Swingin’ for the Smokies
Craig Hartle just might have the best job in Western North Carolina.
The head golf professional for High Hampton Inn and Country Club in Cashiers, Hartle spends his days instructing any and all visitors ready to step foot on the majestic 18-hole course that snakes through the rich and varied landscape of the Southern Appalachians.
“My aspect of golf is everything,” he said. “You’re dealing with people who are having a great time enjoying the course. I like it all – teaching, administering, selling merchandise and playing.”
Designed by famed architect George W. Cobb, the course features bent grass greens, which play at 6,012 yards from the back tees. Dubbed the “island,” the beloved eighth hole has been designated by Golf Digest as “One of America’s Great Golf Holes.” Situated amid an array of pines, hemlocks and mountain laurel, the fairways are surrounded by towering mountain peaks, all in effort to provide the player a comfortable but challenging experience, one completely unique in the storied history of courses in the Southeast.
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“A lot of the new courses, especially the ones being built today, are just too hard, and it’ll scare away people from ever coming back to play it,” Hartle said. “Here, we have the opportunity to take any guest in the inn and get them on the course. I can take a beginning family, give them a lesson and tell them to go play, and they can.”
And though other courses can seem daunting or intimidating, Hartle encourages the newcomer or novice to try High Hampton. It has something for everyone, and at the end of the day it’s about getting more people interested in a game that takes a day to learn but a lifetime to master.
“The biggest misconception with golf is that it’s hard,” he said. “It’s one of those games that a lot of people don’t try because they think they’ll never be able to get that ball all the way down the fairway to that small hole.”
But, with anything in life, practice makes perfect. Hartle points to the importance of getting a lesson to start with, one that will provide you with the basic fundamental information that will increase your enjoyment and skill set on the course.
“Instruction is very important and some people avoid it completely, and they just never get better,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how good you get, it’s always good to get a lesson, get that other eye looking at you to se if you need to tweak your arm or hand when you swing.”
Growing up in Pennsylvania, Hartle was raised in a golfing family. By the age of three, he was already at the range, hitting balls and quickly immersing himself in a sport he loved. He soon worked his way up the ranks, entering junior golf programs and winning tournaments in high school and college.
“Immediately, when I started to physically find myself in the golf business, that was when I said this was it, this is what I wanted to do,” he smiled.
A golf professional for the last 29 years (with 26 of those as a Class-A PGA professional), Hartle has been at High Hampton since 2010. Before that, he served as the Director of Golf at the renowned Echelon Golf Club/Georgia Tech Club in Alpharetta, Ga. He has won more than 33 professional events and is a two-time Georgia PGA Champion (1986, 1995). In 2006, he was chosen as Golf Professional of the Year for the Georgia PGA.
“I’ve played at the highest level competitively and let me tell you, your knees shake and hands shakes no matter how good you’re playing,” he chuckled. “It’s nerve-racking until you’re a few holes into it. Even for the best players, they have nerves too, right from the start.”
But awards aside, it’s still just about going out there and teeing up that ball on the first hole, ultimately immersing yourself in the magic and lore of the fairway.
“With golf, you can play from age three to 93,” he said. “We have members in their 80s who get on the course every Tuesday and Thursday to ‘play with the gang.’”
Looking towards the future of golf, Hartle sees the playing field becoming more and more level as technology evolves and players are figuring out what techniques work best for their specific needs and styles. The competition is wide open, and that’s the best part.
“Technology has gotten almost to the point at the top of bell curve, and I think that’s the exciting part of the business,” he said. “It’s up to us as golf professionals to get more people involved in golf from a tourist standpoint. It’s about the excitement of getting people interested.”
Now a staple of the local golf community, Hartle is proud to call High Hampton his home. Besides the allure of a small, peaceful mountain town, Cashiers provides the optimum weather conditions for endless months of playing opportunities. Being geared for the family, High Hampton also offers a children’s program, fly fishing, tennis, boating and hiking, amongst other outdoor activities. The possibilities are endless, which is exactly why people flock to Western North Carolina.
“It’s the weather, the lack of traffic, the seasonal aspect of it all here,” he said. “There are a lot of great vistas and the course has mountain views that are phenomenal, and that’s for everyone around here.”