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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.

For a special experience, you really ought to play the Old Course. Though architect Rees Jones was brought in to update the course, to change the first hole from a par 4 to a par 5, to find room for a driving range and to move the 18th hole, he was careful to retain the old layout's funky character. And while it might be considered the easiest of the three courses at The Homestead, it definitely is no pushover. Its Donald Ross greens, which tumble off at the sides and often pitch steeply from back to front, are to be treated with respect. The 10th, a shortish par 4, has a deceptively difficult green. Woe be to the golfer who plays a shot past the pin on this one.

After a long day on The Homestead courses, some of the more savvy folks retire to the mineral baths. Opened in 1761, these rustic spas provide a soothing soaking and a truly ethereal experience at the far end of a time warp. The twentieth century is but a distant illusion as you ease yourself into the crystalline water.

Sam Snead once represented The Homestead, a task now undertaken by nephew J. C. Snead. Gone is the Goat Course, where employees of The Homestead and town residents could play the game, and where Snead learned his trade and developed his classic swing. The most significant remnant of the Goat Course is an old, feeble-looking canvas golf bag that sits in a display case at Slammin' Sammy's, a bar-nightclub-restaurant that is part of the golf clubhouse at The Greenbrier. Though Snead lives near The Homestead, his allegiance has most often been with The Greenbrier, and it is here that his Hall of Fame career--which was highlighted by seven major championships, including three Masters and PGA titles apiece--is robustly celebrated. His name is on everything that could be connected to golf at The Greenbrier, including the tee markers.

If The Homestead was built with a billion bricks, then The Greenbrier was built with a billion feet of white clapboard. The shear bulk of the structure suggests resolute purpose, and its Dorothy Draper interiors fraught with decorative and ornate furniture and rhododendron wallpaper tell you that time occasionally does stand still. Like The Homestead, The Greenbrier has three courses. Golf at The Greenbrier dates back to 1910, the year the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad bought the property and decided that a course was a necessary amenity. A rudimentary nine holes were built, and later were incorporated into the Lakeside course, the easiest of the Greenbrier courses.

In 1913, "The Chessie" people brought in Charles Blair Macdonald, the first U.S. Amateur champion, to build a proper 18 holes. Macdonald was the man who designed the Chicago Golf Club and the National Golf Links of America, the latter course an ode to the great links of Scotland. Macdonald worked his fondness for the Scottish holes into aspects of what is now called the Old White Course. The par-3 eighth is based on the Redan Hole at North Berwick, the par-4 13th hole was based on the Alps Hole at the Prestwick Club, and the par-3 15th hole was based on the Eden at St. Andrews. One of the first men to play the course was President Woodrow Wilson, who teed it up in April 1914.

The Greenbrier Course, often considered the championship course, was designed by George O'Neil in 1924 and redesigned by Jack Nicklaus in 1978 prior to the 1979 Ryder Cup Matches played there. The Greenbrier, which plays through rolling forest for most of the way, is a strong test of golf, though certainly not insurmountable for the average player. The fairways are wide and the greens, while contoured, aren't scary. In spots the course is reminiscent of Winged Foot, the tree-lined masterpiece in the New York City suburbs of Westchester County.

Tony Jacklin, the former British and U.S. Open champion who now plays on the PGA Senior Tour, was a member of Britain's Ryder Cup team in 1979, and has become a new resident of the area, buying a home not far from The Greenbrier in historic Lewisburg. It was a way for Jacklin to combine golf with tranquility. "We moved from Scotland to Florida when I decided to give the Senior Tour a go," says Jacklin, a Scotsman. "While Florida is a good place for me to practice all year round, it's not the sort of place we were used to. This area is a little mindful of the country back home. There is a real sense of place here and a peace and quiet that's hard to find. Of course, if I want to play or practice, The Greenbrier is a super place for that. The courses are always in superb shape and they all provide a pretty good challenge."

When you are at The Greenbrier, you can avail yourself of a special golf experience just a few minutes away that will take you back further in time. Oakhurst Links, a nine-hole course that is now considered to have been the first organized golf club in America, was founded in 1884 but abandoned for decades until the passionate golf enthusiast Lewis Keller resurrected it in the early 1990s. At Oakhurst you play with specially made hickory-shafted clubs and specially made gutta-percha balls over a course whose maintenance is provided with one set of gang mowers and 36 sheep. You may lift your ball from sheep droppings with no penalty. The course is a kick, and worth both the experience of playing it and of meeting Keller, a pretty good player who has made Oakhurst his retirement legacy after living in the farmhouse on the property as a summer home for 30 years. One of the first players to strike a ball at the course's 1994 reopening was, appropriately, Sam Snead.

Evidence of Snead abounds at The Greenbrier's golf clubhouse. There are showcases of Snead's almost overwhelming collection of memorabilia, clubs, balls, trophies, pictures, golf bags, money clips. A second restaurant at the clubhouse, Sam Snead's, serves rather strikingly contemporary food. In the lobby outside the pro shop and locker rooms is the area designated as the Sam Snead Museum. While you are perusing this treasure trove, you might get lucky enough to find yourself face-to-face with The Slammer. Snead is a frequent visitor to The Greenbrier, where the living legend shakes hands and poses for pictures and tells stories of yesteryear as if it were yesterday.

