Playing Seth Raynor’s mountain links overlooking Chattanooga, Tennessee.
On Lookout Mountain, you can see seven states from the vistas that have drawn visitors to its peaks for over a century. Those views are amplified from the tee boxes and greens of the Lookout Mountain Golf Club. The golf course is on a plateau that is perched on the side of a mountain that towers over Downtown Chattanooga, Tennessee. The club is an enclave; there is no easy way to reach it and once you make it there it’s hard to leave.
The road to Lookout Mountain is long and winding. There is no shortcut to climb the massive outcropping of earth that straddles the state line between Georgia and Tennessee. The 25 mile per hour drive up to the plateau is comprised of switchbacks and sharp turns that are often on the edge of a cliff and test the nerves of even the steadiest of pilots. The slow crawl is typically accompanied by a caravan of sightseers and the steep climb of a road takes you to a small southern village in the sky.
There are a number of roadside attractions that bring people from far and wide to the top of Lookout Mountain. See Rock City! Climb Ruby Falls! The signs pointing to these places dot the highway landscape for hundreds of miles in every direction. Lookout Mountain Golf Club was also part of the visitor brochure once. The golf club was included in a set of attractions that were once promoted around the south as a mountaintop retreat with all the fixings. Welcome to Fairyland.
The golf club on Lookout Mountain was developed in 1925 as part of the larger Fairyland development. Fairyland was envisioned to be a resort destination of national appeal and the golf club was an integral part of that. Through the connections of its initial partners, one of the great golf course architects in American history was engaged to design the course. His name was Seth Raynor.
Raynor got his start as the lead engineer for architect Charles Blair McDonald, who was his mentor and the father of American golf. Raynor made a name for himself by following in McDonald’s footsteps and designing great golf courses throughout the country. Raynor courses were similar in style to McDonald’s and steeped in the architectural traditions of the game from Scotland. In the 1920’s, Raynor was in high demand and building brilliant courses across America, but it all ended when he met an untimely death at an early age. Lookout Mountain was his final design.
In its time, Lookout Mountain Golf Club was one of the most expensive golf courses ever built. Construction required the use of steam-shovels and other new age tools to move rock and soil atop the mountain. The project was completed just before the Great Depression and it was only after those years of austerity that the club began to succeed as originally forecast. Today, the club is home to a dedicated membership of golfers who have an appreciation of history and an ongoing love affair with the views afforded them by their golden age golf course.
Raynor, like his mentor McDonald, was well known for his use of template holes in his designs. Template holes are derived from time proven design concepts born in Scotland. These templates have intriguing names like Road, Biaritz, Short, Alps, Redan, and Double Plateau. Lookout Mountain features many of the template holes made famous by McDonald and Raynor and they are set in beautiful surroundings. Although the artists responsible for their existence have been gone for the better part of a century, the template holes created by McDonald and perfected by Raynor live on at places like Lookout Mountain.
Seth Raynor did not manage to see his final golf course come to fruition. He passed away before the project could be completed. The construction had to be carried out by other associates and today the course is missing some of the details that Raynor prescribed in his plans. Even still, the course is a living breathing monument to the talents of one of America’s great golf architects. The members of Lookout Mountain Golf Club take great pride in their Seth Raynor heritage and continue to work to restore and reclaim his original vision for their most coveted golf course.
I have been fortunate enough to visit Lookout Mountain Golf Club and to play Seth Raynor’s last layout. From the moment I first saw the course I knew I had found some place special. The roads that lead me to Lookout Mountain are like sirens calling me up the cliff-side and when I set foot on the first tee I am overcome with delight. From the opening shot all the way through the course and back to the parking lot the views are captivating and the golf holes are marvelous.
Lookout Mountain has long been described as a “mountain links”. The course plays over the plateau at the top of the mountain and feels more like Long Island than Tennessee. There are numerous elevation changes in the routing, but not of the kind players are accustomed to seeing on a mountain course. The hills are more subtle and if the views of the mountains were replaced by an ocean you’d believe you were in the Hamptons.
When I have the pleasure of playing Lookout Mountain, I find myself often lost in a stare focused on some distant mountain range. The focal point of these visions can often times be hundreds of miles away. From this perch in the southern sky there is seemingly no end to the world. The green mountain tops on the horizon slowly blend into the deep blue hues of the atmosphere and in the foreground are golf holes that require the attention I am instead offering to the views beyond.
It’s easy to be hypnotized during a walk through Lookout Mountain. The distractions of playing among the mountain tops are a welcome reminder that golf is a game based in nature. The great stadiums of the sport are not man-made, but molded by our creator. The gentle rolling of a mountain range consumes the periphery of the golf course and in those moments lost in a gaze I smile and thank God that golf is my game.
There are many aspects of Lookout Mountain Golf Club that make it a unique experience. The mountain links has quirky delights baked into its existence that only add to the list of reasons why I jump at the opportunity to go there. There are boulders that protrude into play, greens that are impossible to read, and the course comes back to the clubhouse after 12 holes instead of 9. In a world where so many golf courses are sterile and made to fit a preordained description, Lookout Mountain is as refreshing as the water pouring overhead at nearby Ruby Falls.
When Fairyland was envisioned as a mountain top tourist attraction, its backers saw the potential for a destination that provided entertainment through adventure. In my time at Lookout Mountain Golf Club, I have found joy in that original intent. The golf course there is a guided discovery of Appalachian America and is curated through the inspired designs of its acclaimed architect. When I am playing from the precipice of Seth Raynor’s swan song I can only imagine how spoiled I could become by being there more regularly.
The road to the top of Lookout Mountain builds anticipation for an incomparable golf experience. There are many Raynor courses in America and there are numerous mountain ranges from which golf is played, but from Lookout Mountain you can see seven states and walk through fairways in the clouds. The mountain links is an achievement of engineering atop a land form that seems to float above the world like an island in the sky. The excitement I have found with each climb up to Lookout Mountain is only damped by the sadness of having to come back down it after I play.
My trips to Lookout Mountain Golf Club have been few, but my enjoyment of the course has been endless. I celebrated my thirtieth birthday there and have since returned to play with friends from across the country. The club hasn't gone by the Fairyland name for decades, but I still believe there is magic there.
When I’m at Lookout Mountain I think of Seth Raynor standing there at the border between this world and the heavens and wonder if he ever knew this work would be his last. If he did, It would be hard to imagine a better setting for him to craft a course to be his finale. I believe that this mountain links is one of Raynor’s underrated works and every time I play it it rises in my ranks as one of my personal favorite places for golf. When my travels take me to Tennessee I lookup to the cliffs that soar over Chattanooga. I know the road to Fairyland and I can’t wait to climb the mountain again for golf.