The tee shot at the 8th hole at The Ridges can be played to one of two fairways bisected by a stream.
I could have stopped at any number of golfing communities in western Virginia or eastern Tennessee on my way to a week in the mountains of North Carolina. I chose The Ridges, near Jonesborough, TN, because it was designed by one of my favorites, Arthur Hills. I like Hills because his golf courses are always a surprise, sometimes brutally tough, sometimes as easy as a walk with my dog, and more often a combination of both. Since his designs do not receive the kind of buzz of a Dye, Nicklaus or Jones, it is hard to find much in the way of reviews online. You discover Hills courses for yourself.
I am glad I played The Ridges. Its mostly short par 4s featured elevated greens with some false fronts and, in one memorable case, a yawning bunker the guarded the entire front of a green that was no more than 40 feet deep. Par 5s were not easily reached in two with the exception of #14 (see below), which presented more reward than risk. Although some fairways appear narrow off the tee, many are banked (mostly on the right) so that a play to slightly off the fairway can provide nice positioning as well as safety.
Hills is a good listener, and his courses typically follow the wishes of those who hire him; for example, at Dunes West near Charleston, SC, his rather flat layout appeals to members and guests who want to leave the course happy with their scores and not exhausted by the experience. At The Landings near Savannah, however, the developers clearly were aiming for Hills' Palmetto layout to be the toughest of the six courses on the property (the others are by Fazio and Palmer). At The Ridges, it appears he was asked to make it look hard but play somewhat easier. I put it in the middle category of Hills courses -- not too hot, not too cold, for the most part just right, and totally dependent on the tees you choose to play from. I chose the "Members" tees (rating 70.9, slope 129), at a total of 6,300 yards; after a three-hour drive from Lexington, VA, I did not want to test myself over 6,730 yards on the Ridges tees (rating 72.9, slope 137). Low single-digit players (and masochists) can try the Championship tees at 7,150 that carry a rating of 74.9 and slope of 140.
The Ridges opens with an attractive, short par 4 that bends and slopes left to right around a grouping of fairway bunkers. I played my shot a little too far left, but it sat up nicely in the dense Bermuda rough, with the best angle to the green. Hills uses gullies and ravines when the local land masses make them available, and a deep gully awaits the approach shot to the par 4 2nd green from a generous fairway. Along this fairway and behind the green, I saw the first of many out of bounds stakes of the day, but the huge homes were well back. With few exceptions, I did not find the encroachment of homes distracting at The Ridges; most sat up and above the fairways and well behind the greens, but clearly the developer intended for the golf course to maximize the real estate.
The rest of the course shuttles between mild and tough, highlighted by the challenging 9th hole, deservedly rated the #1 handicap hole on the course, which I wrote about here last week. Certain Hills flourishes at The Ridges are worth noting. At the par 4 5th hole, a huge mound in front of the green gives the impression that you will not be able to get close to the hole. But there is plenty of room as long as you don't hit the ball a little short and bank off the backside of the mound. The par 5 8th hole is Hills at his most creative, with a fairway split by a stream that runs from the tee and then bends right 90 yards in front of the green on the 500-yard hole. The short route is down the left, but a lake guards the left side of the fairway and the stream guards the right; the long iron or wood approach shot must be played over the end of the lake to a green that is sited horizontally to the shot. The more conventional play, which I chose, was down the right fairway, in preparation for a lay-up shot to about 120 yards, 30 yards or so short of the stream. However, the fairway narrows at its end, and if you overcook your approach, the stream on the left or trees on the right await. From the end of the fairway, the green runs straight back, affording the safest play. It is just a marvelous par 5.
Another par 5, the 14th, provided a more than reasonable eagle opportunity. Playing just 455 yards from the Members tees, the downhill drive carries to the rough on a down slope that separates the upper fairway from the lower. I thankfully kept my front shoulder down as I came through the ball and flew my shot about 180 yards over another deep gully in the fairway short of the green. The ball bounded to the front of the putting surface, from where I had a 60-foot eagle try (I two-putted).
The 18th hole at The Ridges defies the convention of modern courses that the finale must feature visual elements and drama. This one, at just 376 yards and downhill onto a wide fairway, features a pond to the right of the green that encroaches on the approach shot only if the pin is set to the far right on the green. Standing on the tee at 18 with a chance to break 80 or post a career-defining score, the good player's eyes will widen at the potential. It is one of the most realistic birdie chances on the course.
Conditions on the course were excellent, with firm Bermuda grass on the fairways that provided a little extra roll and medium-fast greens that were extremely receptive -- maybe too receptive -- to well struck approach shots. The pro shop hands out divot tools freely, but they should include instructions on how to fix the marks. From the first green on, all putting surfaces at The Ridges showed little brown pockmarks, indicating players had jabbed too deep into the surrounding turf, destroying the roots. A visual eyesore, the marks thankfully did not affecting putting on the subtly undulating greens. I had just two straight putts the entire round, but none others that broke more than six inches.
