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America's First Golf Course

Let's doff our Nike caps for a moment and pay homage to those who made it all possible--those nineteenth-century Scottish gents, with their mustaches and red coats and their armfuls of hickory shafts, who transplanted golf to America.

Let's hear it for Colonel J. Hamilton Gillespie, who in 1883 was seen whacking a "guttie" up and down the main street of Sarasota, Florida. And for ruddy-cheeked John Reid, the putative "father of American golf"--the Abner Doubleday, you could say--who on February 22, 1888, played a three-hole round in a cow pasture across the street from his house in Yonkers, New York, and who a year later, with five cronies, established the St. Andrew's Golf Club in nearby Hastings-on-Hudson, which today proclaims itself the oldest golf club in America. Reid and his Apple Tree Gang, as they called themselves, were true pioneers; they endured bad lies beyond imagining, not to mention the scorn of the clergy and the ridicule of tourists who drove in carriages from New York City to gawk at the spectacle of grown men "playing marbles with sticks." But golf is about accuracy, so while we're at it, let's set the scorecard straight. The true father of American golf is, fittingly, an American--Russell W. Montague, from Dedham, Massachusetts, who in 1884 laid out a six-hole course (three more holes were added later) on thirty-five hilly acres of his farm in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, and whose golf club, the Oakhurst Links, predates St. Andrew's by about four years. St. Andrew's claim rests on a technicality: Because Oakhurst disbanded around 1910, the New York club is the oldest golf club in America in continuous operation. (This is a little like saying that because the Ford is still in production, it's older than the Stutz Bearcat.) Moreover, you could make a case that Oakhurst never really ceased to be; it merely lay dormant for eighty-five years or so. And while the St. Andrew's layout has been altered countless times over the years, Oakhurst--thanks to the efforts of an irrepressible golf enthusiast named Lewis Keller--has recently been restored exactly as it was back in the late nineteenth century. You can play it for yourself, and not just the course but the game as it was then as well, using the same balky, wood-handled implements, the same leaden, ground-burrowing golf ball.

You can stand in your knickers, or your chinos, on the first tee, a square of raked sand, and see the same intimidating 226-yard vista that Montague and his fellow members saw: overhanging tree branch, sunken pond to the left and a long downhill track to the green requiring you to carry not only a road (twice) but a long, narrow, troughlike bunker, a low stone wall and a flock of grazing sheep. You can tee your waffle-patterned ball up on a little anthill of hand-moistened sand, just as they did, and digging in your boots (okay, your Reeboks), take a couple of practice swings with your driving wood, a long, hickory-shafted implement that looks like an attenuated cabriole table leg. A deep breath now, maybe a spit into the palms (to keep the rawhide grip from torquing midswing), and you're ready: waggle, backswing (a snatch and jerk, really--this club is heavy), a lunge forward, and with any luck, you're rewarded with a distinctly unmusical thwap--the sound of a hickory knob colliding with gutta-percha. Where did it go?Following the ball's erratic flight, you peer into the too near distance and mutter "Damnation!" or "Hells bells!" or even "Oh, shit!" (golf scholarship is inconclusive on this point), just as Russell W. Montague did 114 years ago.

Montague, a well-bred Harvard man, picked up golf during a trip he made to Scotland in the winter of 1874. He moved back to Boston and practiced law there for a year, and then, on the advice of his physician, repaired to West Virginia because of the healthful climate and salubrious waters to be found at the spa at White Sulphur Springs. It's not clear what was ailing him--in his few surviving pictures he looks hale and robust--but whatever it was, the cure worked. He lived to be ninety-three. Montague's West Virginia neighbors were mostly Scots who had settled there because the rolling, round-shouldered mountains and misty glens reminded them of home, and it was a group of these émigrés who joined with him to build a golf links on the occasion of the 1884 visit of a young Scot named Lionel Torrin, the nephew of Montague's friend and neighbor George Grant. The original members, besides Torrin, Grant and Montague, included a pair of brothers, Alexander and Roderick McLeod, and George M. Donaldson, another local Scot, who arranged for importing the necessary clubs and balls. They played regular matches, the results of which Montague carefully recorded in a journal, and on six consecutive Christmas days--from 1888 to 1893--they competed for an engraved medal.

By the turn of the century, the Scots had begun drifting back to the old country, and eventually only Montague and George Donaldson, who had married a local woman, remained. After 1913, when C. B. MacDonald's Old White course opened at the nearby Greenbrier resort, Montague and Donaldson started playing there, and the Oakhurst Links slowly turned back into pasture.

As late as the thirties, however, the locations of the original tees and greens could still be discerned, and the locals--among them Sam Snead, then a young pro at the Greenbrier--sometimes went over there and knocked around a golf ball in the tall grass just for the heck of it. It was Snead who introduced Oakhurst to its current proprietor and its savior, Lewis E. Keller.


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