18 Classic Courses in S.C.

Lesson learned at Cliffs

Being flexible is reason for course’s stunning views

 bspear@thestate.com June 12, 2011 

— Robert Burns wrote of the perils of the best laid plans and the theme became a popular paraphrase for authors John Steinbeck, Sidney Sheldon and others.

The Cliffs at Glassy proves the point that even perfect concept can change — and the result end up better.

If the original blueprint of building on Glassy Mountain had remained unaltered, the future of luxury mountain developments in South Carolina at the least would have been delayed. If a friend had not accompanied the owner to the crest and mentioned the potential of a golf course on the site, the challenging 18 holes that stretch across the peaks and valleys might not exist.

If the golf architect ... oh, stop; there are enough “ifs” in the creation of the first of these upscale mountain golf communities to fill a book. What’s important, as the poet Burns wrote so long ago, is plans almost invariably change, and in this case, the results are stunning.

“You can have a vision, but you have to be flexible,” Jim Anthony, who developed the Cliffs Communities that dot the Upstate and spill across the state line into North Carolina, said in a 2007 interview with The State. “So many things can change. Success is when preparation meets opportunity.”

Anthony worked for the telephone company for 20 years and dabbled in real estate on the side before going into the land business full-time in 1983. He began acquiring property in the Glassy Mountain area with the idea of selling rural vacation lots, said Jim Stehlik, a retired engineer who lives at the Cliffs at Glassy and is the area historian.

Remember Anthony’s “be flexible” philosophy?

“(Anthony) told me as he continued to purchase land on the mountain, he took a friend to the top and the friend suggested that would be a perfect setting for a golf course,” Stehlik said. “He bought more than 70 parcels of land over five or six years and put the plan for the (upscale) development into place.”

Anthony hired golf architect Tom Jackson, who lives in the Greenville area, to build the course and the rest is history — with, of course, some changes in the plans.

Mixing real estate and golf

Jackson, who cut his teeth in the business under famed architects Robert Trent Jones and George Cobb, agreed with Anthony’s friend: the terrain offered some terrific potential for a golf course.

“But we had some hurdles to cross,” he said. “First, there was the topography and second was the ownership. Mr. Anthony had two partners at the time, and they had never built a golf course. It was a very interesting experience for me.

“I know it took Mr. Anthony a long time to pull together all the property, but I don’t believe he really knew what he had — an outstanding opportunity — until we were about halfway through building the golf course. I told them that they would have one of the most scenic golf courses in the United States, and that’s what happened.”

Golf Digest rated the Cliffs at Glassy the nation’s fourth most scenic behind Augusta National, Cypress Point and Pebble Beach.

Remember Burns and the best laid plans. Remember Anthony’s be flexible philosophy. So, there were changes.

Jackson and his firm presented multiple plans before the ownership picked one. A stumbling block: the developers wanted the clubhouse on the mountain’s crest and the architect pointed out doing that would mean a continuous 18-hole layout rather than one with each nine ending at the clubhouse.

“We had to convince them it would be better to move the clubhouse, and we did,” Jackson said. “After we did that, we got comfortable with the project.”

Still, another significant change ensued.

“We had one more difficulty,” Jackson said. “Holes 13, 14 and 15 — primarily 15 — sit along the edge of the mountain with an endless view. The views are really spectacular. The owners wanted that area for real estate and we told them that if they did, they would lose the view for everyone but the home owner. From a marketing point of view, it would be better to have golf holes there and they finally agreed.

“Frankly, those holes make the golf course.”

Maintenance is key

During construction, Jackson’s crew used leftover rock to outline the creek and pond on the 12th hole, and the owners loved the idea. Where else could that be used? Well, the architect said, almost anywhere — but it’s going to be expensive.

“We had to blast a lot of rock to make that happen, but the stone is one of the unique features,” Jackson said. “It’s very dramatic.”

That description applies to the entire course. Spectacular views are found in all directions, and the maintenance is impeccable.

“Look at the distances on the scorecard (6,805 from the back tees) and the course does not seem that difficult,” head pro Sean Kennedy said. “Go out and play, and you find out otherwise. One thing’s for sure; you better keep the ball in front of you. Sideways is no good.”

The course features bent grass on tee, fairways and greens — unusual for a hot weather courses — and the rough is a challenging bluegrass hybrid. The mountain terrain offers some awkward lies that increase the difficulty.

“The greens and rough, especially the greens, are the course’s defenses,” said Kennedy, who came to Glassy in 2010 after stints at Kiawah Island and in the Philadelphia and Atlanta areas. “Getting on the wrong side of the hole almost guarantees a three-putt green. The rough is two and a quarter inches and about a one-half shot penalty.”

The rough must be kept higher in order to stop errant shots from rolling and rolling and rolling down the mountain into more trouble.

Players remember the views, of course, and Kennedy noted sometimes a golfer loses concentration on his game to admire the scenery. “The golf course looks so natural with the stone and native grasses perfectly placed to go along with everything else,” the pros said.

One of the beauties of golf at the Cliffs at Glassy is the homes do not intrude.

“One of Mr. Anthony’s great skills is being able to look at land and develop lots that blend in and preserve the property,” Stehlik, the historian, said. “The homes fit with nature.”

“You have to play the golf course several times to learn the nuances and really appreciate the experience,” Jackson said. “I think the members like that, seeing their guests struggle a little.”

He said the golf course required longer than usual to build, about 2 1/2 years instead of the usual 15-18 months, and cost around $4.5 million. He called his budget “very tight, but everything was fine as long as they kept selling real estate.”

“The Cliffs’ courses that followed went up to the $12-million range,” the architect said, “but even if we had had that budget, I don’t think the golf course would be a whole lot different.”

But if the Cliffs had not succeeded, luxury mountain golf in the state might well be different. Without Glassy for a springboard, would the concept that brought Fazio and Nicklaus courses into the Cliffs’ family come to fruition? Would the layouts that Gary Player and Tiger Woods have under construction been considered?

The best-laid plans, Burns wrote, will change. In the case of the Cliffs at Glassy, the results are spectacular.

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