Doug Stein calls them "the Pilgrims." They're millennial golfers and golf course architecture buffs.
"I probably see 40 to 60 of them every year," Stein said Tuesday. "When they come to this area, they want to see four courses, maybe four-and-a-half. The Honors Course, obviously. Sweetens Cove, Lookout Mountain because of (designer) Seth Raynor, Black Creek and Sewanee. They love to study and play those courses."
Black Creek, the Scottish-inspired course set between Lookout Mountain and Raccoon Mountain in Lookout Valley celebrates its 20th anniversary Wednesday, its No. 6 hole — the one with the large black-and-white bull's-eye to mark the blind green — having recently been named the best sixth hole in America by Golf Digest.
To underscore how blessed our community is when it comes to golf, the 18th hole at McLemore — the course 25 miles south of town atop Lookout Mountain that was formerly known as Canyon Ridge — also made the unique list.
Think about that. Two of the top 18 holes in the entire country are in our own backyard.
"It's crazy how many great courses we have here," said University of Tennessee at Chattanooga men's golf coach Mark Guhne. "The Honors, Chattanooga Golf & Country Club, Black Creek, Council Fire, The Farm (near Dalton, Georgia), Lookout Mountain, Sweetens Cove. Our guys are so spoiled. We've played in national tournaments all over the country on courses that aren't in as good a condition as the courses we play on here."
All those courses are special in their own way. The Honors, Black Creek and Council Fire have all hosted nationally known and respected tournaments in recent years. Sweetens Cove, the course that counts Peyton Manning as part of its ownership group, may have developed the biggest cult following ever seen for a public course east of the Mississippi River.
If Guhne occasionally seems partial to Black Creek, it might be because, "I was a member the first day it opened."
But it's Brian Silva's design, along with some suggestions from Stein, that make it special.
"It was so different when it was built," Guhne said of the layout, which is 7,044 yards long from the tips and built to grip it and rip it. "It didn't take long for people to fall in love with it. Young players love it because golf has turned into a power game. I enjoy Black Creek because it's not target golf. It's become a huge recruiting tool for us."
It all started in the 1990s when Stein and Silva were at work on the 12th hole at Lookout Mountain as they sought to return the Raynor classic to its former glory.
"Jimmy Chapin had just closed on the Cummings Farm property. He came by the 12th hole one day and asked us to come down and see if you could build a course there. I'd walked that property years earlier when (eventual U.S. Congressman) Zach Wamp was still in real estate. I knew you could put a golf course there. The whole idea was to build a course Rayner would have built if he'd seen how far they're hitting the ball now."
And so it opened in 2000 with the late, great King Oehmig as one of the original investors and Scott Wicker as its superintendent. Twenty years later, Wicker's still there.
"It's flown by," said Wicker. "It absolutely doesn't seem like 20 years."
As to why it has garnered so many honors — including Golfweek's top 100 modern courses in 2003 and Golfweek's top 100 residential courses on multiple occasions — Wicker said: "It's just got good bones. It's got such a great foundation, it's hard for me to screw it up. We just let the golf course be the golf course."
A lot has changed around the course over the past 20 years. A large residential community has sprung up around it, with much more to come atop Raccoon Mountain (a.k.a Aetna Mountain) now that Stein and fellow developers Gary and Bobby Chazen are about to complete a $15 million road to the top.
The No. 6 bull's-eye, once thought a bit odd, has now become one of the most talked about and cherished parts of the course.
"You see them all over Scotland," said Stein.
Added Guhne: "When you play the course a few times, you come to rely on it. It's really kind of neat."
The whole course is more that kind of neat. It has become so respected nationally that as Guhne works on UTC hosting a national tournament at Black Creek sometime in the future, he said he has heard numerous coaches of some of the biggest collegiate golf powers tell him, "I'd give anything to bring my team to Black Creek."
Apparently all those millennial "Pilgrims" who seek out Stein every year may be on to something. Who knew?
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