The little nine-hole course built in 1884 by Russell Montague, the original owner, was created as a treat for himself and friends. They played the first competition over their links in 1888. The medal still exists. It was the first golf competition in the country, we are told. Montague and his golf buds enjoyed the course for years, but as things go, it lapsed into disuse, overgrowth, neglect and finally, nearly, faded from sight.
That is, until Lewis Keller purchased the land. Eventually, as he knew it was the site of an ancient golf course, he invited architect Bob Cupp to help him uncover it. They did. Even Sam Snead, resident pro of that other course around the corner, the Greenbrier, showed an interest in the project. Once the old holes were uncovered, or as much as could be determined given old maps and such, Keller got sheep to mow the fairways, built the greens and had himself the old Montague course. Keller, probably like Montague, was proud of the layout. He invited friends, relatives and others out for the occasional round. They even found replica long nose clubs and gutta percha balls for use.
It was all very casual, until Roger Hill and Ralph Livingston III showed up one fine day. They had contacted Keller who invited the fellows out for a round. Afterward – probably at Livingston’s instigation as he was never one to leave well enough alone – the two contacted Pete Georgiady, the erstwhile golf writer, researcher extraordinare, and resident Golf Collector Society éminence grise with regard to golfing antiquity. Pete was intrigued. He visited. And visited again. He and Keller spoke about the course. Pete wrote about it for Golf Illustrated. He visited again, enjoying a long conversation with Keller as the two walked round. On the eighth hole, inspiration, having tired of waiting for him to come to his senses, rapped Pete on the noggin, who stopped mid-fairway and said to Keller “Why don’t we have a tournament here?”
And so the NHC was born. From 1998 until now, and probably well into the unforeseeable future, the Oakhurst Links will maul, humiliate, brutalize, and victimize its adoring NHC participants. It has become the stuff of legend, fueled in no small part by the course’s survivors who, likely at the urging of their psychiatrists, submitted therapeutic and soulful reminiscences to Georgiady who gathered the tear-stained sheets and had them printed in a volume called “Survival – An Anecdotal History of the National Hickory Championship.”
Now all this is by way of introducing this lovely looking piece of West Virginia, a valley and sloping hillside on which the Oakhurst Links follows (pretty much, although Ralph would argue the first hole is not right) the line of thought put forward by Montague those many years back. It is a few miles away from the Greenbrier in the otherwise unremarkable hamlet of White Sulphur Springs. Unremarkable in the sense that its inhabitants, not otherwise employed by or influenced by, the Greenbrier, go about their days blissfully unaware of the horrors that manifest in that quiet valley up the road at the old Montague/Lewis place.
Over its 30 acres, the Oakhurst Links comprises nine innocent holes that energize and transform gutty golfers in the same way that a full moon energizes and transforms lycanthropes.
The Links is a genuine trial, a test of, not just the endurance of patience and will power, but of genuine shot making in the auld way, with wood and iron and gutta percha. The first hole, a few yards from the clubhouse veranda, looks across a narrow entrance road some 30 or 40 feet away and, just beyond this by 10 feet or so, a smallish pond, called the “Turtle Pond.” Tall trees stand sentinel on either side, close and as constricting as a 1920s Open Championship gallery. Otherwise bucolic and pastoral and designed to induce tranquility and, perhaps, passion in the passing Victorian, the scene raises the pulse of the golfer on the tee, his gutta percha sphere on a blister of sand awaiting sudden transport to the right-bending fairway beyond, if the nerves can withstand the trees, the pond, the road… The first green is on the other side of an earlier bend of this same entrance road which, at that point, is bordered by a low stone wall.
The second bends back right along a fairway that again crosses the entrance road (“road” is perhaps a generous term for the hard dirt, gravelly, stony path that informs no less than four shots on three holes. Left all along the second fairway are an interested gallery of tallish reeds growing from a unnaturally greedy swamp. Forecaddies are employed here, during the NHC, but they are of no real benefit, serving only to create a kind of false hope that an errant shot may be found. They may as well be shades of caddies past, forlornly wandering the course, pointing with withered fingers at reedy wastes. In case the journey to safe haven somehow be navigated without disaster, the second’s raised green is backed by more reeds, you know, just in case.
