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America's First Golf Course

In fact, your overwhelming emotion on playing Oakhurst is apt to be, like Lee Trevino's, one of gratitude for modern balls and clubs. Even the lowliest, most dinged-up range ball rattling at the bottom of your bag turns out, in retrospect, to be a thing of wonderment. And you will never look quite the same way on your clubs, either--even if you have been threatening to replace them for years. They're technological marvels--sophisticated instruments that produce something like the same result every time. You also can't help wondering what someone like Russell W. Montague might have achieved had he had our advantages. The golf he played was a game that partook of a whole other order of difficulty.

The miracle of resurrecting Oakhurst turns out to have been surprisingly easy to bring about. Gutta-percha, or the resin of the sapodilla tree, hasn't gone out of fashion. If you've ever had a root canal, you're carrying some in your gums. Lewis Keller was able to persuade the Pennfold factory, in Birmingham, England, which still owned a few old gutta-percha molds, to manufacture some new balls with just a little balata added, to keep the brittle spheres from breaking, as used to happen, and flying into pieces. Clubs were not much of a problem, either. Keller simply enlisted the many skilled wooden club makers still working in St. Andrews, Scotland, turning out replicas for the souvenir trade.

Easiest of all, in some ways, was the course itself. Actual construction took only eight days. "We didn't need any 'dozers or heavy equipment," Lewis Keller says. "Just rakes and shovels. And the reason is that the golf course was just basically sitting here. It was more like archaeology than new construction."

Keller and Cupp, his architect, relied partly on oral history and partly on old photographs. The remaining pieces of the puzzle Cupp filled in by deduction; carefully measuring the whole track, he looked in likely places for telltale mounds or depressions. In one spot Keller and his son dug one of the old cups out of the ground; in another, Cupp discovered some old drainage tiles suggesting the line of the fifth and seventh fairways. Ultimately what he found, Cupp has said, was "not just a golf course, but a golf course of very sound principles."

And, he might have added, one of exceptional beauty. Whoever the original designer was, he turns out to have been--like his fellow Scotsmen Willie Dunn, Charlie MacDonald and Donald Ross--a kind of untutored genius. The layout at Oakhurst--downhill, uphill, sidehill--shows off every aspect of the terrain to its best advantage and, particularly from the fifth tee, affords handsome views of the surrounding countryside. You're so uplifted most of the time that you don't even care, or notice, that your score is skyrocketing.

The greenskeeper (also sheep herder and club repairer) at Oakhurst, a young West Virginian named Mark Waid, has never played golf anywhere else. He likes the Oakhurst game just fine and has no desire even to visit Valley View, the public course just down the road. He's an exception. Few visitors, I suspect, will, after a round or two at Oakhurst, want to throw away their graphite, their titanium, their juiced-up balls, even their tees, those humblest of golfing aids, and play old-style golf forever. Unlike, say, St. Andrews--the real St. Andrews--Oakhurst is the kind of place you may want to play more often in memory than in reality. It's not a museum, exactly, and it's not a shrine. It's not--thank goodness--a Disneyesque imitation. It's the real thing--a living reminder of how far, and how little, we golfers have come. The past, it turns out, is a great place to visit, but you wouldn't want to live there.


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