Magazine article Insight on the News

Golf's Class Grass Roots

Magazine article Insight on the News

Golf's Class Grass Roots

Article excerpt

In the heart of the Allegheny Mountains, a local farmer and four Scots built and played the first golf course in America. Thanks to its owner, this bit of Americana has been preserved.

Augusta National, Pine Valley, Pebble Beach, Oakhurst Links ... Oakhurst Links? Augusta National has the Masters, Amen Corner and an overwhelming aura of prestige. Pine Valley has the world's top-ranked layout. And Pebble Beach, poised precipitously above the Pacific Ocean, is the game's aesthetic masterpiece. But Oakhurst Links? What is this anonymous aggie doing among such architectural diamonds?

Quite simply, Oakhurst Links in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., belongs on every serious player's list of must-make pilgrimages. Founded in 1884, it's the oldest golf club in the United States, predating the U.S. Golf Association, or USGA, and its charter clubs by a decade, and thus stands as the birthplace of American golf.

You can play Oakhurst's original nine-hole layout any time between May 1 and Nov. 1. Don't bother bringing your titanium-headed, graphite-shafted weapons. Forget your trusty lob wedge, preferred brand of spinning surlyn and your softspikes. You won't even need a carry bag or a handful of tees.

At Oakhurst, golf is played 1884-style, with gutta-percha balls and four hickory-shafted relics that look more like cudgels than clubs. Armed with these crude but somehow elegant instruments, you'll likely find Oakhurst's par-37 layout the toughest 2,235 yards in golf.

But if scorecard desecration is a near-certainty from the first incompetent clack of applewood upon guttie, so is the overwhelming sense that you are rollicking among the game's roots. Oakhurst represents golf's ultimate interactive museum: a 116-year-old exhibit with "please touch" scrawled across every square inch of the property.

In 1879, Russell Montague left his law practice in Boston and moved to White Sulphur Springs, following the advice of his doctor. Montague, it seemed, had a "frail constitution," and his doctor suggested he trade his Back Bay lifestyle for the ease of country living.

So Montague bought a farm three miles from the Old White Hotel that eventually would become the famed Greenbrier resort. And it was here in rural West Virginia that he met George Grant and the McLeod brothers, Roderick and Alexander -- three transplanted Scots who lamented the lack of golf in the states. Montague had played the strange game during a vacation to St. Andrews in Scotland in 1870. Like his neighbors, he bemoaned the fact that the game had not yet crossed the Atlantic.

The foursome likely would have done nothing to fill that void if not for the impending visit of Grant's cousin, Lionel Torrin, in early 1884. A player of some repute, Torrin always traveled with his sticks. To play the proper hosts, Montague and his Scottish pals decided to surprise their visitor with a course of their own creation. Montague's farm was chosen as the best site for the layout, and the men set about constructing a course in the fashion of their favorite Scottish designs.

Another local Scot, George Donaldson, was dispatched to St. Andrews to fetch a clutch of clubs. Upon his return to the states, Donaldson was stopped by U.S. Customs, his alien cargo confiscated by an official who thought the clubs were "elongated blackjacks or some other implements of murder." Eventually, the Treasury Department relented, forwarding the clubs to Oakhurst.

Torrin arrived soon thereafter, and the first golf club in the United States was coronated. Undoubtedly, the country's first shank-induced profanity followed shortly thereafter, occasioning the first mulligan. Residents of White Sulphur Springs often dropped by Oakhurst to watch (as one early report put it) "the silly Scots chasing a white marble over the hills."

In 1959, the legendary Sam Snead told his good friend and golfing buddy Lew Keller about a lovely piece of property on the market called Oakhurst that was owned by an 84-year-old minister named Cary Montague. …

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