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Exotic America: Links to the Past

James Y. Bartlett

I stood on the first tee and swished my club back and forth. Instead of the latest high-tech driver, with a few hundred cc’s of lightweight steel laced with high-density titanium shaped into some futuristic aerodynamic wing, I was wielding a “play club,” circa 1885. It had a genuine hickory shaft as thick as my thumb, leather wrappings for a grip, and a long, skinny, slightly hooked applewood head with a ram’s horn soleplate. I peered down at the square-dimpled gutta-percha ball, also a replica of the 19th-century standard, perched atop its “tee,” a little hillock of mud.

 

“Any advice?” I asked my host, Lewis Keller, who chuckled and recommended that, because of hickory’s propensity to torque quite a bit, it would be better if I tried to swing a wee bit slower than I normally would.

I tried to gear it down a notch, but my first effort was something of a weak fozzle down the hill and into some thick bulrushes. Sassafras and tarnation! I cursed in what I hoped was authentic 19th-century terms as I picked up my other three clubs—a cleek, a niblick, and a wood-head putter—and set forth on the fascinating little piece of time travel that is the Oakhurst Links.

It is the dream of every sports fan to put himself in the place of his heroes. Imagine what it would be like to toe the rubber at Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park, or Wrigley Field. To bounce a ball at the baseline at Wimbledon. To put the pedal to the metal down the straightaway at Indy, with a few hundred horsepower growling under the seat.

Golf is unique in that even a high handicapper can walk where Tiger walks, putt where Sergio putts, and flail where Ernie doesn’t. Anyone with the luck to snag a tee time at St Andrews, the connections to get into Augusta National, or the room on a credit card to pay for a round at Pebble Beach can roughly approximate the experience, if not the score, of the weekend warriors of the PGA Tour.


But going back in time to an era when golf was decidedly less high tech is practically unheard-of. An entire generation of golfers knows nothing but the tinny plunk of ball meeting metal, and the generation before that remembers only shafts made of steel. In the late 1880s, however, golfers played with sticks honed from hickory branches and with gutta-percha balls made of a resinous syrup from the Malaysian sapodilla tree, poured into molds. Irons back then didn’t have numbers, but poetic names such as cleek, mashie, and niblick, which have long since faded off into the deep woods and thick rough of time.

Oakhurst Links, tucked away in the hollows near White Sulphur Springs, W.V., exists to take golfers back to a long-ago era. It is perhaps a mile away, as the crow flies, from one of America’s classic golf resorts, the Greenbrier, yet it evokes an entirely different world. Playing the game the way it was more than 100 years ago, with vintage balls and clubs, on a course maintained by grazing sheep, reflects a joyful simplicity that few modern-day facilities can match.

A day at Oakhurst Links begins with a visit to the Montague homestead, which Keller, the owner since the late 1950s, has turned into a golf museum. Here, golfers pick out the clubs that feel best (each one varies slightly in length and weight) and are given two balls to use for the round. Keller helped me select my four clubs, a fairly light load for a late- 19th-century golfer who might carry as many as 20 different clubs in the days before the 14-club rule was instituted. In addition to the long-play club, or driver, I chose a cleek, the rough equivalent of today’s 3-iron, a thin, narrow iron blade attached to the end of the hickory shaft, and a niblick, a lofted club that was the forerunner of today’s 9-iron or wedge. I took time to find a niblick that felt good, figuring it would help get me out of all kinds of trouble: rough, sand, and bad lies. Finally, I picked through a rack of putters, all mallet-type wooden clubs that were shorter and lighter versions of the play club.


Equipped with my arsenal—clubs manufactured in Scotland and authentic gutta-percha balls made in Birmingham, England—we headed out to the links. The entire course, which was originally built in 1884, measures just over 2,200 yards. That is small by today’s standards, but typical for the 19th century. The land is gently rolling (except for a bit of a climb up the fourth), and the view stretches out over hill and dale. There’s usually a breeze coming down off the mountain, and one can often see a hawk majestically riding the thermals high above.

The scorecard doesn’t list a par score, but a box contains a suggested number of shots a reasonably accomplished golfer might expect to play to reach the putting green. Thus, most of the holes are two-shotters (what we would call a par-4 today). The third hole is a tricky 106-yard one-shotter over a creek, and the sixth and eighth holes are the two monsters: three-shot holes measuring 322 yards and 358 yards respectively. But one can pretty much forget about pars for the first circuit around Oakhurst Links, because the strange equipment and the unusual flight of the heavy balls take some getting used to.

