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Golf on Top of the World at Balsam Mountain Preserve

By Tim Cotroneo

Conservationist John Muir may have been contemplating golf at Balsam Mountain Preserve when he said, “In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks.” Standing at the Arnold Palmer Course’s Par 4, 447-yard first-hole tee box, it’s hard not to feel humbled by what is seen and felt. 

The Blue Ridge and Smokey Mountains stretch to the sky and wrap their arms around golfers. You need to steady yourself for this panoramic embrace that has fueled inspiration for poems, paintings, and breathtaking climbs. What’s exciting is this first hole introduction isn’t just a one-and-done. Golfers from far and wide come to tiny Sylva, NC, to play a course that’s relentless in delivering wave after wave of spellbinding vistas.

Each month, the private 4,400-acre Balsam Mountain Preserve community opens its gates to a handful of non-members. The buzz generated by this masterpiece carved from a mountainside has translated into a perpetual demand by golfers needing a firsthand look. For a day, first-timers are handed the keys to a golf kingdom so rich in plant life, wildlife, and spectacular views, that 75 percent of what they see is entrusted to a protected nature preserve.

We Can Do This

When the Palmer design team went to work on what would become a 6,800-yard layout, they tapped Golf Architect Harrison Minchew to assist in this mountainous undertaking. Minchew’s expertise was sought for two reasons. First, his design work placed a premium on being environmentally sensitive. The second reason for aligning with Minchew had to do with terrain.

“I had worked on 15 mountain courses in Japan and Taiwan. Our initial walkthrough of the Balsam Mountain Preserve property revealed that this would possibly be the steepest terrain of any course built in America,” Minchew said.

The good news for Palmer, Golf Architect Ed Seay, and Minchew was that they were given somewhat of a free rein to implement their ideas. This included a surprising caveat for the Balsam Mountain closing hole. “We proposed a Par 3 for the 18th hole to Arnold. He immediately replied that he’d won tournaments on great courses that finished with a Par 3. Everyone was more than pleased with how the 214-yard closing hole turned out,” Minchew reflected.

End Result – Beauty on the Mountain

When the course opened in 2007, the owners were thrilled to see that the aptly named Arnold Palmer Course was exactly what they desired … an 18-hole layout that looked like it was always there. A golf course framed by the Blue Ridge and Smokie Mountains immediately began reaping awards, as well as drawing golfers from around the world. 

The dividends garnered by those choosing to make the journey to Balsam Mountain and play the Arnold Palmer course are immediate. The five-mile drive from the gated entrance to the pro shop is a vertical wonder featuring previews of magnificent mountain range views, wildlife cameos, The Equestrian Center, Nature Center, Spa, million-dollar homes that blend in with nature, and a bounty of greenery that makes you feel like a key player in a National Geographic documentary.

Once you’ve secured your tee time, lace up your Footjoys because another visual spectacle happens before hitting your first drive. Just below the pro shop is the Palmer Practice Park. Golfers warm up while being surrounded by an amphitheater of mountains on three sides. You’re reminded that at Balsam Mountain Preserve an overriding appreciation for nature is placed on a grand pedestal. Now catch your breath, because the Arnold Palmer course awaits, and there is no holding back on the views.

An Elevation Celebration

If you ask Travis or Chad in the pro shop in which Arnold Palmer Course golf hole is considered the signature, you’ll be met with raised eyebrows, a smile, and a shrug. That’s because during each and every hole you’ll be able to see for miles. Some holes plummet straight down. Others soar so high it feels like you’ll bump your head on the clouds. 

The Par 5, 565-yard, 14th hole does have a claim to fame. When you reach your second shot, you’ll be standing at an elevation of 3,900 feet. That’s the highest elevation on a golf course whose branding could be altitude with gratitude.

As you close out your round on the 18th green, you’d be wise to drive the golf cart up to The Mine Tavern for a post-round celebration and one last chance to gaze out at the Blue Ridge Mountains. It’s there you’ll hoist a cold one and agree that Conservationist John Muir had it right regarding his thoughts on how a walk with nature is the gift that keeps on giving. As for Balsam Mountain Preserve and its Arnold Palmer Golf Course, there’s no denying that there’s something special about playing golf on top of the world.


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