While it may be difficult to tear yourself away from such special places as The Homestead and The Greenbrier, rest assured that other sanctuaries abound to the north. In Bolton Landing on Lake George in the Adirondack Mountains of New York is the Sagamore Resort, yet another spot where Donald Ross put down a footprint of golf history, in 1928. The Sagamore, a majestic wooden structure, was built in 1883 and refurbished during the 1980s. The course is two and a half miles from the hotel, up a steep road overlooking the lake to vistas of mountain and water.

At 6,890 yards and a par of 70, the course is narrow and demanding. The first hole is a dramatic 435-yard par 4 with a view of the lake, the tee some 100 feet above the fairway. It is a proper example of what is to come, of a rolling terrain where unlevel lies and blind tee shots are the norm. The 425-yard seventh hole is No. 1 on the handicap card, an uphill fairway sloping severely from left to right that demands a drawn tee shot to hold the ball on the fairway. There are short par 4s, too, almost all of them sharp doglegs with significant elevation changes. If there is any drawback to playing here, it's that a difficult course combined with plenty of players yields at least five-hour rounds.

If you want to follow Ross's trail to the north, try two grand old resorts in New Hampshire,: the Mount Washington Hotel in Bretton Woods and The Balsams Grand Resort Hotel in Dixville Notch. Each hotel has a classic Ross course and 27 holes, and each hotel gives you that fortress feeling, of being sheltered and protected from the daily humdrum of life.

At the Mount Washington Hotel, Ross oversaw the construction of a 6,638-yard par-71 course built in 1915 that is fairly flat, especially on the front nine, but which has some old-style bunkers that must be avoided. This isn't a particularly difficult course, but it's worth playing if for no other reason than the dynamite view of the Presidential Range in the White Mountains. From the championship tee, the par-5 10th hole, at 549 yards, is as long as it gets, while the par-3 fifth, at 140, is the shortest hole. When mist descends from the mountain and covers the course with its cool blanket, you could imagine yourself in a Scottish glen. The nine-hole course, built in 1895, was rebuilt in 1989 by the firm of Cornish and Silva Golf Course Architects. It presents somewhat more of a challenge, with several holes running along the Ammonoosuc River. There is also an 18-hole putting course at the Mount Washington.

At The Balsams in Dixville Notch, Ross built a somewhat longer and tougher course, in 1912. The Panorama Course is 6,804 yards from the back tees, playing high on the western side of Keyser Mountain. The course is a scenic masterpiece, with holes flowing naturally over the mountainside. The fairways aren't as wide as they might seem at first glance and few level lies are to be had. The greens are small, roundish and frequently domed. The nine-hole executive course, the Coashaukee, is next to the hotel and makes for a quick warm-up round after a long drive. It's also a good place for high handicappers and beginners. A decidedly nice feature about golf at The Balsams is that it is free to registered guests of the hotel.

The Equinox in Manchester Village, Vermont, does not have a Donald Ross course. Instead, it has a course originally designed and built by Walter Travis in 1926, then significantly and masterfully redone by Rees Jones in 1997. It's now called the Gleneagles Golf Course in honor of its sister property in Scotland, the Gleneagles Hotel. The hotel underwent an extensive renovation in 1992, bringing it up to modern standards but not forgetting its past.

In the redesign Jones made the fairways wide and greens small, giving resort guests a break off the tee and offering them a challenge to their approach shots. The course is a quite manageable 6,423 yards from the back tees. Not only are there extravagant mountain views of the Green and Taconic ranges, but the view back into town from the 13th green and 14th tee is something special, the gold dome of the courthouse and the white spire of the church sticking up like ornaments on a verdant cake.

Another course that's close by is The Monster at The Concord. Once a bastion of Catskills elegance, the hotel has fallen on hard times. Several investor groups hope to upgrade the facilities, but don't expect much luxury there now. The course is a different story. From championship tees, the Monster stretches to 7,966 yards. From the middle tees, you get a true 6,989-yard test. It's a great course that's being kept in near top form. The par-five fourth is a good example: the second shot requires a draw over a pond that's guarded at the far end by a tree, and the green is surrounded by bunkers--the safe shot is across the water to a narrow landing area. The par-5 12th also tests the big hitters. With a solid drive, you're left with a 220-yard carry over water to the green; it's not for the fainthearted.

A grand final gesture in this journey through mountain golf and days past is to head to the sea in Maine, to end up at the Samoset Resort in Rockport on Penobscot Bay. This course has been called "The Pebble Beach of the East," but it's not nearly the course and not nearly the price. Instead, thanks to a $3 million renovation that included the construction of four new holes, the course is a treat on a delightful summer's day, and a real bear if a nor'easter should blow up.

Five of the course's holes run along Penobscot Bay and pose a decided threat to players who draw the ball from right to left. Errant tee shots to the left may end up on the rocks, providing playthings for gulls, lobsters and seals. The Rockland Breakwater, a nearly mile-long protective barrier against an overactive Atlantic, provides a stunning backdrop to some holes, and 14 holes have views of the water.

