Huntsville, Alabama is a thriving community due in large part to its proximity to the U.S. Army Redstone Arsenal and the U.S. Space and Rocket Center. Huntsville’s historic district contains over 65 homes built prior to the 1860s, and legend has it the invading Civil War troops thought they were so beautiful that they left them untouched.
Although Huntsville is immensely proud of its history and tradition, the city is also eager to embrace new ideas and technology as well as new residents and visitors. The area is growing, and they love golf, but there hadn’t been a new first-class country club built there in decades. In the late 1990s, Huntsville was ripe for a new golf course, but with golf courses there is no such thing as spontaneous generation. It takes a person to plant the seed, and a group of people to nurture the idea, put up the funds and grow the idea to fruition.
Fortunately for Huntsville there was John Blue and his family, who owned a large farm and part of a monolith known as Huntsville Mountain. The Ledges development encompassed over 750 acres. On top of the mountain was over 225 acres of beautiful, gently rolling woods and scenic 360° views of the surrounding valleys nearly 1,000 feet below. The reason the ground was still undeveloped was because it was "dag gum hard" to get up there. But in typical Huntsville spirit, the Blues knew they could find a way to the mountaintop, even if it meant rearranging the mountain a little.
I've said before, there are often engineering issues that profoundly shape a golf course routing. Three crucial ones are access road, clubhouse location and irrigation source. At The Ledges of Huntsville Mountain, it took an enormous amount of engineering and construction to create the fabulous 2.5-mile-long approach road up a steep mountain slope. It took even more know-how to be able to find a water source in the valley and pump water up 950’ of elevation to an enormous water tank. Selecting the clubhouse location and the dozens of home sites for the retro village-style development was comparatively easy, but not without some difficult decisions. One dilemma was whether to place the homes along the top rim of the mountain, to offer homeowners some spectacular long range views, and place the golf course in the interior, or build the golf holes along the super-valuable edge-of-the-cliff settings and position the housing in the interior of the site.
Since there was no practical way to compromise, John Blue and his investors decided to build the golf course out on the ledges. This resulted in some awe-inspiring golf holes. And the home sites still offer some great panoramas, over both the golf holes and the countryside beyond.
As we routed the golf course, our emphasis was to place the slice-side of most holes away from the cliffs. That means better players, who usually hook the ball, must worry about launching one off the mountaintop.
There were lots of nice mature trees to separate the village homes from the golf course, and best of all there was lots of nice topsoil. The topsoil was a surprise, for everywhere we looked, we saw rocks the size of small houses and sheer rock cliffs. Initially, we thought we'd have to truck topsoil up the mountain, which would have cost a million dollars or more. But since we found plenty of soil already up there, we took this as a sign that the caddy master in the sky had pre-selected this as golf course site. So our task was to design a course to play around the rocks and cliffs, taking advantage of their assets, keeping as many trees as possible, and making the golf course walkable. We succeeded on all counts except for a cart shuttle that carries walking golfers up a long hill from the sixth green to the seventh tee.
The Ledges was designed in the timeless style of raised tees, wide fairways, large undulating greens, simply-shaped bunkers and almost no gimmicks. One notable exception to the traditional design theme was the idea to put a 10-foot-deep sod-wall bunker in front of the 16th green.
Despite its old-style look, The Ledges incorporates the latest and best technology available. The turfgrasses are improved cultivars of bent greens, zoysia fairways and Bermuda roughs that can take the heat of summer, are pest resistant and require low fertilizer and water applications. Several greens have underground air pumps, which can remove excess moisture from the root zone when needed, or pump in cool air to relieve stress on the roots. The state-of-the-art irrigation system allows precise applications of precious water resources. Course superintendent Jim Howell, formerly at Tavern Creek in Missouri, had previous success growing grass on an Alabama golf course. There's nothing more critical to a golf course than a well-trained, experienced golf course superintendent. Give him or her the latest technology and a membership willing to fund top quality maintenance, and the playing conditions can be awesome.
Our intent at The Ledges was to let the site speak for itself by creating a place that would allow golfers to relax and enjoy the entire experience, unless they have an uncontrollable hook. Those golfers might consider just going for the scenery.