Oakhurst on the auction block; future uncertain

The former home of Russell Montague now serves as a museum and clubhouse for Oakhurst Links.

photo

Lewis Keller

For sale: Oakhurst Links, one of America’s oldest golf clubs. Established in 1884. Original layout was faithfully restored in 1994. Nine holes, 2,235 yards. Annually hosts a national championship. Course is played exclusively with replica pre-1900 hickory clubs and gutta-percha balls. For sale at auction. Will accept best offer.

• • •

“There’s Sambo.”

That would be Sam Snead, who is pictured striking the first tee shot here at the 1994 reopening of Oakhurst Links. Lewis Keller smiles. Keller always smiles when he recalls his old friend.

Nearby, there’s a photo of Snead, the local hero, practicing at Oakhurst in 1938. By that time, the course had been abandoned, but Snead still came out to beat balls in the pasture. It was Snead who in 1959 persuaded Keller to buy Oakhurst Links, which Keller used as a summer retreat.

The two men first met in 1941, when Keller was a student at Maury High School in Norfolk, Va. He won a drawing to caddie for Snead at the Virginia State Open at Ocean View Golf Course, but was so intimidated by Snead that he switched bags with a classmate who was scheduled to loop for Snead’s playing partner.

“He was the big man in our state, and I daggone sure wasn’t going to pull the wrong club for him,” Keller said.

That day, however, Keller struck up a friendship with Snead, 11 years his senior, that would last a lifetime. Keller built many friendships in golf. He partnered with Gary Player in the old Greenbrier Spring Festival and with Gardner Dickinson at the Crosby Clambake. He traded birdies and business advice with Ben Hogan at Seminole. And Tom Watson sometimes brings friends and sponsors to Oakhurst to try the ancient game.

But Snead – well, Keller talks of “Sambo” as if he were a brother.

The story goes that in the 1950s, Keller beat Snead in a money game at The Greenbrier. To this day, Keller won’t say how much he won. Snead insisted that they keep playing until he won back his money, finally settling the bet when he carved a 1-iron shot into the par-5 12th on the Old White Course, his eagle bettering Keller’s birdie.

“The tears get in my eyes when I think of all the fun we had,” Keller said.

• • •

In 1884, Scotsman Lionel Torrin arrived in Greenbrier County, via India, to visit his uncle, transplanted Londoner George Grant. Torrin, an avid golfer, brought with him several sets of golf clubs and some gutta-percha balls.

In anticipation of Torrin’s arrival, Grant and his neighbors hatched the idea to build a golf course like the ones they had seen and played in their homeland. The verdant hills of West Virginia reminded them of Scotland, so it seemed as good a place as any to build a course.

Russell Montague, a Harvard graduate who had played golf at St. Andrews, offered up his land as the site for a nine-hole course where Torrin could play during his visit.

Montague joined four other men, including Torrin, in forming Oakhurst Links, which today bills itself as the “first organized golf club in America.” They commissioned a silversmith to design the Oakhurst Challenge Medal, which was emblazoned with their motto, “Far and Sure,” and is recognized by the U.S. Golf Association as the oldest known golf prize awarded in this country. They were a hardy bunch,playing year-round and competing for the medal each Christmas Day.

Golfers continued to play at Oakhurst Links until the early 1920s, but eventually abandoned it for C.B. Macdonald’s newfangled Old White a few miles away.

Oakhurst Links lay dormant until 1994. Keller, with prodding from golf writer Dick Taylor, had been mulling a restoration of the course. He’d occasionally kick around ideas with architect Bob Cupp, who was busy on design work at The Greenbrier.

“Finally, (Keller) called me and said, ‘Bob, can you come up here and see if we can find this old thing?’ ” Cupp recalled.

Cupp brought a crew with him to Oakhurst, and they began piecingtogether the original layout. They walked the land and pored over old documents. The pasture had never been plowed, so they occasionally found remnants of old gutta-percha balls and terracotta cups used to line holes. They scoured the writings of Russell Montague’s children, Cary and Margaret, searching for clues about where they had played during their youth. They found hints, such as a mention of the first hole playing downhill toward a gate, and a reference to a water impoundment that helped them uncover the fifth and seventh greens. Others, such as the third and fourth holes, were so obvious that all they had to do was mow them.

“It wasn’t about architecture,” Cupp said. “It was about forensics.”

On Oct. 20, 1994, with much of the golf world gathered at The Greenbrier for the Solheim Cup, Keller hosted a grand reopening of Oakhurst Links.

Ping founder Karsten Solheim arrived with a hickory-shafted club that he had made for the occasion. But when Snead struck the first shot on the 106-yard third hole, the club snapped, the gutty and the metal clubhead each flying toward the green.

“Did either one of them hit the green?” Snead asked Cupp, who still laughs at the memory.

Cupp handed Snead another club and “he hit the most gorgeous little draw” that stopped 8 feet from the hole.

• • •

On June 8-10, the National HickoryChampionship will be played at Oakhurst Links for the 14th time since Keller reopened the course. Late in life, Snead, who died in 2002, sometimes would return to Oakhurst to sit on the veranda by the ninth green and watch the tournament.

“This is as close as any of us can figure golf was like 110 years ago, and there’s no place else where you can experience that,” said Pete Georgiady, who runs the NHC and recently penned a history of the tournament.

Keller has had one firm rule since reopening the course: Golfers may use only pre-1900s hickory clubs and gutta-percha balls. This is a game for true aficionados.

“There’s more of a gap between 1890 and 1920 (in the quality of golf equipment) than there is between 1920 and modern,” said Randy Jensen, the eight-time NHC champion and the country’s best hickory player.

Jensen estimated he has played more than 200 nine-hole loops at Oakhurst, typically arriving a week before the tournament and playing 54 holes a day.

“It’s the most unique experience of playing golf that you can have in the United States,” Jensen said. “If you take the parking lot away, it’s like you’re playing golf in the 1880s. It’s pretty special.”

It’s unclear, however, whether Oakhurst Links will exist when the 2013 NHC is played. The 30-acre property and Oakhurst Challenge Medal are being auctioned off, and Keller would desperately love for a new owner to step forward to maintain the historic course. But that’s not a condition of the sale. Keller is 89, and the property has become too great a burden for him. He has decided to take the best offer and finally retire to Lynchburg, Va., near his daughter Vikki.

Recent conversations with prospectivebuyers have left him optimistic that Oakhurst Links “will be maintained and run as a golf course.” He believes Oakhurst Links can be “a moneymaker,” particularly if the next owner sells low-cost memberships to golfers worldwide who want to be associated with America’s first golf club.

Tommy Garten, whose firm, Greenway’s Real Estate & Auction, is handling the sale, has set an auction date of July 28. The price it will fetch is anyone’s guess.

“We’re selling a piece of history,” Garten said. “You can’t put a price on that.” m

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