Valdosta has Wildcats and Ham and Egg Show, but little golf, with one big exception

By Tim McDonald, Contributor

VALDOSTA, Ga. - Valdosta, Georgia is home to the Valdosta High School Wildcats, probably the most powerful high school football program in the country - and little else.

Yeah sure, they have Valdosta State University and Wild Adventures theme park, but if you ask anybody who's lived in Valdosta for any length of time what the name of the game is, they'll point you in the direction of Cleveland Field and Bazemore-Hyder Stadium, named after the two coaches who took the Wildcats to high school heaven.

Valdosta is one of those mid-sized Georgia towns most people pass by on the interstate. Like most small, southern towns, they're obsessed with their own history here, but there is a legitimacy to it here - "Doc" Holiday was a respected dentist - of all things - in town before tuberculosis forced him to move West. He may be the only dentist turned famous gambler/gunfighter in history.

Just north of the Florida state line, between Thomasville and Homerville, Valdosta has one airport, one art gallery and more churches than you can shake a hymnal at.

It does have a symphony orchestra, but for the most part, folks in Valdosta enjoy their unsophisticated lifestyle ("I'm a simple man looking for a simple woman," reads one personal ad).

Pine trees are big here, literally and figuratively, providing both aesthetics and commerce. The business district grew rapidly starting in 1890 and came to an abrupt halt in the late 1920s. Now, mostly, they're satisfied renovating old southern mansions and reminiscing about the way things used to be.

With a population around 50,000 - one of the biggest employers in town is Crackin' Good Bakers - people who move tend to not stay long. The "length of stay since moving" is well below the state average, according to census figures.

Still, it's a pretty city once you get off the interstate, with all the blooming azaleas in spring. Unfortunately for the golfer driving through to Florida, there aren't many options to choose from, with one big exception.

Must plays

- The dominant feature of Kinderlou Forest Golf Club is an old borrow pit that comes into play early on. The dirt from the ravine was used to help build U.S. Highway 84, which was started back in the 1920s and which now reaches to Colorado, with one extension running to the Texas/Mexico border.

The deep ravine is a dramatic, man-made feature, with its red Georgia clay, and gives some holes an almost, canyonesque, Southwest feel. The course is difficult, measuring 7,781 yards from the back tees, a handful even for the pros. The club has already hosted a Hooters Tour tournament, with the winning score 3-under - that's far tougher than most venues that host the tour.

"That kind of set the tone for the kind of golf course it is," Bishop said.

That tone is set fairly early, on the 657-yard, par-5 fourth hole, a dogleg right. Your second shot is over a creek, if you want to play it safe. It you're going for the green in two, you're facing down the aforementioned borrow pit with its steep embankment looming like a fortress. It's like something out of the wild West.

"I don't think it's a golf course where you can play scared. You can't play timid," said head pro Jim Bishop. "But, it's a pretty straightforward course. Even on No. 4, you can still see everything in front of you; you know where to hit it."

Solid seconds

- Valdosta Country Club is one of the older institutions in Valdosta, dating back to 1917 when it opened with nine holes featuring sand greens. It wasn't until 1937 that the greens were converted to grass and an additional nine holes were built in 1938.

The original clubhouse was destroyed by fire in 1958 and a new one built a year later. The club expanded in 1967 when it bought 238 acres of the Cherokee Plantation and Joe Lee designed an additional holes.

The course is the second-best play in Valdosta, behind Kinderlou, and offers some very uncharacteristic elevation changes, particularly on the Plantation course. It's a relatively easy, straightforward course, though with some holes that will test your mettle.

- Stone Creek Country Club, opened in 1992. They took a former cattle ranch, moved some earth for the mounds, dredged the existing lakes and added some more while they were at it. The course is lined with mossy, old oaks - what part of Georgia doesn't have mossy, old oaks? - and has a semi-rural feel despite the homes that line it and its proximity to a major interstate.

There is also a sort of lowland swamp feel to it, though it lacks the claustrophobic feel frequently associated with swamps.

- You might care to nit-pick about the Francis Lake Golf Club's proximity to all those stores and strip malls or the fact it's flat and not overly challenging.

But, one thing you can't gripe about is the price. Like anywhere else, you want some bang for your buck, and that's where Francis Lake delivers.

With green fees at $26 weekdays and $35 weekends, the course attracts more area golfers than any other course around, including Kinderlou Forest, Stone Creek or the Valdosta Country Club.

- The military has some great courses, but unfortunately Quiet Pines at Moody Air Force Base isn't one of them. It seems a bit unpatriotic to gripe about the military budget in this time of war, but there's no getting around it - Quiet Pines is a casualty.

Quiet Pines superintendent Bill Breecher does wonders with the money he's provided, but the course still suffers from under-maintenance.

The fairways are brown and patchy and the greens have quite a few rough spots. They're quick, though, measuring about an eight on the stimpmeter.

This isn't a course you would go out of your way to play, but at 6,732 yards and a slope rating of 123, there are easier courses around, though not many.

Off course

Called "The Azalea City" by its residents, the town has its annual Azalea Festival in March, preceded of course by the annual Ham and Egg Show in February.

There is Wild Adventures, but a better bet is the Grand Bay Wildlife Management, a protected wetland area second in size only to the Okeefenokee Swamp to the east. Travel by boat through Blackgum Swamp for a real treat.

For the sweetest treat, though, catch the Wildcats during football season.

Dining out

Kinderlou has a 9,400 square foot clubhouse with a glass-enclosed dining area, and Lulu's Restaurant on North Patterson Street has a fine menu.

Otherwise, it's mostly fast food, with Sonny's, Bob Evans and the like. Or try Old Times Country Buffet for a heaping mess of old-time vittles, Vito's Rock and Roll Pizzeria or the Fish Net for fried, boiled and steamed seafood.

Stay and play

There are the usual interstate chain motels, so try the Fairview Inn Bed and Breakfast on River Street in the city's oldest residential neighborhood, listed on the National Historic Register.

Tim McDonaldTim McDonald, Contributor

Veteran golf writer Tim McDonald keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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