RedTail Mountain growing against the grain

Joe Avento • May 21, 2014 at 7:54 AM

MOUNTAIN CITY — They're going against the grain at RedTail Mountain Resort.

In a nationwide climate where more golf courses are closing than being built, the new owners at the Johnson County resort are banking that a big investment will pay off handsomely.

"Maybe we're crazy, but we've been in business before and we saw a good opportunity here to take this and do more than just golf, to build it into a resort," RedTail Mountain general manager Vernon Brady says.

Last weekend, the resort was the site of the sixth Battle of the Smokies, an almost-annual event that pits golf journalists from Tennessee against their brethren from North Carolina. The Tar Heels hung on for a 32-28 victory, but as has been the case in the five previous events, nobody left feeling like a loser.

That's because the event's hosts, resort owner Lyle Habermehl and Brady, put on quite a display of hospitality. From the luxurious on-site accommodations to the food prepared in the clubhouse restaurant to the 32-year-old scenic course, it all added up to quite a weekend.

It's that kind of hospitality the new owners want to convey to potential resort guests.

"We want people who come here to really enjoy themselves, really feel like they're somewhere special," Brady said.

Habermehl, a Canadian businessman, bought the resort out of bankruptcy on the last day of 2012.

"A lot of folks are backing off on golf," says RedTail Mountain's longtime golf professional, Sam Adams. "Mr. Habermehl is full bore. He has great plans and he's gonna do them. Lots of people have great plans, but they don't do them. He is doing them."

Those plans are already in the works. The owners have invested in the course, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to refurbish all the bunkers. The green-side traps now have new sand, liners and drainage systems, and the fairway bunkers are in the process of being fixed.

The course has remained somewhat of a hidden gem, used by golfers from Tennessee and North Carolina as well as visitors from other states. The true mountain course features views of the nearby hills and elevation changes of around 400 feet.

The near future includes some dramatic changes to the course as well. The new owners have already switched nines -- the current front nine used to be the back and vice versa -- in hopes of creating a better atmosphere around the first tee and 18th green with a new pro shop currently under construction.

But the biggest change will be the addition of three new mountain holes which have already been approved and are in the process of being designed and tweaked by Adams. They're expected to be added in the next two years.

"They will be the most spectacular holes on the golf course," Habermehl said. "There will be some changes to the way the golf course plays."

Another planned change is the addition of what is being called a "huge new practice area." RedTail Mountain's current practice area is small and limits golfers to hitting irons.

Counting the time the bank owned RedTail Mountain while it was in bankruptcy, the course has had four owners. Two things have remained constant since it opened in June of 1982 -- spectacular mountain views and Adams.

Adams, the only pro the course has ever had, was in from the beginning, moving fence rows as the course was originally laid out. He worked with Dan and Ellis Maples as they designed what used to be known s Roan Valley Golf Estates.

"Sam's an icon in the community," Brady said. "We knew right off he was somebody who needs to stay at RedTail Mountain. The golfers love him."

Adams, a former player and coach at Appalachian State in nearby Boone, North Carolina, was quite a golfer in his day. He became the first American lefty to win on the PGA Tour when he captured the 1973 Quad Cities Open.

"It's been so long now and there have been so many successful left-handers that it's not such a big deal," Adams said. "Two of the top 10 players in the world are left-handers in Phil Mickelson and Bubba Watson."

As the management team will tell you, even though the golf course is the focal point of the resort, RedTail Mountain is striving to be known for more than just golf. The resort bought 32 acres on Watauga Lake for its guests to use. Two clay tennis courts and a pool are under construction next to the resort's clubhouse.

Hiking and biking trails are planned as is a full service spa.

In addition, the new pro shop will allow the clubhouse, all 20,000 square feet of it, to serve as the hub of the non-golf-related resort activities. It also includes a restaurant, The Vistas, worth driving to Mountain City for, whether you're playing golf or not.

"We pulled back from selling lots," Brady said. "We're almost ready to do it. We knew we had to build that base of amenities so people would want to come here. Rather than talking about what we may do one day and make a lot of promises, we decided we would build the amenities first and then we would have something to bring people here.

"When they come, they'll have a great time."

The resort has 21 guest rooms, and the condos were once for sale for $400,000 each. They are now rental units and can be used as part of golf packages or rented individually. They feature comfortable furnishings and fireplaces, and large windows offer views of the golf course and surrounding mountains.

"When outsiders come in and see the beautiful facilities ... it's refreshing to hear them say this is one of the finest places," Brady said.

Habermehl sees the resort's growth as a potential shot in the arm for the economy of Johnson County.

"Our job at RedTail is more about bringing people in and providing jobs to Johnson County and seeing it grow," he said. "The lake is spectacular. The mountains are spectacular. This area has a lot going for it. It has great people. It has all the beauty that God blessed it with. And our job is to bring the people here and expose them to this beauty, and hopefully impact the entire community, not just RedTail Mountain."

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