An American original: Golf course up for auction

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WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.VA. (AP) - Lewis Keller Sr. never passed up a chance to sit with visitors over a glass of lemonade and promote the history of American golf at one of the nation’s original courses.

It’s time for someone else to start making the case.

More than five decades into owning Oakhurst Links in West Virginia, the 89-year-old Keller is heading into retirement. After years of trying to find a buyer, he’s leaving it up to an auction July 28 to determine whether the historic nine-hole layout lives on.

“I’m heartbroken to leave it,” Keller said.

Though he has owned Oakhurst since 1959, it wasn’t until 1994 that Keller reopened the course after it had been dormant for more than 80 years. And Oakhurst wasn’t just a place for guests to see golf in its infancy in America.

They played it.

Golfers could rent hickory-shafted clubs and hit gutta-percha balls off tees fashioned from sand and water. Many have come dressed in fashions from the late 1800s to play and take tours of the clubhouse and museum brimming with photos of visits from golfers such as Sam Snead, Lee Trevino and Tom Watson.

To Keller and others, most golfers have no idea how the sport was first played here, focusing instead on today’s high-tech game contested on expensive, spacious, manicured courses.

PGA pro Daniel Summerhays played Oakhurst before the 2011 Greenbrier Classic at the posh resort six miles away. He called it a “really cool” experience and said he earned a new appreciation for players such as Bobby Jones and Harry Vardon.

To Tommy Garten, who is handling the auction, Oakhurst is golf’s Cooperstown.

“It needs to be preserved,” Garten said. “It would be a tragedy if somebody didn’t come in, step up and continue this operation.”

Although the possibility exists that someone might want to convert the property into some type of housing development, Garten believes it’s too small. Still, it pains Keller to ponder the possibility that the course might not reopen.

“I do hope that if it indeed works out, that maybe I can contribute something to the new owner,” Keller said. “I hope that I can.”

Keller is moving out of his home at Oakhurst’s entrance to live in a retirement village in Lynchburg, Va. His wife of 60 years, Rosalie, died in 2010.

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Oakhurst was first owned by Russell Montague, who became enamored of golf while studying in Great Britain.

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