The Highland Course at Primland: An isolated corner of the golf universe.
When the entry road is named Busted Rock and proves to be a twisting, turning, 10-mile logging trail, you begin to wonder why anyone would leave the safety of guardrails for a round of golf. But when the gatekeepers turn out to be a herd of deer, and the view from the parking lot leaves you transfixed like, yes, a deer in the headlights, you understand why the reclusive owner of the 12,000-acre Primland hunting preserve would choose to build a public golf course in this obscure portion of southern Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains.
The parking lot sits on the rim of a deep, narrow gorge formed by the Dan River. This might be the least-known, most-spectacular riverbed landscape in America, better than the Hudson Valley, superior to the Royal Gorge. Imagine a section of the Grand Canyon, its walls covered mostly in forest, except for some spires of rock protruding 1,000 feet and more above the riverbed. That's the Pinnacles of Dan. Stick a golf course atop this mountain, surround it on three sides by this deep gorge, and you have The Highland Course at Primland, Golf Digest's Best New Public Course $75 and Over for 2007.
With such magnificent scenery, an overwrought golf course would have detracted. Luckily, British architect Donald Steel has never believed in showboating architecture. Aided by his then-associates Tom Mackenzie and Martin Ebert (who have since formed their own partnership, Mackenzie & Ebert), Steel routed holes along ridges, over chasms, down valleys and into sideslopes, always offering a safe alternative to every perilous carry. What artificial mounds exist are mostly within the generous, rolling putting surfaces.
The bunkering is likewise tastefully underdone. They're not quite British pot bunkers, but all are deep enough that no sand is visible, just faces of tall, fuzzy fescue. There is a stretch of three holes -- the 13th through 15th -- with no sand at all. The climax of Highland is an anything-but-redundant finishing trio of doglegs-right along a lazy bend of the Dan River Gorge. The 465-yard 18th is particularly daunting, uphill across a mountain slope to a saddled landing area, then down the tumbling fairway to the green below.
There's talk of relocating the 18th green closer to the rim, and chopping down a few trees along the right. This would create an East Coast version of the eighth at Pebble Beach, providing one long last breath of Blue Ridge beguilement.
BEST NEW PUBLIC: OVER $75 1. THE HIGHLAND COURSE AT PRIMLAND Meadows of Dan, Va. Yards 7,034 Par 72 Fee: $175 Designers: Donald Steel and Martin Ebert 276-222-3827 primland.com 2. FALLEN OAK Saucier, Miss. Yards 7,487 Par 72 Fee: $300 Tom Fazio 877-805-4657 fallenoak.com 3. GINN HAMMOCK BEACH (The Conservatory) Palm Coast, Fla. Yards 7,776 Par 72 Fee: $175 Tom Watson 386-246-6710 hammockbeach.com 4. OLD CORKSCREW G.C. Estero, Fla. Yards 7,393 Par 72 Fee: $225 Jack Nicklaus 239-949-4700 oldcorkscrew.com 5. THE LEDGES G.C. St. George, Utah Yards 7,145 Par 72 Fee: $110 Matt Dye 435-634-4640 ledges.com 6. THE PRESERVE G.C. VanCleave, Miss. Yards 6,774 Par 71 Fee: $120 Jerry Pate 228-386-2500 preservegc.com 7. THE G.C. AT DEVILS TOWER Hulett, Wyo. Yards 7,111 Par 72 Fee: $95 Kevin Atkinson and Dick Phelps 307-467-5769 devilstowergolf.com 8. LAUREL HILL G.C. Lorton, Va. Yards 7,010 Par 71 Fee: $89 Bill Love 703-493-8849 fairfaxcounty.gov/parks/golf/laurelhill 9. WE-KO-PA G.C. (SAGUARO CSE.) Fort McDowell, Ariz. Yards 6,912 Par 71 Fee: $195 Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw 480-836-9000 wekopa.com 10. LEOPARD'S CHASE G.C. Ocean Isle Beach, N.C. Yards 7,155 Par 72 Fee: $195 Tim Cate 910-579-5577 big-cats.com