CHARLESTON, S.C. – In the case of the Country Club of Charleston, it comes as no surprise that one of America’s most preservation-minded cities has as its namesake a golf course that in the last few decades has become increasingly conscientious about honoring its architectural roots.
A byproduct of that commitment to preservation means the club will become the first Seth Raynor-designed golf course to host a U.S. Golf Association Open championship, with the playing of the 74th U.S. Women’s Open beginning May 30.
“It’s wonderful that the American public will finally get to see all these holes – that are national treasures – in a national championship-caliber setting,” said Kyle Franz, the designer charged with leading the club’s latest restoration.
Organized in 1900, the club relocated to a tract of land on James Island with a commanding view of the Charleston peninsula in South Carolina and its historic harbor by the early 1920s. Open, gently rolling land defined by few trees and Low Country marshes encouraged ocean breezes to dictate constantly shifting conditions.
Thanks to a recommendation from the Olmsted Brothers landscape architecture firm, the club selected the less expensive (and more readily available) Seth Raynor over Donald Ross in 1923 to design the course.
The economic impacts of the Civil War reinforced a culture where historic preservation in Charleston often meant keeping up what a person already had. “Creaky doors and peeling paint only added to the charm,” said club historian John Boatwright.
This mindset endured through World War II when, according to longtime member Frank Ford, “Members would row boats across the Ashley River on the flood tide from Murray Boulevard, using rationed gasoline to fuel course maintenance vehicles rather than their personal automobiles.” When done mowing the greens, they rowed back across the river.
Fast forward half a century. While the green complexes had endured, many of the bold, distinctive Raynor design elements from tee to green were forgotten through accidents of history or financial realities of past moments. Motivated more by frugality than neglect, it wasn’t until Hurricane Hugo hit in 1989 that the club shifted from a maintenance mentality to one of renovation and eventually restoration, mirroring architectural initiatives in Charleston itself.
In 1990 the club hired John LaFoy to repair and renovate the course in response to Hugo. LaFoy had drawings of greens and the surrounds completed before conducting any work in an effort to keep intact Raynor’s greens. But much of the work from tee to green required interpretation and speculation in the absence of historical evidence of Raynor’s original intent.
By 2006, reflecting the larger movement in Charleston, the club engaged Brian Silva to undertake a full course restoration based on member-compiled photographs and descriptions. But then came an unexpected discovery: a 1938 course aerial. With Silva’s guidance, the club either preserved or restored numerous bunkers shown on the 1938 aerial.
Yet fifteen years had elapsed from the original design in 1923 to the date of the photograph. What course did Raynor really build?
The success of the 2013 U.S. Women’s Amateur reinforced to the membership that they had something even more special than previously thought. The positive reception of the course and restoration work fueled members of the club’s Heritage Committee to do more searching for original evidence.
Thanks to ongoing communication between Boatwright and Charlton deSaussure Jr., his historian counterpart at Yeamans Hall Club, another Charleston-area Raynor design from the mid-1920s, a treasure trove of archival materials emerged in 2015 from the National Park Service and the Frederick Law Olmsted Archive in Brookline, Mass.
The greatest catch of all was a full course plan from 1923, drawn by the Olmsteds using Raynor’s original plans and approved by Raynor. Having restored much of the course to the 1938 aerial in 2006, the club decided to go a step further and build or reconstruct numerous fairway bunkers from Raynor’s original plan under the guidance of Franz beginning in 2016.
However, after two major course shutdowns in the previous two decades, the shifting approach to restoration took on a new dimension. This time the club decided on “targeted restoration,” focusing on one small project at a time, building more organically.
The latest and greatest discovery came in 2017, when the club found a detailed drawing of the course that appeared in Charleston’s News and Courier on May 16, 1925, the day the course opened for play. The plan, prepared by top amateur and member Edward F. Mayberry, along with narrative description of the holes, provided even more evidence of Raynor’s intended design as it incorporated changes during construction between 1923 and 1925.
“The benefit of a targeted approach to restoration work is that new (old) information can occur at any time,” said club archivist Forrest Norvell IV, who found the 1938 aerial and 1925 Mayberry plan. “The targeted approach allows flexibility to accommodate the lessons of new research and can also be more inclusive, building support of the membership as you go along.”
The 11th hole at the Country Club of Charleston is a replica of the 15th hole at North Berwick in Scotland. At 177 yards, the hole features a raised and reverse Redan green with a false front and two large bunkers. The tee box is situated on what used to be a Confederate battery. “I expect the 11th to be a household name by the end of the Women’s Open,” said Kyle Franz, the designer charged with leading the club’s latest restoration.
When the best female golfers in the world come to Charleston this month, they will find a course with some of the best Raynor greens in the game and a club that is intent on honoring its name, representing the spirit of Low Country golf and historical preservation that makes Charleston unique. Gwk
(Note: This story appears in the May 2019 issue of Golfweek.)