A golf course in a town named Kodak should be picturesque, and River Islands Golf Club doesn’t disappoint. The “River” is the French Broad, and aside from providing excellent shot-making opportunities and dramatic water views, it must be the source of some pretty bad puns.
No, the river isn’t named for Marie Antoinette or Brigitte Bardot (see, I warned you); actually, the term “Broad” in Colonial times was synonymous with “River,” and a French settlement sat astride the river upstream.
This Tennessee course is less than a half hour east of Knoxville, about four miles off Interstate 40. And despite its status as one of the state's best public courses, “The Islands,” as locals call it, was lightly trafficked the mid-July Monday I played. The first tee was open at 9 a.m., and I saw only a few golfers during my round. Greens fees, cart included, were a bargain $56 ($60 on weekends).
River Islands forces a few long carries and enough shaped shots to justify its rating of 72 and slope of 129 from the regular tees (6,300 yards), which I played. At its lengthiest, the course is 7,000 yards with a robust 75.4 rating and 133 slope. Designed by underrated Arthur Hills, it opened in 1991.
Hills has a portfolio of excellent designs and, in this correspondent’s opinion, should be mentioned in the same breath as the most celebrated architects of the last three decades. His designs are classic and links style, echoing the great designers of the early 20th Century. Like Donald Ross, Hills won’t ruin your day if you're a little awry off the tee. But if your short game is absent, you will be muttering for days.
The starting hole is a great example of the Hills style. At 356 yards (386 from the tips), it is a pleasant opener. From the tee, the routing is evident even without the excellent yardage card River Islands provides. With fairway traps on the left and a greenside trap front right, the strategy is clear: aim for the right center of the fairway and hit to mid-green on the second shot, providing a reasonable birdie opportunity.
The French Broad comes into play dramatically on third hole, a 175-yard par-3 that’s all carry over water to a green on one of the two river islands (five holes play to, from, or on these islands). This green is about 100 feet deep, but if the pin is near the front and you hit to the rear, you’ll have a queasy feeling as you putt straight downhill toward the river.
You hop from one island to the next on the fifth hole, another par-3 that, because of the river, looks a lot like No. 3.
The back nine is as much fun as the front, with Nos. 15 and 16 on the islands. The highlight is the short par-4 11th, just 342 yards and a modest dogleg right. Its green sits below fairway level, entirely fronted by mounding, giving a view of only the top of the flagstick. A small lake lapping up against the green comes into view.
Other notes I made about the back nine show the diversity of the Hills design:
>> The greens are tough to read; I saw break a few times where there was none
>> No. 15 is another great par-3 on the islands; the deep green is actually a peninsula into the river
>> The par-5 16th is reachable, but you’ll make at least a bogey if you hook your second shot into the French Broad
River Islands' staff was friendly and helpful, but the clubhouse is nothing to write home about. No matter; as I had my post-round quaff, vivid memories remained of a wonderful layout, challenging but not exhausting, and a round played along a river that demands good shots.