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Cliffs Living: Game Still On – Elite Athletes at The Cliffs

Jul 12, 2021

When you play with champions, you want to live like one, too. And that’s just part of the appeal of the seven award-winning golf and residential communities comprising The Cliffs. 

“Winners like to be surrounded by winners,” says Jeff Davis, an elite athlete and member at The Cliffs at Keowee Springs who – in his college years – was captain of the Clemson Tigers’ 1981 National Championship football team before moving on to play six seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. “The Cliffs offers us a venue where we can continue to cultivate those relationships … and we know what it means to enjoy the best of living.”  

Davis isn’t the only elite athlete who enjoys membership at The Cliffs. Indeed, he’s among a remarkable number of sports heroes here – football and baseball players, golfers, cyclists – who made their names in the NFL, MLB, PGA Tour, and UCI. Mostly retired from the majors, though some continue on as coaches or broadcasters or ambassadors, they’re game for the active lifestyle that defines The Cliffs. 

Paul O’Neill is one of them, a right fielder with five World Series rings. The MLB star played with the Cincinnati Reds from 1985- 1992 and the New York Yankees until 2001. O’Neill, who has owned a second home at The Cliffs at Mountain Park for about 10 years, also won three Emmy Awards as an announcer with the Bronx Bombers’ YES Network. 

“When we get down there, which isn’t enough, we absolutely love it,” says O’Neill, who lives in Cincinnati when he’s not flying between New York and another home in Florida. “You just find yourself running and running, and with three kids, the next thing you know, you don’t get down there. But then there’s this, ‘Wow, why don’t we get down here more?’” 

While at The Cliffs, O’Neill relishes the opportunity to practice a swing that’s entirely different from that of his baseball career. “It’s basically golf and working out and walking in the hills and the mountains,” he says. 

Davis echoes the delight of tackling something new. “The fitness, the golf – I love the golf!” the former linebacker says. “We [still] like to play hard.”

It’s not always easy catching up with The Cliffs’ hard-playing, hard-working elite athletes, who also include George Hincapie, Christian Vande Velde, and Bobby Julich of Tour de France cycling fame; Glenn Blackwood, formerly of the Miami Dolphins; and Stewart Cink, a golf major championship winner. 

Still, they stop long enough to talk about their favorite mountain and lake escapes, where they pursue activities other than the ones that made them famous, thanks to the pro-level amenities across the communities. Indeed, they all manage to squeeze in as much golf as possible on any – or all – of The Cliffs’ seven courses. 

Cink, for instance, chatted with Cliffs Living just before he was set to tee off at the Bermuda Championship. Asked what he does when he’s at The Cliffs, the winner of seven PGA Tour victories (so far) and the iconic Open Championship win in 2009 responds with an ironic smile. “Yeah, it’s a little bit like a busman’s holiday, but I have a great time playing golf at The Cliffs with friends and my kids,” Cink says. “While it’s impossible to completely just turn off the ‘care factor’ where I don’t care if I play well or not, I still enjoy just being outside experiencing the courses.” 

Courses he ranks among the best he’s played since turning pro in 1995. 

Likewise, Hincapie considers the roads and mountains around the Western Carolinas to be among the world’s best cycling venues. Cliffs Living catches the 17-time Tour de France competitor – and winner of three USA Cycling Professional Road Race National Championships – just as he returns to Greenville after several weeks traveling to Dubai and Beirut, as well as Aspen, Colorado, and filming TV commercials in North Carolina. 

This popular cyclist, celebrated locally as Big George, keeps pushing the pedals for – if you can imagine this – relaxation from his lake house at The Cliffs at Keowee Vineyards. 

“I can climb up to the Blue Ridge Parkway in 40 miles and do over 8,000 feet of climbing,” he says, referring to ascents not too dissimilar from some in the mountains of southern France. 

Of the wide-ranging amenities at The Cliffs, the spokes-man says, “The cycling here is as nice as everything else: the golf, the tennis, the gym, the lake – it’s just a combination of all those things.” 

Like Hincapie, Vande Velde and Julich ride on; in fact, the three serve as cycling ambassadors at The Cliffs, leading spirited excursions throughout the year for other members who also love to ride bikes. At a slightly slower pace, of course. 

Julich, an Olympic medalist and winner of the Critérium International, always looks forward to putting in miles with The Cliffs Riders, an unofficial cycling club that draws as many as 25 cyclists per ride, including one regular who is in his 80s. 

“I see the passion that [Pete Rodgers, an octogenarian cyclist] has for the sport, and riding with Christian and George and me, he just lights up like a Christmas tree,” Julich says. “They’re all extremely receptive and passionate about what they’re doing in their lives. It’s just this fellowship of good people, and we have a blast.” 

Indeed, whether former pro racer or newbie rider or somewhere in between, the cyclists at The Cliffs enjoy wheeling through the breathtaking scenery and rolling topography of the Carolina mountains. 

“The bike riding up on the north side is second to none. It’s so challenging. It’s absolutely gorgeous and almost impossible to beat,” says Vande Velde, a member at The Cliffs at Keowee Falls who, when off the bike, spends plenty of time golfing at Mountain Park. 

Cliffs Living talked with Vande Velde just as he emerged from his downstairs studio at his home in Greenville, where he was broadcasting commentary for NBC Sports during “Vuelta a España,” the Return to Spain cycling championship. 

Were it not for work, he likely would have been at The Cliffs “having lunch or a drink by the pool to have a break from being on the boat. I love bringing the kids to The Beach Club, playing on the stand-up paddleboards.” 

Vande Velde also lauds The Cliffs’ management, echoing the communities’ other elite athlete-members who all sound as if they’re referring to the owners of a championship sports team. “They’re just going from strength to strength right now,” he says, adding commentary on the continuing addition of all-star amenities. “It’s just so much fun to watch.” 

Blackwood, who played strong safety for the Dolphins from 1979 to 1987, agrees. The former NFLer focuses more on golf balls than pigskins these days. 

“The thing that continues to blow my mind is the ability to play seven golf courses as a member,” says Blackwood, who now enjoys trying his hand at club tournaments. “There’s such variety in the courses … and so many good, enjoyable people to be around.” 

At the end of the day – or, let’s say, at the end of a pro golf tournament, a world-class cycling race, four pounding gridiron quarters or nine innings – the guys say they looked to The Cliffs to provide a special retreat for their families. 

“I really felt like we needed a place for our kids to go and build memories,” says Blackwood, who built his lake house a dozen years ago at The Cliffs at Keowee Falls. 

Davis, who has six children and one grandchild – so far, he says with a chuckle – repeats that sentiment almost word for word. The former Tiger is in the process of building at Keowee Springs, where his large family has long enjoyed membership. 

“I can foresee me having a really nice place where we can continue to make great memories and enjoy one another as a family, along with other great families,” Davis says.This story was featured in Cliffs Living magazine. To read more stories like this one and learn more about The Cliffs, subscribe here

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