My only other criticisms of The Ridges are mild. The fairway bunkers could use a little more sand; in one, I propped my left foot against the hill below the lip and felt solid ground under less than only an inch of sand. The number of water stations were more than ample, but I saw no beverage cart on a 90-degree day. High-tension poles and wires marred a few vistas on the course; one of my best drives of the day, at the 10th, threaded the wires.
One thing The Ridges does that I have never seen at another course: Before they send you out to the course, they hand you a little "flag stick placement card" that indicates pin placements on each hole for every day of the week. Since I typically forget to check the pin-position signs on the way to the first tee ("Today's pin position is #...") on those courses that include diagrams in their golf carts, I appreciated this creative approach. It also means the golf professional and green superintendent don't have to meet every morning to discuss pin placements. Clever.
An absence of signs at the tee boxes to mark the holes seemed odd to me. Although it was easy to find my way from green to next tee, I missed the welcoming sign that indicates distance and layout of the hole. One shouldn't have to refer to scorecard or yardage book just to find out how long each hole plays. Ridges members should invest in tee markers as a welcome to others who might consider joining the club.
Although OB stakes abound, homes are not in play, most sitting above the fairways and well beyond the field of play. The course integrates nicely with the surrounding community, but if you want homes hidden from view, The Ridges is not for you. This is a community golf course in the strictest sense of the term, and the developers appear to have consciously maximized views of the course.
Amenities at The Ridges are country club nice, with tennis courts and an attractive, inviting pool. The pro shop is well stocked and its personnel friendly, knowledgeable and competent. The locker room is on the small side; I noted that the area of lockers was considerably smaller than the card and TV room where one member was watching an old John Wayne movie on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend. The nicely sized practice range is about a 400-yard long cart drive from the clubhouse. At $16,000, full family golf membership may seem a little steep for a course nowhere near a large urban area. However, the $16,000 buys an equity membership, and 80% of that comes back at departure. Plus, the $410 per month for dues and assessments ($50) seem reasonable for a country club with such a nice array of amenities.
The surrounding community features impressively large homes (the largest runs to 12,000 square feet), with prices that start around $400,000 and move well past $1 million. Architecture is not uniform and, therefore, you might find Mediterranean style homes next to brick ones, with a typical mountain style home across the way. It looks a little odd at first, but after a while I found it charming, in an eclectic kind of way. I also found the real estate prices overall a little on the high side for eastern Tennessee, pretty close to what I found for similar real estate near the more urbane Knoxville. The nearest city of any size is Johnson City, TN, about 20 minutes away. Asheville is about an hour south, down the nearby Interstate 26. Rumors abound that plans for a new shopping mall a few miles away will be announced soon (Macy's department store is allegedly interested). The area is rich with good hospitals, including a VA facility, and Johnson City certainly has enough shopping and entertainment options to sate any but the most cosmopolitan resident. For intrepid outdoors types, the Appalachian Trail is just a few miles away.
Many of the nicely landscaped homes at The Ridges are out in the open, indicating the course and neighborhood were likely built on former farmland. Still, the terrain is pleasantly hilly, and with views to the nearby mountains, the trip around the golf course reminded me of rounds I played in Austin, TX and the Hill Country. I stopped in to look at a few of the homes in a new community called Quail Creek. About 15 of the neighborhood's 29 homes will look down to the golf course (the 10th and 11th holes) and are at the lower end of the market in terms of price, starting at $369,000 for the duplex homes (3 BR, 2 1/2 BA) and the low $400s for the single family structures. They also look down to the roofs of a row of homes that line the 11th fairway.
Although square footages at Quail Creek are in the 2,300 range, purchasers have the option to finish off the huge basements at about $60 per square foot, bringing total heated footage to nearly 4,000. Quail Creek is still waiting to make its first sale - a few spec homes are completed - and the developer is offering a complimentary social membership at The Ridges ($3,000 value) with the purchase of a home. If you are interested in visiting Quail Creek and The Ridges golf community, let me know and I will put you in touch with Joyce vandersommen, the knowledgeable real estate agent who took me on the tour.
The Ridges Golf & Country Club, 1501 Ridges Club Drive, Jonesborough, TN. Designed by Arthur Hills. Phone: 423.913.3164. Web: TheRidges.cc. Par 72. Championship tees: 7,147 yards, rating 74.9, slope 140. Ridges tees: 6,732, 72.9, 137. Member tees: 6,306, 70.9, 129. Women's "Club" tees: 5,218, 73.1, 132.
An old barn dominates the view from a number of holes at The Ridges, none morseo than the short par 4 13th, where a bunker protects the entire front of the green.