Away Game: Atlanta
It's an ill wind that doesn't blow somebody some good. In Atlanta, the wind is the exhale of a popped real-estate bubble, and the somebody can be you. In the past two decades, 177 courses were built in the greater metropolitan area, making it the prime example of a city whose golf inventory expanded too fast. There's an oversupply of golf, or at least golf of a certain type, which is making it easy to get on private courses. With a phone call or even less, here's how you can play (we did) luscious layouts you couldn't before.
I took the early flight from New York and was on the first tee of Heritage Golf Links at 10 a.m. The course is northeast of the airport, but you can avoid downtown traffic by momentarily heading south to loop around on I-285. In the great sprawling beast called Atlanta, there's always another way.
Built in 1996, Heritage is most famous because Dr. J owned it. Hall of Fame slam-dunk pioneer and unaccredited physician Julius Erving bought the 27-hole complex in 2006 and renamed it Celebrity Golf Club International. Dr. J imagined his private club would cater to retired athletes and stars flying in now and again--an Augusta National with laxer clubhouse rules--but the grand opening coincided with the market downturn of 2008. Not enough people joined, and Dr. J lost the course in foreclosure in 2010. I called ahead, gave no name, and was told to come on by.
Standing on the first tee, there's no need to consider economic sourness. The staff is happy to have you, and you're getting to play an ambitious, well-kept layout for a bargain. The grass range has three tiers, and the one at the top marked "members only" is the smallest.
The starter paired me with a potbellied, retired importer/exporter from Paris who dressed like Dustin Johnson and cursed like Pepe Le Pew. Serge, short for Sergio, is a member, and his guest was a good ol' boy who cast the club like a fly rod at his finish. I moved up a set of tees to enjoy a front-row seat to their colorful bickering over mulligans and gimmes. Along the way we picked up two more singles like barnacles, and finished as a flotilla of five golfers in four carts. No one knew each other. There were no post-round drinks or locker-room shoeshines, but the quality of the golf felt private.
Heritage is a high-end daily-fee course that had a private stint before reverting to its old name and ways, but nearby Smoke Rise Country Club is allowing outside play for the first time since it opened in 1998. Though it doesn't broadcast it, the club has started selling tee times on golfnow .com as an "exclusive, limited opportunity." On the phone I was told to "come on down" but was nearly denied at the golf shop when I couldn't produce my member number. Glancing over his shoulder as if to verify the coast was clear, the pro said I could go off the back if I could play fast, then charged my credit card $59. Pressing my luck, I asked if I could walk but was gruffly told no because of the high Slope Rating of 145.