Harrah’s Cherokee Casino is growing faster than a spinning slot machine reel.
The resort destination bordering the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has a new luxury hotel that towers over the town of Cherokee, it recently opened a pair of 1,900-square-foot high roller suites on the 21st floor and a Ruth’s Chris Steak House is on the way — all important components to the only casino in North Carolina.
But near the top of the “wish list” of casino amenities for gamblers was golf.
“One of the demographics of our customers is an experience that has several dimensions to it, and one of their passions is golf, so it’s natural you would want to put golf, great good, entertainment and gambling together,” said Gary Loveman, a Harrah’s official who was in the mountains prior to Memorial Day to sign a seven-year extension between the gaming giant and the Cherokee resort.
“Our better customers expect to be able to combine golf with a casino resort experience. And here it is such a beautiful setting.”
Las Vegas, Atlantic City and other noted gaming destinations have combined golf and gambling for years. Heck, even states like Mississippi have joined the fun along the Gulf Coast.
After a $16 million investment to build Sequoyah National, Harrah’s Cherokee Casino now has a unique mountain golf setting that is truly a wild ride, offering up some of the most magnificent panoramic mountain views of any course in the country.
When asked about the price tag to build Sequoyah National, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Principal Chief Michell Hicks bowed his back and didn’t blink.
“Just don’t try to overpower it because it will eat your lunch,” Hicks said of the $16 million course managed by Troon Golf.
Keeping score at Sequoyah National is optional since the stunning views will likely distract the mental side of your game the first time around the layout. Don’t fight the feeling, put the pencil away and enjoy the variety (five par 5s and five par 3s) and absolute beauty – all while accepting the difficulty of the Robert Trent Jones II design.
“One of the comments we get a lot is it’s like you’re playing golf in the clouds,” said golf pro Ryan Lanzen.
Jones is based in California and has done his share of mountain golf designs in the Rockies and overseas, but tackling the drastic topography of this site was an admitted challenge.
“It was a difficult site from a tactical point of view,” Jones said. “Having learned my golf architecture in the Far West we’re used to three dimensional designs, so we could handle it. We did move a lot of dirt; we re-crafted the land to suit the golf experience. We accelerated geologic time where necessary and we filled up areas to hold the golf shots so they wouldn’t roll off the edge of the earth.”
Jones bordered most of the course with tall fescue, which will stop errant shots from rolling a significant distance off line, as well as providing a dramatic color contrast in the fall foliage months.
“This course tosses and turns all the way around. Some of the finishing holes are low down by the creek, so you’ve got a lot of change, a lot of variety and ambiance, as well as a lot of different kinds of holes,” he said. “The variety is certainly intriguing to the golfers, but fitting it into the landscape was not easy.”
Like the second hole for example, a 166-yard par 3 that has a massive ravine between the tee box and a green guarded in front and behind by a series of mountain boulders in the form of stacked walls.
“We came to this spot on the course and said, ‘How are we going to get this in here?’ Jones said. “We placed it in there like an eyebrow. It’s either a ‘you do or you don’t’ type of hole, but it seems to work.”
And then there is No. 15, which appears on the cardboard scorecard as a 408-yard par-4, but reveals itself as you step on the elevated tee box as a stunning 285-foot drop to the fairway below. For Jones, used to significant drops in design at some of his other courses, even this hole was a near record.
“What’s interesting when you have a huge drop like that is there is an initial exhilaration, but the longer the ball hangs in the air the more wind can play on it, so the ball can lose forward energy and begin to drop like a rock,” Jones said. “So you can’t control the outcome as much as you think you can.”
Sequoyah National isn’t long at 6,602 from the tips, but there are three par 3s that measure 217 yards or longer, including the 234-yard sixth hole, which is a relatively flat hole that plays over a scenic lake.
“The par 3s are definitely the meat of the golf course and the great equalizer,” Lanzen said. “Our No. 1 handicap hole is a par 3 and that’s not very common.”
The cart paths (all 9 miles of them) are as fun as the golf course as Jones used them to provide “uphill rides” and “downhill or flat holes” on the mountain land.
“On these downhill elevation shots you feel exhilarated, and then we tried to step ladder it back up the hills in a way that the change in elevation occurred between the greens and tees so you weren’t playing straight up hill all the time,” Jones said.
Sure, you’ll lose a ball or two – or more – if you pull out your driver on every hole, but expect Sequoyah National to soften some over time and mature into a must-stop golf trip when headed from the Triangle to western North Carolina.
“You have beauty in every direction,” Jones said. “We didn’t have to focus on one hill or the ocean. It’s a glorious setting, particularly in the fall when all the leaves turn colors.”
“This is one of the most sought after resort areas in the United States,” added Loveman. “It’s stunning, it’s gorgeous, and golf in that context is a lot of fun.”