A Tale of Two Clubs
Spiritual cousins from the Golden Age of American Golf, Winston-Salem’s Old Town and the Roaring Gap Club share more than sporting DNA
By Lee Pace
From the third hole of R.J. and Katharine Reynolds’ six-hole golf course just to the northwest of the town of Winston-Salem in 1913, a golfer could see an ancient knob of quartzite reaching nearly 2,500 feet above sea level 19 miles away. So sweet was the view of Pilot Mountain before the trees grew up around what would become Reynolda House that Mrs. Reynolds named the hole “Pilot View.”
And from the 17th green at Roaring Gap Club, when it opened in 1926, was a totally different view of the very same Pilot Mountain. Only this vantage point was from 28 miles to the west and from above — the course was perched at 3,500 feet, prompting club marketing officials to craft a line for a newspaper ad reading, “So high, so free, so spacious . . . . with air like wine . . . . dry invigorating, health-giving. Roaring Gap is ‘Above All.’”
That triangulation is interesting to consider today in the stories of Old Town Club, built on the western portion of the Reynolds family’s thousand-acre estate that gave birth to that long-since abandoned and rudimentary golf course, and Roaring Gap Club, situated an hour’s drive into the hills and offering flatlanders from the Triad and points beyond a perfect summertime escape
• Named for the speed with which the winds whipped through the mountains in Alleghany County.
• Connected to one of North Carolina’s oldest industrial concerns, Chatham Manufacturing of Elkin, and to Pinehurst Inc., as the founding Tufts family was a partner in its creation.
• Seen as a summertime destination for the same avid golfers who flocked to the Sandhills in the winter.
• Designed, the course at least, by the Scottish architect Donald Ross and built with minimal earth-moving equipment, thus some holes are defended not with hazards but with rolling terrain alone.
• Complemented at first by the Graystone Inn, patterned after George Washington’s Mount Vernon.
And Old Town
• Named for the 1759 Moravian village of Bethania founded 5 miles up Reynolda Road.
• Connected to Augusta National as Old Town founder Charles Babcock was a Wall Street partner of Augusta co-founder Clifford Roberts.
• Designed, again the course, by Perry Maxwell, earlier an associate to Alister MacKenzie before MacKenzie’s death in 1934.
• Joined at the hip with Wake Forest University as the campus sits to the north of the club and Deacon golfers from Lanny Wadkins to Webb Simpson plied their trade on the golf course.
• Enchanced by amiable eccentricities like a double-green on eight and 17 and criss-crossing tee shots on nine and 18.
Both clubs have vintage and esteemed Winston-Salem names of Reynolds, Hanes and Gray among their early directors and officers, and both have Hugh Chatham and his son Thurmond, the Elkin textile magnates, among early guiding forces. And both are five years into significant course restorations that ran the gamut from updating the agronomics to rebuilding greens and bunkers, plus adding a snippet of length here and there, and mostly burnishing the antique glow that make each a treasure to visit and play. The restoration counselors in each case were old souls from the architecture business — Bill Coore at Old Town and Kris Spence at Roaring Gap.
“Old Town is very special to me,” says Coore, who played the course frequently in the 1960s as a student at Wake Forest and wannabe starter on the Deacon golf team. “The best golf courses I’ve seen were created by Mother Nature and are totally random. Nothing about nature looks planned or structured. That’s certainly what Old Town was in 1939 and I believe what it is today.”
“Roaring Gap is absolutely my favorite place to go and play golf,” says Spence, the Greensboro-based architect and restoration specialist who began his relationship with the club in the early 2000s. “It’s so laid-back and comfortable and relaxed. You go in one screen door and out the other and you’re on the 18th green. The ambiance is one of a kind. I’ve had a long-time love affair with that place.”