I finally got the hang of my play club on the fifth hole, when I busted one right on the . . . well, I guess “apples” is more appropriate than “screws.” My drive soared high and long, and bounded almost to the edge of the green. I checked the card: 210 yards, all of it straight downhill. Not quite John Daly-esque, but not bad, considering the heavier gutta balls don’t soar with the heart of a Titleist. I hit a beautiful hooking cleek onto the green at another hole and, as I had surmised, was forced to use my niblick in all kinds of imaginative ways to get out of the tall grass that borders the fairways, chip over tree branches, and explode from a sandy lie. The most unusual niblick shot came when my playing partner presented me with a stymie on the eighth green. This old-fashioned rule, in which one’s opponent is not required to mark his ball if it lies in one’s putting line, is still in effect at Oakhurst, as it was in 1884. I had to play a delicate little shot to make my ball leapfrog over the other ball on its way to the hole. Another local rule states that if a ball should break into pieces during a shot, the golfer shall finish the hole “with the larger piece.” Keller said that his guttas rarely break apart, but it has been known to happen. A more common problem, he explained, is that golfers frequently lose their allotted two balls in the hay and have to trudge back to the homestead to ask for more.


When Lewis Keller purchased the old Montague farm in 1959, he had in mind a nice summer place for his children, as well as a ready-made pasture for his Thoroughbred breeding hobby. Over the years, however, he kept hearing stories of the golf course that once occupied his lower field. Keller, a genial Virginian and fine golfer, decided to do a little research. He called on his neighbor, the Rev. Cary Montague, who hauled out his father’s old farming diaries, and the story of Oakhurst Links slowly began to unfold.

Russell Montague was a wealthy Bostonian who, on the advice of his doctor, fled the cold and damp of the Back Bay for the healthful environs of White Sulphur Springs. One day, farmer Montague was approached by neighbors who had emigrated from Scotland. They were expecting a visit from a young countryman who was so devoted to the sport that he took his clubs with him to Ceylon while he worked on a tea plantation. Montague’s neighbors, noting the gently rolling pasture on Montague’s farm, proposed to build some golf holes and form a little club.

According to the records, the nine-hole course was carved out of the lower meadow in 1884. From there, Montague and his friends turned to a local carpenter, Francis Corron, and asked him to put together some sticks. The records are somewhat spotty, but it appears that golf was played at Oakhurst Links at least until 1913, when Charles Blair MacDonald built the Old White course, the first of three at the Greenbrier resort, located a few hollows over. When World War I broke out, many of the Scottish-born expats in the area returned home to serve, and Oakhurst Links was allowed to revert to pastureland.


Using Montague’s records, Lewis Keller was able to re-create what he believed was the original routing of Oakhurst Links, a course that began and ended near the back porch of the old Montague homestead on a shaded knoll looking out over the rumpled Appalachian ridges. One day in 1994, golf course architect Bob Cupp arrived with a work crew and they began peeling back nearly a century of turf.

With the help of the old records, they quickly found the sites of the nine tee boxes and located most of the greens. The tees were easy to reconstruct: In the 1880s, they were simply small rectangles of hard-packed sand. Next to each tee were two buckets, one holding sand, the other water. The golfer preparing to tee off scooped a little water and sand together to make a handful of mud and placed his ball on top. This system, which predates the invention of the wooden tee, is still used at Oakhurst.

It is likely that the greens at Oakhurst Links were originally hard-packed sand as well. Before mechanical close-mowing machines were invented, sand provided the smoothest surface for putting. Keller and Cupp decided to plant grass, but they didn’t follow the complicated specifications for modern green construction. They just spread some loam and sprinkled seed, and beautiful greens emerged. Once the greens were in place, Cupp’s practiced eye picked out the best spots for bunkers, cut into the contours of the land. The greens at Oakhurst, while beautifully plush, are not exactly speedy, because they aren’t trimmed on a daily basis like the greens at most modern courses.

The fairways are also somewhat rough and natural, much as they likely were in 1884. Keller bought a herd of black-faced sheep that wanders freely over the course, helping to keep the fairways clipped and fertilized. (There is a local rule dealing with procedure should a ball land in a pile of dung—one gets a free drop from the droppings.)


