The History of Linville Falls

A Gulf Oil Company senior executive name Russ McNutt was the founder and visionary for the club. Russ and his wife Ann lived all over the world working for Gulf Oil. An infrastructure genius, Russ designed and built refineries, pipelines and oil transfer stations in Venezuela, Spain (when General Franco was dictator), Saudi Arabia and Iran (when the Shah was dictator). He laid out the Iranian oil refinery in Tehran and built the Kharg Island transfer station in the Persian Gulf where oil destined to countries all over the world is transferred to tankers. Russ is now deceased, but his wife Ann said, “He could look at a piece of land and envision where everything would go.”

An unlikely event planted the seed for the Linville Falls Club development. Gulf Oil transferred Russ from Venezuela to Iran in 1959. He flew into New Orleans and had some extra time before he was to fly out of New York so he decided to drive to New York and explore the Southeast. Western North Carolina was along the way. After spending the night at the Grove Park Inn, Russ followed US 70 to Marion (I-40 had not made it to WNC back then). When he reached the US 70/US 221 intersection, he noticed the beautiful scenery up US 221 so he checked the area out. He fell in love with North Cove’s picturesque valley and thought it would be a nice place to live. Russ’s visionary talent would become a great blessing to McDowell County 30 years later. Russ’s sister retired to Durham and bought a summer home in North Cove. He had retired by then, too, and he paid her a visit. That’s all it took. Russ and Ann purchased a home there to live full time. He soon got tired of doing the usual retirement things so he volunteered for every community project that came along. That didn’t satisfy him so he decided to build a golf course.

Ann said, “Russ woke up every day, enthusiastic and smiling, and ready to go. His favorite saying was, ‘Don’t wait for it to happen; make it happen!’”

Russ hooked up with Swedish wheeler-dealer acquaintance, who Ann described as “the Swedish Donald Trump,” to back the development financially. The Blue Ridge Country Club was incorporated in 1988 and three different properties were purchased in 1988-89 to make up the 560 acres that encompasses the development.

The idea was to create a recreational community that would have over 500 housing units plus a small country inn. In addition to golf, it would have a hunting preserve and clear, spring-fed mountain waters perfect for trout fishing. That land at 1,800 feet elevation was untouched for 40 years and it bordered a national park unit (Blue Ridge Parkway) and a national forest (Pisgah). Russ felt McDowell County was a great location for his development because the county was trying to position itself as a retirement destination. There were several large corporations based in McDowell at the time, the development was close to Lake James and I-40 was nearby. So were the Blue Ridge Parkway, Linville Caverns, Linville Falls/Gorge and the High Country’s ski slopes.

He put the utilities underground and built a water and sewer system for the development. He built a beautiful inn designed by David Patrick Moses. In the plans for Moses to design were a clubhouse, fitness center, condominiums, town houses and patio houses. “Russ had a tremendous vision,” Moses remembers. “He had everything figured in his mind.” Russ hired a well-known golf course designer to build the course and he immediately fell in love with the land. He made multiple visits to the site as the course was being built, and at its dedication, and the result was a wonderful layout. Moses remembered the designer saying the course was “an old fashioned type” and he was excited about the way it laid out. His design philosophy is to design high quality, player friendly golf courses that are affordable for the average golfer. His course at Linville Falls fulfilled all his objectives. Things were going great.

Unfortunately, Mr. Swedish Donald Trump had been buying property in Sweden, Spain and Germany at the same time. He overextended himself and went broke. With no money to pay the bills, Russ McNutt’s dream came crashing down.

Russ tried to keep the development going for awhile but he didn’t have the finances. He had to sell the property to a developer from Florida. This turned out to be a bad decision. The developer made a couple of payments, then refused to pay the rest of his fee. In the settlement, Linville Falls Club agreed to expunge the reference of the designer.

The developer brought in some people from Florida to make minor design changes. He then got everything out of the development he could before selling off the golf course to a group from Iowa. The developer still had a lot of debt and the McNutts got the land surrounding the golf course back by default.

The McNutts then sold the development part to an Irishman who kept it for awhile and sold it to a real estate group operating in the Carolinas. In September 2004, during the course’s Iowa ownership, hurricanes Ivan and Frances dumped two feet of rain on Linville and 14 inches of rain in the North Cove in a ten-day period and that, combined with horrific winds left the golf course in shambles. The Blue Ridge course was basically closed for over two and a half years.

The Iowa group didn’t make any effort to repair the course. About nine holes on the course were still playable and they tried to operate as a hybrid nine-hole course for awhile, but that didn’t work. They sold the golf course to the same Carolinas group that owned the development part. The Carolinas group made some infrastructure repairs to the course but never got it open for play. They sold the course and development to a group from Charlotte before the repairs were completed.

The Charlotte group completed the major repairs and decided to make the public course an exclusive private club. The move upset local golfers who had enjoyed playing the Blue Ridge course. The Charlotte group changed the name to Linville Falls Mountain Club & Preserve. Their private club concept did not work; no one bought property and only a few existing property owners joined the club.