Dunlop White III, a University of North Carolina and Wake Forest Law School graduate, is a member at both clubs and was in a leadership role and at each during their respective makeovers — the Old Town project running from 2012–13 and Roaring Gap under the dozer from 2011–13. White is steeped in golf-course history and architecture, having served as president of the Donald Ross Society and currently working on the USGA’s Museum & Library Committee and Architecture Archive Committee. “Tradition and history are some of your greatest marketing tools,” White says. “A Perry Maxwell or a Donald Ross design is an attraction, but an authentic Perry Maxwell or Donald Ross design is one of the greatest marketing tools a club can have. Membership numbers and rankings on both courses have popped notably the last five years.
“But the thing that made both restorations get approval was not the architectural themes,” White says. “There are too many opinions involved.” However, there’s one thing that everybody agrees upon: “That’s the agronomics stuff. Everybody wants great turf grass.”
Golf was still in its infancy in the United States in the late 1890s when the idea of cobbling a summer vacation colony near the hamlet of Laurel Branch, some 30 miles northwest of Elkin, occurred to Hugh Gwyn Chatham. He was riding horseback through the mountains on a buying trip for the wool used by Chatham Manufacturing Company when he stopped in his tracks. “He was so struck with its splendor that he wanted everybody he knew in the world to come up there and see for themselves,” Dewitt, his daughter who had married into the Hanes family of Winston-Salem, once recalled.
Chatham opened the Roaring Gap Hotel in 1894, and among his early guests were the Reynoldses from Winston-Salem. R.J. had the first plumbing on the mountain installed in his suite, drawing onlookers from miles around to inspect this contraption known as a bathtub. One traveler in a letter home was effusive in his excitement: “Nature here presents a panorama, extremely beautiful, grand and extensive, that may rank upon her masterpieces.”
Fire razed the hotel in 1913, but Chatham was undaunted. When World War I ended in 1918 and the American economy first stabilized and then began expanding in 1920s, Chatham organized and launched Roaring Gap Inc. But his expertise was in textiles. He needed someone who understood the resort and golf businesses.
“Mr. Tufts had made a fantastic thing out of the sandhills of Pinehurst and we needed somebody to come and build a new hotel and run the place,” DeWitt Hanes reflected.
Tufts agreed to run the resort and he brought Ross, the Scotsman who by then had designed four courses at Pinehurst as well as the one at Mid Pines in Southern Pines, into the project at Roaring Gap. The golf course and a 65-room hotel opened for the 1926 summer season, and guests enjoyed golf, archery, horseback riding, piano recitals and a bountiful table. They were also in no hurry to get out of bed in the morning, flummoxing the native mountain folk who were up before the roosters.
“The genius of Pinehurst resort management, regarded highly by an army of sportsmen for several decades, discovered last year a summer field for its endeavors,” a 1927 Pinehurst Outlook story noted. “To habitués of North Carolina’s famous golf center, the growing need of a community that would carry on the Pinehurst tradition during suspension of activities here was fully recognized.”
In those days it was an arduous trek — 150 miles of two-lane roads from Pinehurst west to Candor, north to Asheboro and Winston-Salem, then up U.S. Hwy. 21 into Alleghany County, the last five miles replete with steep grades and sharp turns. In the early 1930s, considerable private funds were spent planting rose bushes along the road, ergo the appellation “Road of Roses,” and an early ad for Roaring Gap described the 16-mile passage from Elkin as a “picturesque four-hour drive.”
“My grandfather, my grandmother and their six children all loved going to Roaring Gap once their house was built in the 1920s,” says James A. Gray III, a Roaring Gap member into the third generation and native of Winston-Salem. “They would get on a train in Winston-Salem and go west to Elkin, where they spent the night. Then it was up the mountain by horse and buggy — taking a full day. Of course there were cars then, but no decent road up the mountain.”
The Tufts family scaled back all of it operations during the Depression in the early 1930s and in 1933 ceased its management role at Roaring Gap. But under the steady guidance of Thurman Chatham and his family, the club matured into modern times. Bailey Glenn, who grew up in Winston-Salem and played golf as a boy at Forsyth and Old Town before going to Duke, was hired as the head golf pro at Roaring Gap in 1957 and stayed there until he retired in 1993. Son Bill Glenn has been running it since.
