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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

(continued from page 1)

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.

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