From Penobscot Bay to Hot Springs, the great old resorts of the Northeast have uniformly held their own when it comes to service, style and great golf. Increasingly, the golf world is overrun with golf "meccas," megamalls of courses that are strung more like sausage links than golf links. At places like The Homestead, The Greenbrier and the other sanctuaries of the Northeast, golf as a grand old game still reigns supreme.

Jeff Williams writes on golf for Newsday.

New Tracks

The Northeast and Middle Atlantic regions haven't escaped the rush to build new golf courses in America. But apart from the Kingsmill area of Williamsburg, Virginia, you don't hear a lot of noise about them; land is precious and it's been difficult to find enough acreage to lay out world-class courses. There are some exceptions , and some of the more notable ones are within an hour or two's drive of New York City.

We used the basic criterion that a course had to have been opened, or completely renovated, within the last five years and came up with a mix of public and private courses. It's not an all-inclusive list, but rather a random sampling of what's being done in the most densely populated part of the United States. A couple of these courses are spectacular. We didn't get a chance to visit several notable ones, but the buzz is quite strong on them, including Galloway National along the Jersey shore and Nantucket Golf Club on Nantucket Island in Massachusetts.

Hudson National Golf Club is one of the best of the newcomers. It is situated on a series of hilltops that overlook the Hudson River in New York about 35 miles north of New York City. The course designer, Tom Fazio, left many of the old trees standing on the grounds where an old course, Hessian Hills, stood in the 1920s, and there is almost the feel of a classic Donald Ross or Charles Blair Macdonald course. (Macdonald, along with his engineer, Seth Raynor, designed Sleepy Hollow Country Club, which is just down the road from Hudson National.) From the fourth green, you can't help but let your eyes wander past the burned-out chimneys of the old clubhouse and gaze at the bluffs across the Hudson. The par-5 14th is a test, with the green jutting out into a pond that beckons long hitters' second shots from a downhill lie.

The Golf Club of Purchase, a Westchester County, New York, course that opened in 1997, was designed by Jack Nicklaus. Considered a Jack Nicklaus Signature Course, it is a demanding, narrow layout that preserved as much of the existing forest as possible. Balls hit into a number of environmentally sensitive areas are lost forever. The par-5 seventh hole is a classic three-shot Nicklaus design; the course pro reportedly plays it 5-iron, 5-iron, wedge. Otherwise, the second shot is a long carry over a creek and a marshland to a green built on a stone ledge. The par-4 16th also is a great hole, with a good-sized landing zone about 230 to 250 yards out at the top of a small bluff bordered by a sand trap on the left and a pond on the right , and then a 160- to 180-yard shot along a pond to a green that eases out over another pond. Anything to the left is wet, and to the right is deep woods.

The new courses aren't limited to the rich. Larry Nelson, the 1983 U.S. Open champion, tackled an old 450-acre farm in the New York towns of Carmel and Brewster, about 55 miles northwest of New York City, to create the Centennial Golf Club. The first 18 holes opened in May, and another nine holes will probably be ready by next May. When the course grows in after a couple of years, it may be one of the most spectacular public courses on the East Coast. It is also one of the few high daily-fee courses in the area; greens fees range from $65 to $85. The course has elevation changes of about 200 feet, with several tee boxes requiring drives that fly into thin air, dropping to long sloping fairways below. On the flip side, there are two uphill second shots with greens more than 50 feet above the lowest point of the fairway. It's fun, and challenging. A great hole is the par-4 fourth on the Meadows course. The tee box is about 60 feet above the green, 456 yards away; at the primary landing zone on a slight dogleg left, the fairway slopes away to the left toward a pond and the green, which is situated behind the pond. Or the 360-yard, par-4 sixth on the Lakes course, with a 125-foot drop off the tee box, which makes it seem tantalizingly close for a big hitter, but both sides of the landing zone are covered by sand traps. The risk-reward factor is real.

Finally, one of the greatest public courses in the land has just been completely redone by Rees Jones in preparation for the U.S. Open in 2002: the Black Course at Bethpage State Park. on Long Island, New York. The fee is almost ridiculously low: $30 ($25 Tuesday through Friday). For anyone lucky enough to score a tee time, the experience undoubtedly will leave you speechless. Old-timers there say the course lulls you with its first three holes: a straightforward dogleg right, a slight dogleg left with a uphill second shot and a simple par-3. Then, the course begins. The par-5 fourth is a triple-level affair that offers a tantalizing second shot to an elevated green for the big guns. But the U.S. Open may be remembered for the three finishing holes, a long downhill par 4, a 200-yard-plus par 3 with a beach's worth of sandtraps, and a final par 4 that slopes quickly down and then back up to the green. From the championship tees, the carry over sand traps on each side of the 18th fairway will approach 290 yards, and there's a slot of about 20 yards to keep it in the short grass. Then, it's a steep uphill second shot to the green. The course is already in great shape, and with a couple years of settling down, will be a true test of a golfer's skill.--Gordon Mott

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