The quaint clubhouse, built in 1939, remains intact. It’s relaxed and unpretentious and fits like a pair of comfortable slippers. There’s a modest grill where they make outstanding cheeseburgers and where Bailey Glenn used to feed tomato sandwiches to the caddies, maintenance staff and golfers, as well, “With peeled tomatoes, that was a detail he insisted on,” says Bill.
“I know this place has some creaks and has holes here and there, and as you travel around there are certainly better structures out there,” Bill continues. “But it seems like people who really ‘get’ this place appreciate it for what it is. They’ll say, ‘Golly, I wish I had something this simple back home.’”
Chuck Duckett, a member from Winston-Salem, concurs. “I can take any group I want to Roaring Gap and they’ll love it,” he says. “And I can go out my back door with two beers and my dog and play a few holes and no one cares. And my dog can get a drink at the clubhouse because they’ve got a water dish outside for dogs.”
Spence had previously refurbished Ross courses at Greensboro Country Club, the Omni Grove Park Inn in Asheville and Mimosa Hills in Morganton when he first started visiting Roaring Gap and spit-balling restoration concepts with White and club officials nearly a decade earlier. The quality of the turf had deteriorated enough that the club approved a significant project to be done over two winters from 2011–13.
By using Ross’s original 1925 blueprints and digging up the greens and finding clues to the original dimensions, Spence replaced what had become round and “pancaked-shaped” greens with modern versions of the originals. He rebuilt bunkers that had lost their shapes or been buried and found several hundred more yards, stretching the course to nearly 6,500 from the black tees. The irrigation was totally rebuilt and great pains were taken to ensure the preservation of the original grass blends —roughly 70 percent poa annua, 20 bent and 10 mutations.
“Too often in these restorations a course looks brand-new, and we didn’t want the course to look brand-new,” White says. “It was a restoration, and we wanted it to look old. And part of doing that was preserving the grass blends.”
While Roaring Gap is a late-spring-to-mid-October, second-home sort of club, Old Town is an urban club close to most members’ primary residences and was the second club to evolve in Winston-Salem in the early 20th century.
Forsyth Country Club was launched in 1913 with William Neal Reynolds and P. Huber Hanes among its founders, and its 18-hole course was completed on land west of downtown in 1924 when Ross took an original nine holes built by A.W. Tillinghast and expanded and rerouted it. The club’s fortunes mirrored those of most in-town golf and country clubs conceived during that era (i.e. Biltmore Forest in Asheville in 1922 and Hope Valley in Durham in 1926) — it bolted from the gates as more people took up golf and looked for leisure pursuits during healthy economic times. But they all endured hiccups as the Depression unfolded in 1929.
That year Mary Reynolds, daughter of R.J. and Katharine, married Charles Babcock, a New York investment banker, and in 1936 she inherited her father’s estate worth some $30 million. Forsyth was struggling during the height of the Depression, and the Babcocks and a group known as the “Young Turks” sensed the club’s imminent demise. They set out to create a new club on Reynolds land located just to the east of Reynolda House, and Old Town Club opened in 1939. (Ironically, Forsyth board member Dick Reynolds, one of R.J.’s four children, took affront to the new initiative and during the 1940s stepped up with a $170,000 donation to that club, bolstering its bottom line and giving it a springboard to survive and later thrive in the post World War II boom times.)
The Gray family with brothers Bowman and James serving in leadership roles at Reynolds Tobacco and in a host of Winston-Salem philanthropic endeavors in the mid-1900s, were members at Old Town as well as Roaring Gap. Jim III, today a business consultant in Durham, has fond boyhood memories of “growing up” at the club.
“I learned to swim at the old round pool with a diving board that looked 50 feet tall when you are gazing up as an 8-year-old,” Gray says. “For lunch, I’ll never forget the wonderful hot dogs with relish in a white-paper ‘canoe’ topped off with a dessert of lime sherbet. We did it all — swim, golf, tennis. From weddings to deb parties . . . the time in 1965 a bunch of us hired the Tams for a party — it was lots of fun.”
