, you must stay at the colossal Grove Park Inn Resort & Spa, opened in 1913 by E. W. Grove, who made his fortune with "Grove's Tasteless Chill Tonic" and discovered the city while searching for a cure to his chronic case of the hiccups. In truth, the hotel is a bit creepy in a Southern Gothic kind of way. The teenaged and the antediluvian seem over-represented on staff, with the associated shortcomings of each (skittish, overcasual; slow moving, hard of hearing). The rooms are small and the walls are thin. In recompense, however, you get helicopter-like views of the Blue Ridge Mountains from the spacious porches, the world's largest public collection of Arts and Crafts lighting fixtures and furniture (much of it from the acclaimed Roycrofters shop), and a remarkable $42 million, 40,000-square-foot underground spa. History, too: F. Scott Fitzgerald drank and skirt-chased at the Grove Park while his wife received psychiatric treatment in town. If this all sounds like too much, other options include the elegant Inn on Biltmore Estate or one of the area's numerous upscale B&Bs, including the Sourwood Inn.
For all of Asheville's democratic impulses, some of its best golf can be found behind the gates. The city's Biltmore Forest Country Club is a classic 1922 Ross design with slick greens that hosted the 1999 U.S. Women's Amateur Championship. Champion Hills Club in Hendersonville, Tom Fazio's home course and the centerpiece of a 725-acre community, boasts members from thirty-two states and three countries. And a pristinely conditioned, rollicking mountain layout, Fazio's Wade Hampton Golf Club in Cashiers figures on most everyone's "best of" lists.
As you'd expect from such an open-minded place, Asheville's cuisine is varied and the settings casual. Zambra (828-232-1060) is a hip basement tapas bar with a notable wine list. Tupelo Honey Cafe (828-255-4863) serves up Southern comfort food and a lively atmosphere, while the Jerusalem Garden Cafe (828-254-0255) has a globe-trotting menu that careens from "Jordanian chicken" to "New York subs" to burritos and gyros. At the aforementioned Beanstreets Coffee House (828-255-8180), a simple "How's it going?" may be met with the highly caffeinated response, "I'm making coffee, I'm slinging coffee, I'm talking to the people—what could be bad?" Retreat to the comfortable back room to simmer down, or head to the sophisticated Cafe on the Square (828-251-5565) for flash-seared tuna or Cajun-fried eggplant.
The American Versailles, George Vanderbilt's 250-room Biltmore Estate (800-543-2961, biltmore.com), is astonishing inside and out. Call me crazy, but my favorite part of the country's largest private home isn't the ninety-foot-long Tapestry Room with John Singer Sargent portraits, or the 10,000-volume library, or the nation's most-visited winery or even Frederick Law Olmsted's magnificent gardens. It's the basement, with one of the nation's oldest bowling alleys (roped off, sadly), a swimming pool and all the pantries, kitchens, laundries and servants' quarters that made this monument to excess hum. The estate's construction brought to Asheville many of the craftsmen who stayed on to make the city our folk-art capital. Some of the best places to browse and buy such work: the Allanstand Craft Shop at the Folk Art Center Building (828-298-7928) off the Blue Ridge Parkway; the Appalachian Craft Center (828-253-8499); and the small town of Black Mountain, fifteen miles east of Asheville, dubbed "the front porch of western North Carolina." Literary buffs can peruse the childhood home of a favorite son at the Thomas Wolfe Memorial (828-253-8304) and, of course, all those quirky tomes at Malaprop's (828-254-6734).
THE GROVE PARK INN RESORT & SPA, Asheville; 800-438-0500. Yardage/Slope: 6,702/71.7. Greens Fees: $85-$145. Architect: Donald Ross, 1926. T&L Golf Rating: **** MOUNT MITCHELL GOLF CLUB, Burnsville; 828-675-5454. Yardage/Slope: 6,475/141. Greens Fees: $40-$79. Architect: Fred Hawtree, 1975. T&L Golf Rating: **** REEMS CREEK GOLF CLUB, Weaverville; 828-645-4393. Yardage/Slope: 6,492/130. Greens Fees: $45-$53. Architect: Fred Hawtree and Martin Hawtree, 1989. T&L Golf Rating: ***1/2
THE GROVE PARK INN RESORT & SPA, Asheville; 800-438-0050. Rooms: $119-$389. Suites: $389-$709.
INN ON BILTMORE ESTATE, Asheville; 800-922-0084. Rooms: $149-$429. Suites: $500-$2,500.
SOURWOOD INN, Asheville; 828-255-0690. Rooms: $150-$180.
FALL FORWARD WITH THE SEASON'S BEST GOLF PACKAGES, FROM NEVADA TO NEW ZEALAND
THE DEAL Golf the Northshore includes three-night stay in studio condo and three days of golf for two.
THE GOLF Three High Sierra layouts to make your heart and ball soar: former Tour pro Brad Bell's acclaimed Coyote Moon, RTJ Jr.'s Squaw Creek and Robert Muir Graves's Northstar.
THE PRICE* Starts at $148 per person, per night. Double occupancy, valid through October 26.
CONTACT skinorthstar.com; 800-466-6784
THE DEAL Unlimited Golf: accommodations, unlimited golf, complimentary golf-shuttle transportation.
THE GOLF RTJ Jr.'s Prince is among the country's best; sister Makai's 27 holes are easier but just as scenic.
THE PRICE* $465-$645 per night, depending on room type. Double occupancy, valid through December 25.
CONTACT 800-325-3589; Rate Code: ULGOLFJ