The Charlotte group had little revenue coming in and they borrowed heavily from a California financier to purchase the development and finish the infrastructure repairs to the course. They also spent a ton of money marketing the club. The group was not able to repay the financier and it foreclosed. The course and development property was sold on the McDowell County courthouse steps with the same California lender making the highest bid. The course was maintained minimally to resell, but not good enough to play.

A year later, in 2011, a Hendersonville man purchased the golf course (the California lender still owns the development property). The new owner wasn’t a golfer but he had the financial resources and interest to bring the course back to its full glory. He began maintaining the course in a way a golf course should be maintained. He first relied on a group who owned a couple of golf courses to manage his course but they provided poor service to their customers so he brought in a new general manager for the course, Doug Hollifield.

Hollifield said “The new owner is committed to make the course the best it can be. He has done course maintenance that hasn’t been done in five years. The course is getting better every day.” Linville Falls is a really good golf course with interesting, scenic holes and a tremendous potential. Its dramatic improvement is being noticed by the area’s golfing community. Play on the course has picked up significantly.

Under the supervision of course superintendent Tim Carpenter, the 419 Bermuda fairways and bent grass greens are in excellent condition. The course now has new golf carts and badly needed maintenance equipment.

Will Rucker is a long-time member and president of the development’s property owners association. He has “seen it all” so to speak, and he is very pleased with Linville Falls’ rapid progress. He said, “The new owner along with Doug Hollifield have made many positive improvements, both large and small. They have brought enjoyable play back to course. They have become a great neighbor and asset to the development. After bringing the course back to life, our development has seen an increase in interest with the sale of numerous lots and we’re seeing some new home construction.”

Linville Falls’ fairways are firm and fast so par 71 course plays shorter that its 6,939 yards from the tips and 6,421 yards from the regular tees. The greens are small and defend the course well, which happens to be the way Donald Ross designed his courses.

Accurate approach shots are key to a good score. An example is the 319-yard par four third hole. Stay below the hole on your approach shot or pray for a two-putt! The valley course has few hills so it is enjoyable to walk.

The flood of 2004 washed away some fairways but the damage actually made two holes (along the highway) better. The creek hazard on the par three eighth is now only three steps from the green, making tee shots to a left side pin placement a great risk/reward shot. On the ninth, the fairway on the 427-yard, dogleg left par four narrows to only 18 yards for drives past the 150-yard post. It is best to stay short of the 150-yard marker (which is pretty good drive) but a really long drive provides a great reward at a great risk.

The location of the course has a fascinating historical heritage. The Clinchfield Railroad passes by the south side of the front nine. According to William Sharpe’s A New Geography of North Carolina, the railroad was built around 1900 to haul coal out of Kentucky to South Carolina. The railroad gains 1,200 feet from the golf course to Altapass, a short distance as the crow flies. Along the way, the tracks pass through an 1,865-foot tunnel. As a train traverses the switchbacks up the mountain, you get 14 different views of it. In one section, an upper loop drops 300 feet over a seven-mile stretch that ends up only 400 yards below the beginning of the loop. Construction of the tracks was a massive effort that involved over 3,000 workers. A hospital had to be built at Altapass to care for the sick and wounded. Two hundred workers died on the job. The back side has some wonderful views of Humpback Mountain to the north, which is the home of Linville Caverns at its base and the Parkway’s spectacular Chestoa View at its 4,090-foot crest. It is said that both Union and Confederate troops who had deserted from the Civil War hid out together in the caverns. Views of the Linville Mountains are also part of the scenic backdrop. Every hole on the back is an excellent hole. An exception might be the eleventh because it had to be shortened after the flood washed out much of the fairway where it crossed the North Fork of the Catawba River. There is room to move the tee back quite a bit and make the hole a bear. Most of the back side holes would be very enjoyable holes on just about any golf course.

The Inn At Blue Ridge is a great complement to the development. It is independently owned by a New Hampshire couple, Charles and Jan Zecchini, who retired in the North Cove. Charles’ job with General Electric took him all over the country and Jan was a college math and physics teacher. Their last stop before retiring was Hickory.

The beautiful inn overlooks the ninth fairway and green. Each of its twelve spacious rooms has a stone fireplace and the inn also has a three bedroom condominium. The innkeepers are great hosts. Their rates are very resonable and they provide a healthy continental breakfast for their guests. They don’t serve lunch or dinner. Rooms are $79 Sunday-Thursday and the condominium is $200.

The golf course has extremely reasonable green fee rates and those rates also include a cart! It has special deals for groups and afternoon play. The club also has a six-month membership which is ideal for seasonal play, whether in the summer or for High Country residents, in the winter. It can be snowing in Boone while golfers are enjoying a game at Linville Falls Golf Club.

A group outing for two or three days is a perfect get-away, even for local residents. The course is fun and well worth playing, the inn is a treat, and dinner at Famous Louise’s or Spear’s BBQ in Linville Falls is six miles away. A side excursion into the state’s only cavern is only two miles away. A visit or hike in the Linville Gorge is minutes away.

Be careful. You might get the same bug that brought Russ McNutt back to the North Cove and end up staying here! If so, homesites with wonderful views are very reasonable.