Greatness By Design: A Brief History Of North Carolina Golf Architecture

Donald RossGolf's greatest architects have long found North Carolina's spectacular topography an ideal canvas for their art. Here's a brief history of the major players who've come here to ply their craft, and how their work has transformed North Carolina into a golfer's paradise.
The First Golf Holes

Fittingly, golf began on a lofty plain in North Carolina. 

In fact, the earliest golf holes seem to have appeared in 1895, in the mountain resort area now known as Linville.

It was already the habit of the upper-class to come to the North Carolina high country seeking relief from the summer heat.

The enterprising McRae family decided to use golf to entice more of these wealthy visitors to their elegant Eseeola Lodge.

Who was the architect of these early golf holes?

Basically, such a profession didn't exist in America at the time. Instead, the task of designing and building golf holes often fell to entrepreneurial families, some of whom would use outside collaborators and some who wouldn't.

By all accounts, the McRaes were more of the do-it-yourself types.

So during the late '90s, they developed a nine-hole course known as Tanglewood.

By the turn of the century, Donald McRae had added five more holes, and the guests simply played four of the Eseeola holes twice to make it a full 18.

The holes were even given colorful names: "Cozy Corner," "Over the Top," "Belle Meade," "Grandfather," "Meadowbrook," "Hillcrest" and "The Oaks," among others.

This early course remained untouched until the 1920s, when Hugh McRae's son, Nelson, began an ambitious expansion plan and brought in a famous architect by the name of Donald Ross to build a new course.

The Village of Pinehurst

The Birth of Pinehurst

The next documented appearance of golf holes in North Carolina occurred at a significantly lower elevation.

But those holes and the phenomenon they spawned were to take the American game to unprecedented heights.

It all happened at a then little-known resort called Pinehurst.

The real credit for Pinehurst and what it was to become actually belongs to a soda magnate by the name of James Walker Tufts.

A sickly man who had been to many different health resorts around the world, he felt he could improve on the existing models. He also thought the pine-scented air and gentle climate of North Carolina's Sandhills would offer uniquely restorative qualities for both himself and his guests.

Two years after he began making his vision a reality, Tufts noticed some guests had brought their golf clubs and were scaring his cows with their occasionally misguided golf balls.

Being a natural entrepreneur, he immediately recognized an opportunity when he saw it - and the design and construction of Pinehurst's first golf course soon began.

Contrary to popular belief, the first golf course designer to work in Pinehurst wasn't Donald Ross. "Actually, Dr. P. Leroy Culver did the first nine holes at the No. 1 course," says Khristine Januzik, director of the Tufts Archives in Pinehurst.

"Of course, Dr. Culver wasn't technically an architect - I believe he was a public health doctor in New York City. But in those days, you didn't have to be an architect to design golf holes. You just had to be a pretty good golfer and to have been to Scotland. And I guess he qualified in both of those categories."

The No. 1 Course at Pinehurst

The modern day No. 2 Course

What was that early course like? It was apparently, a lot like other American golf course architecture during this period. "Take a look at the photos we have here at the Archives, and you'll be tempted to giggle," says Januzik. "But it was typical of the time, because like other people, they were trying to re-create what occurred naturally in Scotland, and they did so in a very geometric way. Everything was square and linear, and you had these strange-looking cross bunkers and goofy-looking pyramids thrown in as hazards.

"I always feel like if golf course architecture had stayed like this, the game would have never taken off. It was so penal in so many ways."

During this period in Pinehurst, the word "greens" was a misnomer. What functioned as greens were actually ovals of flat, packed sand. These ovals were "horse-rolled," meaning the sand was packed by a machine with rollers on it that was drawn by a horse. "And a big problem with those 'greens' was that you couldn't change the pin position," says Januzik. "So after you'd played them once or twice, you had whatever contours there were figured out. How much fun could that have been?"

Later, oil was mixed with the sand to create a somewhat smoother putting surface. And steamrollers were used instead of horse-drawn rollers to maintain those surfaces.

All the tee boxes at this time were constituted of rolled or packed sand as well.

"Those first nine holes opened in February of 1898. They were such a success, the Tufts family immediately wanted to add the next nine holes. Leonard Tufts got in on that design process, and by that fall, they had hired John Dunn Tucker as the first pro here."

"Interestingly enough, John Dunn Tucker was the cousin of John Duncan Dunn, who was a bona fide golf course architect."

"So John Dunn Tucker, who had been in charge of the links of Stockbridge, Massachusetts, comes to take charge of the links in Pinehurst. He also functions as greenkeeper, which of course is normal at that time. So that's about October of 1898 when he arrives."
"It so happens that Tucker's cousin, the architect, came through Pinehurst in March of 1899."

"Now I have to think he made some comments about the course. Because already in May, we find that the bunkers on the No. 1 course are being remodeled under Mr.Tucker's direction."

Pinehurst's world-renowned No. 2 CourseTucker stayed on for the season of 1899-1900, and with the help of two men he hired as greenkeepers - L.B. Hallock and Edmund Cheek - he continued tweaking the course, making it more sophisticated, and trying to get more and more people interested in playing it.

"Then the big thing happens in March of 1900: Harry Vardon, who was the reigning British Open champion, comes to Pinehurst and plays an exhibition on the No. 1 course against Hallock and Tucker. This was Vardon's first U.S. Tour and I'm sure that at that time, Pinehurst was the only course in the area up to a par that he would have considered playing."

"You would have had some courses in northern Massachusetts and in New York by then, and I think they were starting up in Florida. But this really would have been the only stop for him worth making between New York and Florida at that time."

"This exhibition was huge as far as publicity went [for Pinehurst]. Vardon wrote a nice piece about what a great course Number One was going to be [which was carried in several newspapers]."

By the season of 1900-1901, Tucker was no longer the pro at Pinehurst. Another Scotsman arrived on the train in December of 1900 to take his place. And soon, that quiet, unassuming man was to change the face of golf forever.

His name was Donald Ross. 

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