It's early on a clear May morning in southwestern Virginia. Across six hundred gorgeous acres of bluegrass hills, squadrons of men outfitted in blue or gray muster anxiously in scattered groups. A lone bagpiper plays his morning reveille under the shade of a large oak while blue flags and gray flags flap in the breeze and the awakening sun glints off bristling steel weapons. Man-to-man combat is about to begin.
The piper's last notes slowly evaporate, and a cannon blast shatters the air. The skirmish is under way. But just as the first shots are fired, a rousing chorus of shouts and yells erupts from the southern confines of the battlefield. Men from both sides abandon their positions to rush over and see what the frenzy is all about.
"Hole in one! Hole in one!" The cry is raised across the valley. "Dr. Link! On twelve! Hole in one!"
Thus is the battle joined at the fifth annual Blue/Gray Golf Tournament at the Olde Farm Golf Club outside of Bristol, Virginia. It's a three-day festival of Civil War reenactment, golf competitions, cutthroat card playing and companionable cursing at one of the most exclusive clubs in the country. And if it sounds like "a bunch of grown-ups running around acting like kids and having a lot of fun doing it," in the words of one founding member, that's only because it is.
"Do not pass up this opportunity to be part of a great victory. Continue to drill and sharpen your physical and mental skills." So went the dispatch (well, e-mail) from "Union General" Tom Robertson to his troops in the weeks before the engagement. "When the cannon fires, the die is cast," exhorted a similar message from "Confederate General" Ted Kleisner. "We take no prisoners."
Should you be invited to join the Olde Farm (its members number almost 300), expect to get this sort of message along with your monthly statement. At a welcoming ceremony, all new members are presented with a bag containing one blue and one gray marble. The color they blindly pick determines their alliance for the rest of their lives—or memberships, whichever is shorter. It's a concept that the club's founder and owner, coal-mining baron Jim McGlothlin, introduced to a willing membership when the Olde Farm opened six years ago.
"This has been a very conflicted region, historically," McGlothlin says. "We're so close to the Mason-Dixon line. So I dreamed up this idea to integrate the membership."
Not all members were happy with the thought of their regional affiliation being decided by a game of marbles. "At first there was a little grumbling about it," McGlothlin says, "but I drew first and, lo and behold, I'm a Blue. [He hails from nearby Grundy, Virginia, and is resolutely Gray by nature.] And that settled it. After the first tournament, you couldn't get someone to cross the line for anything. It's worked out better than I ever imagined."
"I'm not a Southern guy, but it doesn't matter," says member/football legend Dan Marino. "I'm Gray. There's no switching marbles. What you are is what you are."
In addition to energy industry (mostly coal mining) guys, the Olde Farm counts a sizable contingent from the "Naples mafia," as a certain well-heeled Florida crew is referred to here, as well as assorted figures associated with the Miami Dolphins—Marino as well as Don Shula, Bob Griese and team owner Wayne Huizenga (a former Gray general). Other sports types are part of the mix as well: NASCAR legend Dale Jarrett; San Diego Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer; Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs; PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem; and Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Loren Roberts and Lanny Wadkins from the pro ranks. Add a few Fortune 500 CEOs, Secretary of the Treasury John Snow and a number of golf-obsessed locals, and you have the ultimate guy's-guy club.
"It's not a place where people wear their rank on their sleeves," says Fred Schulte (Blue), head of manufacturing conglomerate Elgin National Industries, who knows his way around private clubs. "I belong to quite a few," he says. "The level of spirit and camaraderie is higher here."
"Everybody's great friends. Nobody here thinks they're better than anybody," adds Chris Crockett (Blue), a local director of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. "Dan Marino—the nicest guy you'll ever meet."
The Ryder Cup–style Blue/Gray competi- tion takes place at the Olde Farm over three days each May, but all year long generals do their best to motivate their troops and taunt the opposition with threats and insults, delivered in person, by mail and over the Internet. The format includes scramble, alternate-shot and best-ball contests and head-to-head singles competitions—plus a take-no-prisoners gin rummy game. The losing side must hand over the club sabre to the winning team at the concluding dinner. In between such serious matters, the opposing armies manage to shrug off the competitive animosity long enough to eat, drink and be merry with one another, usually over at the well-named Party Barn.
Set on a hill maybe a hundred yards from the main clubhouse, the Party Barn is the scene of the opening-night festivities and Blue/Gray Society dinner. Armed with "Goose and juice" (Grey Goose, red grapefruit juice and a little Jack Daniels—the unofficial drink of the Olde Farm), participants tee off outside for the closest-to-the-pin contest—not for points in the tourney but for bragging rights and pocket change. "I have tried in past years and failed," says Earnie Deavenport Jr. (Gray), the retired CEO of Eastman Chemical, "but this time I brought just a little bit of money." He flashes an inch-thick roll of cash. This in itself is unremarkable, except that the trousers from which Deavenport pulled the roll were Civil War–issue replicas in blanket-thick wool. Most of the crowd, in fact, has dressed for the occasion in the respective attire of the Blue and Gray armies—no small sartorial commitment, given the ninety-degree heat and humidity.
Two years prior, McGlothlin took the tribute one step further. He hired an actual Civil War historical society to come running out of the woods and surround the Party Barn, yelling and firing muskets. "People were shocked," says Bill Miller, formerly the club's general manager. "They didn't know whether to run or take cover."
Tonight's closest-to-the-pin features a little less hair-raising drama. The Blue side's Jim Cook knocks the ball straight in the hole—but he wins only $50 since the betting hasn't gotten properly greased-up yet. Cook, a mining-supply salesman who grew up with McGlothlin, doesn't seem to care much. "We gonna kick the s--- out of 'em tomorrow!" he yells, a gleeful grin on his face.