Auburn Hills Golf Club

By John Eckberg, Contributor

RINER, VA - The question is a timeless one: why does it take 10 Virginians to change a light bulb? The answer is fairly simple.

One guy has to actually go and get the ladder and replace the bulb. Nine other Virginians are needed to watch and talk and mutter about how that sure was a good old bulb - a fine old bulb - what a great old bulb that was - that was a good old bulb.

In other words, like many who are born and live in the south, Virginians are not real big on change and generally prefer tradition and the ways things were, a whole lot more than how things have become.

That's why, when about 250 or so acres of an old dairy farm along Virginia Route 8 became the Auburn Hills Golf Course about three years ago, many from this corner of Virginia, south of Christiansburg, doubtlessly shrugged their shoulders and lamented how things are not what they used to be.

Instead of Heifers wandering through those rolling pastures, today there are hackers. Instead of full, hot days of putting up hay, today there are steaming afternoons of plain old putting.

The course takes its name from the local high school, but also because these hills are just that for at least one season a year: auburn. It is the auburn of a chestnut mare when the oak leaves turn from green to gold and the flaming maple light up a country morning.

Only 6,534 yards from the blue tees, the toughness of the course depends in large measure upon the dozens of giant sand traps that splay across most fairways and surround most greens. Oh, and there's one other thing. Though a few are large and a 60-foot putt inevitably awaits once or twice on this course, some of these greens are really dinky, as in tiny, tiny, tiny. Look at your living room floor. That's about how big the green is at No.13. Well, maybe not that small but it sure seems that way from the fringe.

And it's perched on a knob so that the wayward shot that happens to go long, leaves the lucky golfer with an uphill pitch or at worse, fishing through his bag for a new ball because his old ball is long gone into some ancient pines.

Regional golfers have apparently taken to this track because of the challenge and because there are few options in this corner of Virginia for great public golf.

"We have tight fairways," says Jimmy Williams, Head Golf Pro. "We get lots of compliments on challenging conditions. The greens are very sloping and undulating. The average player will have a lot of three putts, and if he's not careful, a four-putt. And even a scratch golfer will be fighting off those three putts."

Though the golf is great, the setting is equally dramatic. This is a premier destination for the golfer who likes to mingle travel and leisure with golf. The course is about 20 miles off the Blue Ridge Parkway, one of America's most treasured and popular tourist attractions.

Americans have always had a love affair with wandering and few places in the nation have as strong a grip on a traveler's heart as this parkway through southwestern Virginia. The parkway brings about 10 million visitors annually to ridges and dales that are dusted with equal parts cloud and mist and have names like Smart View or Meadows of Dan.

There are lots of things to do when not golfing. The best times to visit Auburn Hills may be the first weekend of May or the first weekend after Thanksgiving when eight fine artists throw open their studios to welcome art lovers and buyers to this historic corner of the Old Dominion.

It is called the 16 Hands Tour and several of the artists are winners of NEA Visual Arts Grants, others teach at nearby universities and a handful are just knock-your-socks-off good, with showings in galleries from Soho to South Beach in Miami.

Also, look for authentic down-home music at the bluegrass jamboree every Friday night at Cockram's General Store in Floyd, about a half-hour from the course.

Inside the store, all the hardware, the shelves and goods get moved out to make way for folding chairs and, up front, the stage and dance floor. Dancing might be too strong a word for it, though. Shuffling is the thing and 7- to 70-year-olds will crowd before the quartet to clog.

Fiddlers, banjo players and the fastest mandolin pickers you ever saw offer high-wattage fun for regulars and an eye-opener for visitors on what a night of entertainment must have been like in an historic America that is not so distant after all.

But it's not music that brings visitors to this neck of the Commonwealth. In May, lingering redbud in deep purple, azaleas in flaming orange and white dogwood blossoms fill the parkway each spring, blossoms that literally drip over the road apron. In the fall, with the leaves all gone, the views open up, and if a traveler ever wondered what forever must look like, he could get an inkling from the parkway.

Or from the tee on the 168-yard par three 14th at Auburn Hills.

Algie Pulley, Course Architect, wound his lay-out through woods that haunt more holes on the backside than on the front where play is more links-style. The L-93 bent grass greens and rye-bluegrass fairways have the feel of a course much older than three years.

"Scratch golfers think they can come here and eat this place alive," Williams said. "It doesn't happen. A lot of people end up searching for par."

Distance with the sticks doesn't matter half as much as accuracy as rolling fairways means some blind shots are inevitable. And then there are those enormous bunkers that guarantee that your sand wedge will always be in the game at Auburn Hills.

The signature hole on the course is the par 3 No. 17 - a 190-yard downhill poke over two lakes that are side-by-side and guard the large green. No. 18 is a perfect finisher, too. It's a dogleg par 5 at 516 yards from the blue tees, and looking back from the green at the course, with the rolling Blue Ridge Mountains in the distance, a golfer realizes that sometimes change is not such a bad thing after all.

John Eckberg, Contributor

John Eckberg has been a life-long bogey golfer, whose addiction to the sport began with nine-iron pitches to and from neighbor Frank Haines's back yard and on the golf courses in and around Akron, Ohio. His fondest golf memories date to his teenaged-years when he and his brother would annually sneak into PGA events at Firestone Country Club, then spend the day eluding marshals as part of the army that trailed Arnold Palmer.

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