Historic Mystery Valley Golf Club near Atlanta is a popular public play

LITHONIA, Ga. -- It's been 50 years since Mystery Valley Golf Club opened. It has become an icon for public course golfers in Atlanta, particularly those living on the east side of town, and is as challenging today as it was in 1966 when it began.

The history and roots of the golf course run deep. Thousands of junior golfers have gotten their start at Mystery Valley through one of the free clinics or tournaments. The course has hosted countless high school events and even spawned development of a grassroots juniors organization that grew into the American Junior Golf Association.

And people still love to play it. The club is on track to play about 40,000 rounds in 2016.

"It has probably been 25 years since I played here, but it's still a very good golf course," said Bill Adams of Greensboro, Ga. "And it's not easy."

The course has indeed held up well over the years. Big hitters have an advantage of some holes, particularly three of the four par 5s. But there's a lot of strategy involved here, too, and the greens have some tricky places to hide their hole locations.

The back tees play only 6,766 yards, with the whites measuring at 6,329, the gold at 5,928 and the red at 5,420. Those numbers are somewhat misleading, however, because of elevation changes and the rolling hills. You should tack on a couple hundred yards onto the total to get a better idea.

Conditions in the fairway are excellent, thanks largely to a new irrigation system that was installed in 2012. Even with the hot Georgia summers, the fairways have remained green and provide good coverage.

Likewise, the Bermuda rough can be imposing. It's not crazy deep -- although there are places where you can easily lose sight of your ball -- but the rough has enough club-grabbing ability to make you take an extra club.

"You really have to keep the ball in the fairway," said David King, of Loganville, Ga., who was making his first visit to the course.

Mystery Valley Golf Club: The course

The greens were starting to suffer by the late summer. Bentgrass is difficult to maintain and these were showing signs of stress in August. The course superintendent was keeping the speeds slow to help preserve and extend their lives. The strain should be relieved when cooler weather arrives and the greens return to form.

The collection of par 5s is excellent and one of the strengths of the course. No. 1 is a 520-yard dogleg to the left, no. 7 is a 526-yard, downhill dogleg to the right, no. 10 is a shorter 488-yarder over water that bends to the left and no. 14 is a 556-yarder with a slight bend to the right. None of them are easy.

Mystery Valley's 10th hole begins with an elevated 100 shot over the lake. It's not an easy carry from the back tee, as Adams can attest. He recalled the time a friend who was the no. 1 man on the high school team hit five balls in the water during a regional tournament and signed for a 19 on the hole.

The par 4s have a great range of difficulty. No. 3 is a 331-yard dogleg left. It is drivable for anyone willing to cut the corner and risk hitting it into the lake, or an easy hole for those who hit an iron off the tee and are left with 150 yards to the green.

The most difficult hole is no. 15, a 408-yard par 4 that was voted among the best 18 holes in the city by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The hole is unforgiving from the tee, with a narrow landing area that has water pinching in on both sides.

No. 18 is a tough finishing hole that plays 439 from the back tees. The right side of this par 4 is guarded by a fairway bunker, but if you stay to the left and get it over the hill, you should have a clear shot at this deep green.

The facilities remain Spartan. There is a grill that offers sandwiches and cold drinks and the shelves of the pro shop are stacked with shirts, hats and equipment. The grass range is plenty big and the practice green is more than adequate.

The staff members at the club are friendly and make you feel at home. The starter enjoys talking and giving some tips to first-timers. Even the guys in the cart barn are happy to see you -- even at the end of a long day.

"Did you have fun?" one asked before he started to hose down the cart. "Because that's what we want. If you have fun, we know you'll be back."

No wonder people have been coming back for 50 years.

Mystery Valley Golf Club: The verdict

This grand old layout remains ageless. Whether you're playing it for the first time or the 100th time, there's something there for you. There are plenty of difficult holes but enough other ones that give you a chance to breathe.

Don't bother looking at the yardage numbers on the scorecard; those are deceiving. Mystery Valley plays a lot longer than you might believe. There may even be a few holes where you opt to keep the driver in the bag.

If you haven't played Mystery Valley, you owe it to yourself to give it another shot.

Stan Awtrey spent 25 years as a sports writer with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He is editor of Golf Georgia, the official magazine of the Georgia State Golf Association, and writes a weekly column for PGATOUR.com. His work has appeared in dozens of newspapers, magazines and Web sites.
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Historic Mystery Valley Golf Club near Atlanta is a popular public play