Even with the natural fertilization, it’s a lovely stroll around Oakhurst Links. The only time the course is very busy is the Fourth of July weekend, when Oakhurst Links hosts the National Hickory Championship. Aficionados of the old-fashioned game come from every corner of the country with their hickory clubs and dress to the nines: ladies in long, flowing ankle-length dresses and big floppy hats, and gentlemen in button-down white oxford shirts with neckties, and baggy knickers with snappy argyle socks. The golfers look like they’ve stepped out of the pages of a history book. In truth, they’ve stepped into the living history that is Oakhurst Links.
Oakhurst Links is open to the public May 1 to October 31. Greens fees are $50 per person for nine holes of play, $80 for 18. The price includes rental of clubs and gutta-percha balls. Call 304.536.1884 or visit www.oakhurstlinks.com.

 

Golf’s Fore Fathers

Lewis Keller believes that Oakhurst Links was one of the first organized golf clubs in the country. Historians from the U.S. Golf Association in Far Hills, N.J., who have studied Russell Montague’s diaries and other historical records, aren’t so sure. There is no question, they say, that golf was played in Montague’s pasture in the 1880s, but whether the group of locals actually organized themselves into a formal golf club, with bylaws, charters, and elections, is in doubt.

Very likely, a bit of Eastern elitism underlies this opinion. While records indicate golf was played in the United States during the Colonial period, the generally accepted history of the game holds that the so-called “Apple Tree Gang,” a group of Manhattan businessmen, first began whacking golf balls around an old apple orchard in Yonkers and soon organized themselves—formally, with all the wherebys and therefores—as the St. Andrews Golf Club in 1888. And it was this group who organized a meeting of officers in 1894 from four other clubs—Shinnecock, The Country Club, Newport, and Chicago—creating the USGA. The boys back in West Virginia ignored the snub. They were having too much fun knocking the ball around Russell Montague’s pasture.

 

Greener Pastures

A round at Oakhurst Links is a perfect diversion during a stay at the nearby Greenbrier (800.453.4858, www.greenbrier.com), one of the country’s premier golf resorts. The first inn on the site was built in 1780, when Colonial-era health-seekers came to “take the waters.” The Greenbrier’s full-service health club and spa still serves to work the stress out of weary souls.

Golf—the 21st-century kind—is the centerpiece at the resort, with three excellent and varied courses. The original Old White course, built in 1913, has stood the test of time, with its bending fairways, small greens, and tricky bunkering. The Greenbrier course, which dates from 1924, was renovated by Jack Nicklaus in 1977 and has since hosted both the Ryder Cup and the Solheim Cup matches. The Meadows course, once known as Lakeside, has also gone through several renovations, the last by Bob Cupp in 1998.

 

The Greenbrier’s long golf history is inextricably linked with Sam Snead. Born and raised in nearby Hot Springs, Va., Snead served as the resort’s golf professional throughout his long career on the Tour, and he is still spotted regularly on the range, or signing autographs for admiring fans.
Beyond golf and the amenities of the spa, the Greenbrier offers an unending assortment of activities. The tennis facilities are excellent, and you can also enjoy horseback riding, fly-fishing, falconry, skeet shooting, and white-water rafting. Antiquing forays into the nearby towns almost always yield a treasure or two, and the surrounding West Virginia mountains have hiking trails ranging from gentle to severe. For the sedentary, enjoying formal afternoon tea beneath the stern gaze of one of Gilbert Stuart’s portraits of Washington in the Greenbrier’s main lobby is always a treat.


The resort’s Main Dining Room, with its crystal chandeliers and grand piano, presents an opulent setting. The food, however, doesn’t always measure up to the surroundings. A better choice is Sam Snead’s at the Golf Club, where the dress is more casual and the exhibition kitchen more imaginative and attentive. While the Greenbrier has long enjoyed renown for its white-glove service and Southern hospitality, a few recent visits left the impression that the resort’s automatic 17 percent gratuity policy has resulted in a staff that occasionally can’t be bothered.
Still, the grand scale of the Greenbrier experience is hard to beat. The nearly 100 guest cottages scattered throughout the 6,500-acre estate are especially comfortable and private, and have long been popular with families.

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