And then came Sundays, he reflects fondly: “Every Sunday after church at Home Moravian, our family had a big lunch at Old Town. The cinnamon buns were special. And who can forget the ageless and kind doorman, Frank? I wish I knew his last name like he knew mine! Back then that was just the way it was.”
The distinctive look of the golf course at Old Town revolved around Perry Maxwell’s heavily contoured greens fraught with rolls, bubbles and nooks and his irregular shaped bunkers that took on a weathered look. The land pitched and rolled and the fairways were wide, and in one spot five fairways essentially meld into one another with only the waters of Silas Creek separating two of them.
“The way Mr. Maxwell laid the golf course on the ground is fascinating,” says Coore, who began a lengthy and fruitful golf design business with Ben Crenshaw in the mid-1980s. “It’s extraordinarily interesting. This is a hilly piece of ground. It’s not an easy site on which the lay a golf course. I’ve always told young architects and shapers, ‘If you want to study how to route a golf course on a hilly site and a small site, go to Old Town.’”
As 2010 approached, the club was faced with needing to replace the 15-year-old greens that architect Bob Cupp had rebuilt in 1995. Logan Jackson — who was four years behind Coore at Wake Forest, was a multiple club champion at Old Town and, at the time, the club’s golf chairman — knew of Coore’s affection for Old Town and arranged for Coore to visit Winston-Salem while in North Carolina during his 2010–11 restoration of Pinehurst No. 2. They toured the course and had dinner with club president Joe Young.
“Bill talked so much about how he loved Old Town,” Jackson says. “He spoke of things I’d never dreamed of, pointed out how this was done or that was done, how he’d taken little features to other courses he’d built. It was quite profound hearing an artist like Bill talk in such glowing terms about your golf course.
“Joe and I agreed after that meeting, we had to make this happen.”
The course was closed in late 2012 and reopened nine months later. The bunkers were lowered to their original profiles and rebuilt with native riverbed. Coore and his design associates labored for hours creating marquee bunkers such as the one on the right of the first fairway and to the rear of the 12th green. In some bunkers they left what Coore calls “scads” of turf, and design associate Dave Axland chiseled out two bunkers behind the 14th green that look, Coore says, like “alligator eyes.”
“The bunkers on the old, classic courses left you the impression they had been formed over the years in some natural process from the wind, from erosion, from different grasses coming up,” Coore says. “They were, indeed, hazards and they weren’t maintained very much. They were very formidable looking and dramatic.
“That’s what we tried to re-introduce at Old Town.”
More than a thousand trees that were not there 70 years before were removed and the fairway lines expanded to allow the bounces and rolls of Maxwell’s strategy come into play; Old Town has 80 acres of manicured fairway versus 50 to 55 on many courses. Prevalent today are vistas of the broom sedge so native to the region bending with the wind; absent is the silly idea of having zoysia grass rimming the traps and keeping balls from rolling into them.
Old Town has sprung to No. 23 in among “Classic Courses” in the nation in Golfweek’s rankings and No. 59 in the country in GOLF magazine. Roaring Gap is recognized among the top 100 “Classic Courses” by Golfweek as well. And both were among the three dozen courses nationwide that designer and author Tom Doak highlighted as “Gourmet’s Choice” in his update Confidential Guide book — those defined as courses which “stir the soul,” “offer something out of the ordinary,” and where you would “most want to take a good friend to play.”
That’s 171 years combined between Old Town and Roaring Gap, two clubs with overlapping family trees, color palettes ranging from sepia and beige to green, mottled grasses and wispy edges. There are few flat lies among the 36 holes. Would that you simply step into your plus-fours and starched shirt, grip your persimmon-headed driver and give it a rip. h
Lee Pace has been writing about golf from his home in Chapel Hill for three decades and is the author of a dozen books on the evolution of golf in the Carolinas.