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Playing with hickory shafted clubs and old gutta percha balls is just part of the charm of Oakhurst Links, the first golf course in America. Just make sure you don’t hit a sheep — it’s a one stroke penalty laddie.

Article by Martha Asbury
Photos by David E. Fattaleh & Steve Shaluta, Jr.

Imagine four gentlemen in the late 19th century sitting around the home of Mr. George Grant in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va. The men are enjoying the evening twilight while discussing the upcoming visit of Grant’s cousin, one Lionel Torrin, who will be coming to America all the way from his tea plantation in India. And, egads, the lad will be bringing golf clubs. “However will I entertain the lad?” asks Grant, a retired officer from the British Army.

“Perhaps you should build a small course on your property,” one of his friends muses.

His neighbor Russell Montague, the only American of the four, confesses that he had picked up the game while in England “reading law at the Lower Temple of London,” and he found the sport quite enjoyable. He suggests that the course should be built on his land, Oakhurst Farms, since it is more centrally located. Alexander and Roderick MacLeod, who had come to America to learn to be gentlemen farmers after their elder brother inherited the lairdship, concur that this is indeed a splendid idea.

Thus in 1884, they set about planning their golf course and Cousin Lionel’s visit was occupied with the venture. These five gentlemen of “means,” with land and field hands, were responsible for the course known as Oakhurst Links, the first golf course in America. Today, you can play golf on the historic piece of property, but more on that later. Let’s get back to our story.

In 1888, the new club members ordered a medal struck for their first competition and dubbed it the Challenge Medal, now recognized as America’s oldest known golf medal. In a 1938 interview Montague recalled that they played for the medal regularly, sometimes as often as weekly, including six consecutive Christmas days. The original medal is now safely stored in a bank vault but three replicas exist, one of which is on display at Oakhurst Museum.

The United States Golf Association (USGA) has reviewed all records and information about Oakhurst and concurs that it is the oldest golf course in the United States. At the USGA museum in Far Hills, New Jersey, one can view a display about Oakhurst, which includes one of the three copies struck of the original Challenge Medal.

When Montague died in 1945, he left the property to his daughter Margaret. And upon Margaret’s death in 1955, her brother Cary inherited the property. Somewhere along the way the golf course fell into disrepair and slowly began to fade from the landscape. Cary ultimately decided to sell the property to someone who would promise not to turn it into a gambling casino or a supper club. He found the right buyer in Lewis Keller, Sr. When he purchased the property in 1959, Keller knew what a treasure he had, but at the time had no plans for its restoration. In fact, he converted the property into a horse farm.

But years later, Keller, an accomplished amateur golfer and successful businessman, set into motion plans to fully restore the old course. He had been the recipient of first-hand information from Cary regarding the course layout, as well as written documentation, and thus had a working outline for the project. Turning all his information over to Bob Cupp, the renowned golf course architect, the two men spent a year conducting archeological digs around the property and planning the project. With the course mapped out, restoration began in the spring of 1994. Laboring by hand, as in the early days of golf, the course was cleared and the old sand tees and plush greens were restored.

The completed restoration was planned to coincide with the Solheim Cup at the nearby Greenbrier Resort. Honored guests at the grand re-opening on October 20, 1994 included Karsten Solheim, owner of PING golf, and Dick Taylor, a well known sports writer. Golfing legend Sam Snead was also on hand to hit the opening shot.

Before and after restoration, several golf balls were found on the Oakhurst property – an 1880s smooth gutta percha, a scored guttie ball, a wooden ball used in World War I when rubber was rationed, a 1912 Avon wound ball and two 1920s Spalding balls.

Open to the public, the only way to play Oakhurst Links today is with hickory shafted clubs from the 19th century and gutta percha balls, all made in Scotland. If you have your own hickory clubs from 1900 or earlier, you may play them, otherwise everything is furnished by the club. Guttie balls are not known for flying well so it is best to hit a long straight drive off the sand tee. Yes, you have to make a sand tee (water and sand are provided in separate buckets on each tee). No wooden tees are allowed – they haven’t been invented yet.

Golf bags haven’t been invented either, so you clutch your four or five clubs ala Old Tom Morris and stride off to play amid the grazing sheep. It will cost you a penalty stroke should you hit one. However, if your ball lands in sheep ‘castings’ you will be entitled to a free drop (of the ball) – how you get it out of the castings is up to you. If your ball breaks during play, you play the largest piece until holed out; and you play the stymie rule (which is Dutch for ‘stops me’ though the Scots invented the game.)

Since its reopening in 1994, the course has gained in popularity and annually hosts the National Hickory Championship Tournament. Other tournaments and special events are held, but the NHC is by far the most colorful. All players must be properly attired, which means ladies wear long skirts and straw hats; gentlemen wear long-sleeved shirts, a tie, a proper hat and knickers and argyles – a couple of men play in kilts. Players in the NHC come from all corners of the United States and Canada. This friendly competition has no qualifying rounds and the men’s division plays 36 holes over a two-day period, with the senior and ladies divisions playing 18 over a two-day period. Colorful, festive, sweaty, and friendly – it reminds one of a big family reunion.

Who would have ever guessed that the oldest golf course in America could be found in West Virginia? But the facts are indisputable. Thanks to the hard work and meticulous restoration of owner Lewis Keller, Oakhurst Links is now celebrating its 120th year and its 10th anniversary since re-opening for play. So the next time you’re in the area, book a tee time and enjoy the golfing experience of a lifetime. And when you’re done, stop by the clubhouse and thank Mr. Keller for his invaluable contributions not only to the game of golf, but the state of West Virginia as well.

For more information on Oakhurst Links, go to their website at www.oakhurstlinks.com or call the clubhouse at (304) 536-1884. Hit ‘em straight!



 

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