The Club at McLemore: Golf above the clouds

New layout by Bill Bergin & Rees Jones is a dazzling addition to North Georgia golf.
A dramatic, cliffside climax at McLemore's 18th hole.

RISING FAWN, Ga. — Anyone dogmatic enough to think that golf entails a gentle engagement with nature would miss out on a lot of very interesting courses. For one thing, the whole genre of mountain golf would be excluded. And yet the real success of a design team is in adapting – or taming- a rugged site to make it playable, enjoyable and enough fun to warrant repeat play.

That’s what the architecture duo of Rees Jones and Bill Bergin has achieved with the Highlands Course at the Club at McLemore in Rising Fawn, Ga. The phrase used here, “above the clouds,” effectively evokes the feel of a dramatic parcel that offers over 200 feet of elevation change and culminates in a 1,000-foot drop-down vista across the Cumberland Plateau into Mill Creek Valley. The course occupies the back of Lookout Mountain, with a base elevation of 2,200 feet above sea level, and winds its way through dense woods, rocky outcrop, native stream beds and the occasional open meadow. Thank goodness for Lombard Street-style cart paths. There would be no other way to traverse this ground.

Jones and Bergin had previously collaborated on the renovation of the Country Club of Winter Haven, Fla. This time they took an existing tract called the Canyon Ridge Club and completely repurposed it for playability, long views, strategic variety and improved drainage. The major editing included a completely new finishing hole, this one virtually suspended on a ledge with heavy woods on the right side and an infinity edge on the other that is worthy of treatment in one of those breathless German Romantic-landscape painting by Caspar David Friedrich.

View of the 18th hole from behind the green at McLemore.

McLemore feels remote, yet it’s only 27 miles southwest of downtown Chattanooga and at the center of a two and half-hour driving radius of Nashville, Knoxville, Atlanta and Birmingham. The Chattanooga-based Scenic Land Co. has ambitious plans for the 450-acre site, including potential development of an adjoining 435-acre parcel. Only one-third of the 300 homesites remain to be sold, with 80 luxury residences already occupied year round. A franchise agreement with Hilton Hotels is in place for a Curio Collection resort as well.

The golf includes a six-hole short course (called “The Cairn”) and a full-length driving range. Clubhouse construction is well underway, with a dramatic view of the 18th hole central to the design and placement of the building.

The severity of the site dictated a routing that all but assures golfers will ride rather than walk. Once you accept that as the character of the place then all else falls into place and you appreciate the in-between passages not as inconvenience but as engagements with rugged nature.

You get a sense of the landforms at the first hole, a par 5 from a launch pad tee. But it’s at the par-5 sixth hole, with a 150-foot drop from about 200 yards out to the fairway/green below, where you fully get the feel of the drama out here. Throughout the round you’re treated to a variety of holes through varied terrain – rugged canyon, highland meadow and cliffside.

And then there’s the 18th hole, where architect Bergin literally crawled his way down the raw, uncleared land just to see and measure if the hole was buildable. It was, but just barely. Just don’t back up off the green while reading your putt.

The Club at McLemore is open to members, their guests and overnight guests of the club-managed stay and play program.

The Club at McLemore
785 Canyon Ridge Road
Rising Fawn, GA 30738
p. 706-398-0882

Veteran golf travel, history and architecture journalist, Bradley S. Klein has written more than 1,500 feature articles on course architecture, resort travel, golf course development, golf history and the media for such other publications as Golfweek, Golf Digest, Financial Times, New York Times and Sports Illustrated. He has published seven books on golf architecture and history, including Discovering Donald Ross, winner of the USGA 2001 International Book Award. In 2015, Klein won the Donald Ross Award for lifetime achievement from the American Society of Golf Course Architects. Follow Brad on Twitter
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I got to play this course in July this year. Pretty spectacular place. Best greens I ever putted on.

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Played this many times when it was Canyon Ridge and public. Fun and challenging course. Highlight is a second shot off a ~200 foot bluff to the fairway on a par 5.

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The Club at McLemore: Golf above the clouds