One climbs a steep, but low rise from the second green, up toward the clubhouse and then turns left to face the third, a short one-shotter across a hungry swamp with nauseous vapors and a distinct taste for gutta percha, replica or otherwise. High scores have been raised here, high tempers and blood pressures, too.
The fourth travels across and up, quite briskly up, the sloping hillside (mountainside, in WVA) with high grasses on the left and no hope of a slice helping you out. It will leave you breathless, quite literally, by the time you arrive, clubs in hand (no carry bags or sherpas are allowed for the Open Division). The fifth looks down, far away down, toward an inviting patch of green that appears for all the world that it can be carried by the drive and, by damn, it should be. And so, with all the beauty of the far WVA hills, forests and the bluest of skies for our vista… we press. The downward slope is a morass of weedy bush and scrub. One’s thoughts are hard while searching for a ball here. Hard, indeed.
The sixth and seventh are back and forth holes, side by side, unassuming at first glance. By now, though, we have come to realize that first glances at Oakhurst are but the stuff of delusion, the siren’s song, the high handicapper’s eternal optimism. The sixth green is a devil’s trap, cunningly bunkered and supervised by the overhanging branches of a tree on the right approach. A nonchalant noose would not look out of place here. The seventh, perhaps this is where “seventh heaven” was conceived, offers a gasping respite for the severely tried and terrified golfing soul. There is tale, however, of a resident bear in hollow just nearby, beyond the green. Just saying.
The long eighth bends right again, back toward the heart of the valley. Nothing much to report here, unless you veer left into the high grass, or right, into the high grass… and trees. No, nothing here. If blood still moves through the veins, and the putt drops on the eighth, there is the ninth. Ah, the ninth. The little sand tee faces back toward the club house. The club house! Thoughts of mother, rocking chairs, the soothing beverage. Safety! Not so fast, brother.
You must cross the second fairway, avoid the swamps to the far left (the ghostly caddies), cross the entrance road, the low ditch and the low stone wall, carry the far slope and its high grasses that, some say, cover the bones are those who did not, and, finding fair ground, face the final green. The final test, the final putt and… well, it’s time to go ’round agin. You’ve only played nine.
Yes, Oakhurst is challenging, if you give it the proper go in period cloth, equipped with period lumber and iron. And most do. Despite the occasional hardships, there is much to enjoy here. The air is crisp and the scenery is stunning. And of course there are the well struck shots, the fun of taking your par, even bogey, on the holes of this most unique of courses.
And, yes, while there are tales of horrors and high scores, there also are tales of well-fought matches, low scores and winning the girl.
The Oakhurst Links were close to extinction a few years ago. Lewis Keller, getting older, as we all tend to do, wanted to sell the land and the course. Eventually, The Greenbrier Resort bought the property for exclusive use by its guests and members. Pete Georgiady, however, has negotiated the way for 2014 and, likely, future NHCs at this, the tournament’s “home” course.
Give it a try and discover why the NHC participants are among the most loyal in the world of modern hickory golf. Oakhurst’s sand tees, its pre-1900 equipment and distinct challenges will alternately exasperate and exhilarate. The course, its museum and clubhouse are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. You will, of course, visit the clubhouse and take in the unique history preserved here. One of Sam Snead’s fedoras rests on a mantle upstairs.
For reservations – remember, you must be a Greenbrier guest or member – call 304-536-1110 (ext. 7068). The course is closed for the season and expected to re-open on May 1.
The Greenbrier website lists rates as $175 for 18 holes, plus the use of golf clubs, balls and a tour of the museum. It’s $125 for a nine-hole round.
Should a stay at The Greenbrier be a bit rich for your budget, you can register for the 2014 National Hickory Championship and experience the “grandaddy” of modern hickory golf events. Play the course two or three times (18 holes) and enjoy the camaraderie of those characters whose company you will always remember with pleasure.
The NHC has a new website – www.nationalhickory.org. The site, built by Matt Dodds, Cooper Fellows, and Jimmy Sherrill, went live on Jan. 10. Here you can find information on the 2014 event, registration information, rules, and an information sheet on playing the NHC.
Oakhurst is a trip, no question. Put it on your bucket list and try it at least once. Wherever else you may play in your life, this is a links you won’t forget.