When Innsbruck Golf Club opened in Helen in the late 1980s, the course was a popular destination for golfers in the metro Atlanta area looking for a little cooler weather during the hot summer months, as well as a unique experience in the German-themed city.
Eventually, Innsbruck’s reputation as a destination resort began to fade, as the golf course underwent several ownership change, gas prices rose and newer and more upscale golf resorts in the northern part of the state emerged as competition.
Innsbruck has been quiet on the Georgia golf scene for the past two decades or so, but that is in the process of changing. A five-star boutique hotel recently began construction on golf course property, and is expected to open in the summer of 2017.
Following the completion of the hotel, phase 2 of construction will begin, featuring bungalows built around the hotel. The hotel will be enjoyed by golfers and non-golfers alike, and will raise the profile of a resort that has plenty to offer.
“It’s always been Innsbruck Golf and Resort,” says Mike McCall, the club’s long time head professional. “But we’ve never had full resort features. Having overnight lodging versus rental homes will create a new atmosphere.”
Innsbruck will continue to offer rental homes for visitors looking to stay in the Helen area for a week or two, but the new Valhalla Resort Hotel will provide a more intimate option for a night or a few days.
The boutique hotel will consist of 25 all-king suites, with an exclusive VIP Suite and a conference room for private dinners and meetings. The hotel will include an upscale restaurant and lobby bar, with each room featuring luxury bedding, a fireplace, a sitting area, a spa bath and a private balcony with mountain views.
There will be an observation lounge on the fourth floor of the hotel, with its amenities including a pool, hot tub, spa, gym and steam room.
In addition to the construction of an on-site hotel, Innsbruck has undergone some other physical changes, with the 2400 square foot golf pro shop having been relocated upstairs with an indoor hitting area and Callaway Fitting Facility added to it.
After Innsbruck went through what McCall describes as “several different owners,” the homeowners association purchased the course during the hard economic times of 2009 and “kept us viable,” McCall says.
With more concerned and active ownership involvement, Innsbruck has stabilized after some lean years for the golf industry, and McCall says there was a significant increase in play in 2015, and the numbers have improved even more this year.
McCall credits that in large part to the quality conditions of the course, particularly the greens, which he believes are “as good as they are anywhere.”
As a resort-oriented course with a strong local membership, Innsbruck serves a dual need for the community of Helen. And with the homeowners association operating the club, they have a strong incentive to ensure that both aspects of the club are being properly served.
“It’s like being two different facilities,” says McCall, who has a major role in making sure that both constituencies are taken care of.
The golf course opened in 1987 and was designed by Bill Watts, a south Florida-based architect who also did the layout at Sky Valley some 15 years earlier. Innsbruck is a playable, entertaining mountain design, and offers the aesthetically pleasing visuals of a mountain-style course, along with considerably cooler temperatures than golfers throughout the state are accustomed to during the Summer.
Along with the wonderful views of the nearby mountains, a round at Innsbruck typically includes up close and personal views of the wildlife that live on and around the course, and help make the relatively short drive from metro Atlanta a worthwhile endeavor.
“Innsbruck is a true mountain course,” McCall says, with the layout sporting some of the challenges you expect in a mountain setting.
“Some courses, you can hit the ball anywhere,” McCall points out. “This is a true target course and is like the game that used to be played.”
With Innsbruck measuring only 6,500 yards from the back tees and 6,000 from the whites, length is less a concern than accuracy, especially since many of the tees are elevated. For the most part, the landing areas tilt a bit uphill to reduce the run on tee shots, and the uphill nature of many of the approach shots helps to balance out the impact of the elevated tees.
Innsbruck is reasonably tight off the tee, with almost all the holes featuring dense tree lines that are within reach of an errant drive. Some of the holes are bordered by friendly mounds that will re-direct tee shots back towards the fairway. Others include sharp slopes that will not react kindly to excessive hooks or slices.
Watts’ design keeps blind shots, often the bane of mountain layouts, to a bare minimum. Water is seriously in play on five of the holes, and they are among the most interesting on the course, most notably the signature par-3 15th.
The stunning hole drops about 150 feet from the back tee, which measures around 180 yards. Trees surround the green on three sides, with water short and the trees looming long if you take too much club. The view is spectacular, but the challenge is considerable.
The remaining par 3s are not quite as eye-opening as the 15th, but both 4 and 8 include sharp drop-offs to the sides of long, fairly narrow greens flanked on both sides by bunkers, while the mostly tame 11th plays fractionally uphill.
Although the 15th gets the most attention, the par-4 ninth was cited several years ago by Arnold Palmer’s Kingdom magazine as one of country’s best ninth holes. The hole is a modest 380 yards, with a lake at the end of the fairway on the downhill, dogleg right in play for those playing more aggressively than necessary, along with a creek that winds down the right side. The lake hugs the green left and long, with a sizeable bunker fronting a wide, shallow putting surface that sits below the Bavarian style clubhouse.
Water guards the left side of the opening fairway, but at just 360 yards with a receptive mound right of the fairway, is not quite as imposing an opener as it appears. Accuracy is the key on most of the remaining par 4s, at least until you get to the long and demanding 18th, which offers a little more fairway but begins with trees tight to the left of the tee and has hazards at differing spots on both sides prior to reaching the sloping green.
For the challenge Innsbruck poses because of its elevation changes and frequently narrow fairways, the putting surfaces also provide a healthy test, with several of them featuring appreciable amounts of slope that make for some touchy efforts from above the hole.
With a nice mix of mid-range and shorter par 4s, Innsbruck provides scoring opportunities on a variety of holes, although some of the shorter par 4s sport fairways that can leave you with an uncomfortable downhill lie if your drive goes past the high spot of the fairway. Among those is the 13th, which has lost a large amount of length from the back tee over the years.
All four of the par 5s are also shorter than they once were, especially the 16th, at one time the toughest of the par 5s. The hole still has water running almost the entire length of the hole and trouble to the right along with a hard to hold sloping green with a prominent front right bunker, but is much more comfortable from a distance standpoint.
The seventh is the risk/reward member of the group, with a small body of water short right of the green and a creek flowing from it cutting in front of the putting surface. Even if you lay up, the creek is still very much in play on the short third shot if the hole is cut close to the front of the green.
For information, visit www.insbruckgolfclub.com or call 800-642-2709.