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Grand Old Golf

The Courses of the Storied Eastern Resorts Offer a Primer in the Game's History to Those Who Play On Them
Jeff Williams
From the Print Edition:
John F. Kennedy, Nov/Dec 98

The drive north from The Homestead resort in Hot Springs, Virginia, to The Greenbrier in White Sulfur Springs, West Virginia, can take less than an hour. Yet this stretch of highway and mountain road is more like a time tunnel in which visiting golfers can be whisked back more than a century to an era when well-heeled city dwellers sought the sanctuary of the mountains. The Homestead and The Greenbrier were, and remain today, fortresses of civility and charm where golf is less a hard-charging, ego-driven challenge and more of a game. * The Homestead and The Greenbrier are the beacons of old-style resort golf in the East. There are other fortresses that stretch north into New England as far as the Maine Coast. The Balsams and The Mount Washington in New Hampshire, The Sagamore on Lake George in New York, The Equinox in Vermont, The Samoset in Maine--all are splendid examples of old-style resorts where golf is a primary draw and a first-rate experience, where service and a sense of style pervade, where time does come to a standstill, however ephemeral the moment.

The Land of Snead spills over the border of Virginia and West Virginia, a stretch of 45 miles or so through the Allegheny Mountain ranges. Sam Snead is the ruler of this land, his presence palpable every time a golf ball is struck within the boundaries of this leafy kingdom. This is where Slammin' Sammy was born, where he was raised, where he learned to play his legendary game, and where he lives today.

If there is a starting place for this journey through great old golf resorts of the Northeast, then let it begin at the first tee of the Old Course at The Homestead, which is just a few miles south of Snead's sprawling homestead on the east side of Route 220. This tee, the folks at The Homestead will tell you proudly, is the oldest first tee in continuous use in the United States. When this course, designed by the prolific Scottish architect Donald Ross, was opened in 1892, gutta-percha balls and hickory-shafted clubs were the implements of the day. Men played in tweed jackets and women wore hooped skirts. With an active imagination, you can still sense that era at The Homestead whether you are playing the Old Course, The Cascades Course or the Lower Cascades.

The sense that you are entering a different time at The Homestead begins right at entry, at the large, white screen door that squeaks and squawks appropriately. One step into The Homestead's lobby and you could be entering your great, great aunt's big, big house. This particular big, big house has been updated in a restrained, tasteful manner by the Dallas-based Club Resorts Inc., which took over the 15,000-acre property in 1993. The updating has included the refurbishment of the golf courses, the addition of a modern clubhouse to serve the Old Course and the addition of a modern driving range.

Golf at The Homestead is identified with the The Cascades Course, an absolute mountain gem that has been host to national tournaments. The Cascades, opened in 1923, was designed by William S. Flynn, whose work is less well known than many of his contemporaries, even if his standard of excellence was every bit as high. This is the man who redesigned such championship layouts as Merion and Shinnecock Hills, which the United States Golf Association has used as U.S. Open venues.

The USGA has visited The Cascades as well, hosting such events there as the 1967 U.S. Women's Open, the U.S. Women's Amateur (two times), the U.S. Men's and Senior Amateur Championships and the Curtis Cup, an international women's competition. Such players as Vinny Giles and Lanny Wadkins have won the Virginia State Amateur Championship on The Cascades. The USGA will take its Mid-Amateur Championship to the course in 2000.

"It's really just pure golf and in a wonderful setting," says Giles, a former U.S. Amateur champion who is now an agent for such players as Davis Love III and Tom Kite. "The course tests every club in the bag, and it's such a relaxing place to play. It's always a pleasure to play there. I really look forward to playing there any time I can."

The Cascades isn't overly long at 6,659 yards and a par of 70, but it's long in the right places. The beautiful par-four 12th hole is an exacting eden of 476 yards with the Cascades Stream running down the left side. It takes two good pokes to get home in two, though a mostly flat green rewards those who do with a reasonable birdie opportunity.

"I think the par-three holes at The Cascades are about the finest set [of five] you'll find anywhere," says J. C. Snead, Sam's nephew, who lives south of The Homestead near the Lower Cascades course. "They just sit there so natural and they provide a lot of variety in the shots. I could just play them all day and not worry about the other holes, not that they aren't good holes in their own right." The 18th hole, a par 3 of 204 yards from the championship tee, might be J. C. Snead's favorite, if only because of the plump rainbow trout (sorry, no fishing here) that inhabit the pond in front of the green.

The Lower Cascades doesn't match the championship pedigree of The Cascades, though that doesn't mean it isn't a delightful place to play. The view from the first hole gives you an expansive snapshot of what mountain golf is about, with the peaks and ridges as the backdrop for the opening tee shot. The Cascades Stream runs through this course, too, lining the par-5 second hole down the right of the fairway and snaking its way through several holes on the back nine.

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