Rally 'round Roanoke when you're in western Virginia

By Patrick Jones, Contributor

ROANOKE, Va. -- It is Sneed rather than Snead that this southwest Virginia city can claim as one of its own who reached golf's highest echelons as a player.

Ed Sneed, a Roanoke native, experienced a respectable degree of success as a professional, winning four PGA Tour events in his career. He was a member of the winning 1977 Ryder Cup team. Sneed flirted with a major championship in 1979 when he led the Masters by three strokes with three holes to play before losing to Fuzzy Zoeller in a sudden-death playoff.

Sam Snead, of course, was one of the game's all-time greats. It's a stretch to call him a native son of Roanoke because his mountainous resort hometown of Hot Springs is 70 miles almost due north, but the close proximity of "Slamming Sammy" made him an intimately followed golf icon here prior to his passing in 2002 at the age of 89.

Roanoke knows a star when it sees one -- golfer or otherwise.

The town of approximately a quarter-of-a-million residents, located 240 miles southwest of Washington D.C., and 200 miles north of Charlotte, N.C., is known as the "Star City of the South." Its most prominent and visible attraction is a 100-foot-tall illuminated star atop Mill Mountain that has been a Roanoke Valley landmark and beacon since 1949.

The star shines over a region that is a recreational haven for outdoor enthusiasts -- the Appalachian Trail and Blue Ridge Parkway are easily accessible on the outskirts of town -- and that includes plenty of quality golf.

Course architect Russell Breeden has been prolific in this area. Some of his designs include Ashley Plantation, Westlake, London Downs Golf Club and Hanging Rock in nearby Salem. Ellis Maples added Olde Mill Resort and Countryside Golf Club to the Roanoke Valley mix.

One of the region's most recent and spectacular layouts is The River Course of Virginia Tech near Radford, an Ault/Clark & Associates design that is a 45-minute drive southwest of Roanoke on Interstate 81. All 18 holes on this links-style course play directly alongside the picturesque New River. A broad body of water, the New is unique in that it is one of the few rivers in the world that flows northward, and is the second oldest river on the planet behind the Nile.

Of the courses mentioned, The River Course, Hanging Rock and Olde Mill Resort are a trio that you should include in your itinerary.

The River Course of Virginia Tech

Located 15 minutes from Blacksburg, home of Virginia Polytechnic and State University (Virginia Tech), the River Course is the home layout for the Hokies golf teams. Golf Digest voted it one of its "Best New Courses" in 2000. The course is situated on 2.5 miles of the New River and some of the holes sit so tightly on its bank that a mediocre shot could find your Titleist being carried in the current toward West Virginia.

It is a scenic layout that is totally attuned with nature. Don't be surprised to find your eyes constantly wandering to take in the surroundings. Wild turkeys can sometimes be spotted crossing the fairway as the course turns homeward on the back nine.

No. 18 is a classic closing hole that will put championships and career rounds to a finishing test. The 476-yard par-4, ranked the No. 2 handicap hole, requires a long and straight carry on the tee shot. Except for the longest hitters, a fairway wood or long iron will be necessary to hit the small and tightly tucked green. The ever-present and serene New River threatens a harsh penalty for golfers who stray right.

Future plans call for a clubhouse high on a bluff overlooking the New River and a state-of-the-art practice facility that will be the envy of the rest of the Big East, uh, Atlantic Coast Conference golf teams once it's completed.

Hanging Rock Golf Club

"The Rock," as it's affectionately known by its denizens, has been chosen "Best in the Area" for almost a decade by readers of the Roanoker Magazine. While spouting accolades, Washington Golf Monthly chose it one of its "100 Must Play Courses" in the Mid-Atlantic region.

This course grabs your attention on the first hole. A tee shot over water begins the 500-yard par 5, which sweeps dramatically left and uphill into the surrounding mountains.

A unique feature of this course is giving golfers a choice of medicine on the signature fifth hole. The 392-yard, par-4 hoel features two separate -- and disparate -- greens. After launching your tee shot off a very steep precipice, you have the option of staying straight and shooting back uphill to a blind green or turning 30 degrees to the right and firing over water to a green tucked on the back side of a pond. The best advice on which green to shoot for is that you make the decision prior to reaching the top of your backswing.

Olde Mill Resort

Olde Mill Resort features a Golf Digest 4.5-star Ellis Maples layout. Opened in 1973, the course sits just off the Blue Ridge Parkway in Laurel Fork, Va. With 70 bunkers and water coming into play on 15 holes, it ranks as one of the most challenging layouts in the area.

Olde Mill is a full-service resort that offers condo rentals, tennis courts, an indoor pool and a restaurant, among other amenities.

Where to stay/golf packages

Golf packages that include two nights of accommodations, three rounds of golf with cart, and free breakfast can be had for as little as $149 (2003 prices) in the Roanoke Valley.

At the top of the stay-and-play list is The Hotel Roanoke & Conference Center, a Doubletree Hotel located in the heart of downtown Roanoke. This vintage hotel with 332 rooms and 19 suites was built in 1882. It has been restored to its 19th century elegance, including its Florentine marble floors, and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Hotel Roanoke & Conference Center
110 Shenandoah Ave.
Roanoke, Va. 24016
(540) 985-5900
For reservations call 800-222-TREE

Accommodations at the Comfort Inn Airport (866-247-3430) provide another golf package option to consider. The hotel is centrally located to most golf courses in the area and is also near the Roanoke Regional Airport and Valley View Mall. Interstate 81 is just minutes away.

For information on accommodations and numerous golf package options in the Roanoke Valley, call (877) GOLF-MTN (465-3686) or check out the Web site visitroanokeva.com

Where to dine

Make sure to try the peanut soup specialty in the Hotel Roanoke Regency Dining Room. The elegant restaurant provides a lavish breakfast and luncheon buffet, followed by an extensive a la carte dinner menu.

You can walk out the hotel's front entrance and cross the enclosed Market Square Bridge to downtown Roanoke, with its mix of galleries, shops and restaurants.

For informal dining, and a general all-around good time, try The Corned Beef & Co. Bar and Grill at 107 S. Jefferson St. It has won a slew of best-of awards from readers of the Roanoker Magazine, including top ratings for "Best Bar Food," "Best Nightspot" and "Best Dancing."

Frankie Rowlands Steak House, located at 104 N. Jefferson St., was selected "Best Restaurant" by the magazine's voters.

Another option within a short stroll is Awful Arthur's, a delectable seafood spot. Arthur might be awful, but the dining here definitely is not.

If you want to rub elbows with the inner circle of long-time Roanokers, don't miss the Roanoker Restaurant, particularly for big breakfasts and a constantly filled coffee cup.

Off Course

Make it a point to find your way to the Roanoke Star on top of Mill Mountain, particularly at night. The view of the lights of Roanoke and the surrounding valley is well worth the effort. The adjacent Mill Mountain Zoological Park features a Siberian Tiger.

Roanoke's downtown open-air Farmer's Market has been operating since 1882. You'll find fresh produce and plants, as well as shopping, restaurants, museums and antique shops in the market area.

The Virginia Museum of Transportation, six blocks from the market area, features classic steam engines and an array of other locomotive-related paraphernalia from this city's past, which was squarely built on the railroad industry.

Patrick JonesPatrick Jones, Contributor

Patrick Jones was the senior producer for ESPN's "Lower Your Score with Tom Kite" CD-ROM instructional golf training series. He spent six years as a full-time sports writer and was awarded first-place honors for column writing from both the Florida and Texas sports writers associations.

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