Golf continues to rise in the Georgia clouds

McLemore Club executive vice president Charlie Rymer discusses updates to Cloudland at McLemore Resort Lookout Mountain’s second course, The Keep

The onset of warmer temperatures is showing that spring and, with it, seasonal change is in the air in northwest Georgia.

The same is true at McLemore where a season of new developments is taking shape at the mountaintop resort destination in Lookout Mountain, Georgia. Last month saw the grand opening of Cloudland at McLemore Resort Lookout Mountain, Curio by Hilton, a 245-room resort and hotel featuring numerous amenities and views of the surrounding Tennessee valley. As the calendar turns over and the days grow longer, so too does the grass on the fairways and greens of The Keep, the latest addition to the growing golf and destination community at McLemore.

Set to open for limited play later this year, the 18-hole Bill Bergin- and Rees Jones-designed golf course is already one of the most anticipated new golf courses offerings. McLemore Club executive vice president Charlie Rymer, a former PGA Tour player and Golf Channel analyst, provides an update on the venue.

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The Keep is scheduled to open later this year and will be the second course at Cloudland at McLemore Resort Lookout Mountain in Georgia.

The First Call: Give us an update on The Keep.
Charlie Rymer: It’s been really amazing to see the progress that has been made from the first piece of Stadium Zoysia going down to where we are now. On hole numbers three through 11 the tees have been laser-leveled and sodded, the greens surrounds are sodded and 80% of the fairways are in place. Some of that grass got a chance to root in a bit, and some of it hasn’t been able to do that just yet because it was sodded later. We sanded pretty heavily around all of the new sod and we’re running irrigation even though the new grass is dormant and not growing. If we keep it moist the sand in there will give it a nicer hibernation through the dormancy. Plus, we’re a very windy location so it’s susceptible to getting some colder weather. We wanted to give that Stadium Zoysia sod the best chance to survive the winter without taking much winter kill. And that has been the case. We are seeing green up now. But more than anything it gives us a head start for the spring when the temperatures warm up and it acts as a nice blanket against any erosion control. And as of today, we have resumed sodding.

TFC: What were some things at the beginning of the project that you were excited about, that fueled your excitement even more during construction?
CR: Every time we peel back a layer of this onion it just gets more beautiful. As the site developed, it became more evident the drama we had in terms of having one and a half miles of cliff edge available for the golf course. We had to blast some rock, but for the most part we didn’t have to take out much rock. What existed was absolutely perfect — and that’s clearly evident at the 17th hole. It looks like Stonehenge. I told Rees Jones that we were going to have problems because people will think it’s fake.

Another thing that excited me as the project progressed was how Bill Bergin and Rees Jones worked with our design criteria. The Keep sits on a very windy site — and some of the best golf courses in the world don’t have a lot of high grass but they do have a lot of width. Sometimes that width makes a golf course boring. We did not want that — the strategy was to deliver fairways width, yet make it playable and enjoyable for all players. That very much excites me.

TFC: Sometimes a big golf course, like what is planned for The Keep, has a tendency to produce a slower round.
CR: That won’t be the case here with one exception — people will be taking a lot of pictures. We might have to limit the number of pictures taken over one round — you’re going to want to take a picture on every hole with the 50-plus-mile views. Golfers of all abilities will be able to have a memorable round at a reasonable pace.

TFC: You’ve seen and played many of the top courses in the U.S., especially those that rank in the top-100 lists. What traits does The Keep have that rival those listed in the top-100, and what traits makes it stand out, yet are just as worthy?
CR: If you look at the top-100 courses, one of the traits that most share is that they are in a dramatic location. The Keep certainly has that. The top-100 golf courses also have a strategy that is very apparent. We have that, too, because we are going to have width and we’re going to have angles, tremendous teeing space, and we will be able to vary the setup from day to day based on the weather, the firmness of the golf course, and who is playing that day. This will be a golf course you can play three or four days in a row, and every day it will feel like a different golf course. Also at these top-100 golf courses, you see a certain level of conditioning — the AU Victory bentgrass we have has performed very well on the Highlands Course and will perform even better on The Keep. The quality of the bentgrass greens will impress people, as will the Stadium Zoysia found on the rest of the golf course. We are the first course on the East Coast to use it. It has the look and color of Augusta National during Masters week — a deeper emerald green than other zoysias, and it’s a finer texture. That combination — the drama, strategy and conditioning — along with how we will treat people should put us in consideration for the top-100 without difficulty.

TFC: Bill Bergin calls this his “headlands design,” his “oceanside golf course.” What is the meaning of that?
CR: Bill is one of the most sought-after architects in golf right now, and I’ve learned a lot from him. Rees Jones is also a great friend and I’ve learned a lot from him too. Rees actually educated us on this and used Pebble Beach as an example. He told us Pebble Beach has links in its name — Pebble Beach Golf Links — but it’s not really a links course, it’s a headlands course. Puzzled, I asked him what he meant. Rees then advised that a headlands course is built on cliffs above the beach. You look around Pebble Beach and there are 90-foot valleys with the coves below and the cliff edges serving as brows. If you fill these coves with water to the base of these cliffs, you’ve got a golf course on water built 90-feet above the cliff-edge. That’s when it hit me — Pebble Beach is a headlands golf course. Sometimes at these courses, you have a few holes on the water, then it meanders into a forest. At The Keep you see 50 miles on every single hole without having to work at it! That’s what makes this golf course unique. I just don’t know of a place anywhere in the world that has that.

TFC: Stylistically, it seems The Keep will be a perfect complement to the existing Highlands Course at McLemore. Was that the plan all along, or after you all saw this incredible piece of property on which it sits that you allowed to land to dictate what type of golf course The Keep will be?
CR: A little bit of both. You’re right in that stylistically when you go to places with multiple golf courses you need some variety. People don’t want to play two or three of the same type of golf courses. The traditional thought was to go with someone else for The Keep design since Bill and Rees created the existing Highlands Course. Everyone nixed that thought from the onset — Bill and Rees were our guys for The Keep. The Highlands Course wasn’t their routing, except for the 18th hole. They created something that put McLemore on the map within a routing that already existed. So we were going to give them a new piece of property because they’re our guys — they’re our family.

As for the property, we wanted something very different with the second golf course. We gave Bill and Rees nearly 500 acres and the topography map, and asked them to deliver the best golf course that they can. Without restriction. That’s unheard of these days because the land planners usually have put all the housing in there and the design team only gets corridors where all the water drains down into. In the end, Bill and Rees created the best golf possible course for this piece of property. People are going to respond to that and they’re going to see that the purpose for building this course is for authentic golf.

The golf courses couldn’t be more different even though they’re about a mile-and-a-half apart, but that whole different style of open, links golf on a mountain and cliffs is going to be mind-boggling for a lot of people. It’s going to be sensory overload for a lot of golfers, and they’re going to respond to that very positively.

The First Call: What will The Keep bring to the golf experience at McLemore?
CR: Our board of directors demand excellence. They didn’t want just another golf course to be built at the resort. They want the best and they want to blow people’s doors off. We wanted a golf course that is enjoyable for the people who play it every day, but if we have an opportunity to host an event down the road, then we want to bake that possibility into the cake. Not only has Rees touched 27 golf courses that have either hosted major championships, a Solheim Cup, a Ryder Cup or a President’s Cup, he’s the “Open Doctor.” He knows how to prepare a golf course for major championships. He also has great passion for making sure that everyone who plays this golf course has a path around it. I believe we have something special here at The Keep.