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America's First Golf Course

Keller, now seventy-five, is a small, white-haired man who with his high forehead and keen-eyed eagerness reminds me a little of the French comic book character Tintin. He is polite, ebullient and one of the happiest-seeming men I have ever met. Why wouldn't he be?He is a scratch golfer, with a stylishly compact swing, and he has his own golf course. Keller was born in Norfolk, Virginia, and still speaks with a Tidewater accent, but after attending Duke and serving in the navy, he moved north to work in the shipping business in New York City. In the forties, while living in Bronxville, New York, he became a member at Winged Foot and fell under the sway of its legendary pro, Claude Harmon, who in turn introduced him to Snead. "I think it was in the midfifties that I first met Sam," Keller says. "I began coming down to the Greenbrier more and more often to play, and Sam encouraged me to find a place of my own down here. In the summer of 1959, I believe it was, he took me to meet Cary Montague, Russell's son, who was still living at the original property. Cary was an old man then--he was eighty-two--and he was almost blind. He was an Episcopal priest, and he was concerned that after he was gone the property would be purchased and turned into a casino. There were already three casinos in town then and he didn't want any more. Well, to make a long story short, I somehow convinced him that I was an upstanding citizen, and he agreed to sell the place to me. Then he took me by the hand, this old gentleman, and led me out into the front yard, right by the porch, and showed me exactly where the first tee had been."

Almost from the beginning, Keller says, he had determined to restore the course someday, but the project was deferred for some three decades while the clubhouse--a white two-story, green-shuttered Victorian cottage--served instead as the Keller family summer home. The true restoration began in May 1994, under the supervision of Robert Cupp, a well-known golf architect and a friend of Keller's, who worked free of charge. By the following autumn, the new grass had grown in sufficiently, and on October 20 the Oakhurst Links officially reopened. Sam Snead took the first swing--on the par-three third hole--and stuck a mid-iron (roughly equivalent to a three-iron today) eight feet from the pin.

On my best round at Oakhurst, played on a chilly fall morning when the greens were white with dew and scraps of fog clung to the low-lying branches, I shot a fifty. Not too shabby when you consider that a couple of months earlier Lee Trevino had carded a forty-seven. "It's a good thing I didn't have to make my living playing with equipment like this," he said, standing on the fourth tee. "I'd still be a caddy." (Actually, he wouldn't: Players in those days toted their own, and it wasn't uncommon for a couple of golfers to share a single armful of clubs.) My round was distinguished by pars on both the first and last holes. My shots were as follows. On number one: driving wood, hooked but, thank God, safely over the little kettle pond; mid-iron, sculled--a screamer--just over the wall and about twenty yards to the right of the green; mid-iron again, a bump and run this time that hopped, rabbitlike, toward the pin, a waist-high white-and-black-striped stake; one putt. And on the 179-yard number nine, which goes back up to the clubhouse: mid-iron, a beauty, to the crest; chipping iron (a whippy little utensil whose tiny club head has the loft, roughly, of an eight-iron), pitched right to the green; two putts. Hey, almost like golf! (By this point I had long since abandoned the driving wood and its mate, the shorter but equally unreliable fairway wood; the rutter, a scooping club that looks like a brass hip-socket replacement affixed to a cane, I didn't even take from the clubhouse.)

As for what happened between those sterling brackets, I'd just as soon not go into much detail. Oakhurst, Lewis Keller likes to say, is not so much about playing golf as having a golfing experience. I had lots of golfing experiences. Not among them, however, was draining a putt of any decent length. ("Drain," by the way, is exactly the right word: A gutta-percha ball dropping into the cup doesn't make that pleasant chortling sound we've grown accustomed to; rather, it sputters like a sink being cleared.) According to Keller, who, together with his son, Lewis Jr., holds the course record (an even-par thirty-seven), putting may be the hardest adjustment that Oakhurst requires of twentieth-century golfers. The greens, pleasantly spongy underfoot (because they're built on the original soil, with no drainage gravel underneath), are cut to three-sixteenths of an inch, or twice as long as you're used to, and are both slow and hard to read.

My score was also not helped by several lost-ball penalties, and that's not counting the shots I lost right out on the fairway. A guttie is smaller and a little yellower than the modern golf ball and has a way of temporarily ducking out of sight on Oakhurst's shaggy, sheep-mown fairways. It's not uncommon, while hunting for your own ball, to come across two or three others, abandoned by earlier searchers, right out in plain view. But you can easily lose your shots the old-fashioned way, too--by knocking them into the deep stuff, of which Oakhurst has an abundance. A hickory-shafted club, and a wood especially, has a tendency to magnify whatever is wrong with a particular swing. A hook will really hook, and a slice under these conditions is far too ugly even to contemplate.

Consistency of distance is also hard to come by. On number three, the 106-yard par three, with an elevated tee and green and a wildflower-filled chasm in between, I choked down on my mid-iron but miraculously, for once, managed to strike the ball with the sweet portion of the club face--a location as small and as elusive as the G-spot--and overdrove the green by fifteen yards. Elsewhere the very same swing, or as near as I could manage, produced seventy-yard clunkers. Even if you smite the dickens out of a guttie--and find the sweet spot with the precision of a Masters and Johnson--it won't travel more than a hundred and fifty or sixty yards: The longest hole at Oakhurst, the par-five eighth (a "three-shotter"), is only 356 yards long, but, as Einstein said, distance is relative. When you stand on the eighth tee and contemplate both the green, barely visible behind a knoll, and the inadequacy of what you have to use to get there, your heart quails at the prospect of so wearisome a journey.

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