- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 11, 2000

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. Augusta National, Pine Valley, Pebble Beach, Oakhurst Links …

Oakhurst Links? Why, you ask, is this seeming Top Flite nestled among Titleists?

Augusta National has the Masters, Amen Corner and an overwhelming aura of prestige. Pine Valley has the world's top-ranked layout. And Pebble Beach, poised precipitously above the Pacific Ocean, long has been heralded as the game's aesthetic masterpiece. But Oakhurst Links? What is this anonymous aggie doing among such architectural diamonds?

Quite simply, Oakhurst Links belongs on every serious player's list of must-make pilgrimages because it stands as the birthplace of American golf. Founded in 1884, Oakhurst Links is the oldest golf club in the United States, predating the USGA and its charter clubs by a decade.

It is here, in the heart of the Allegheny Mountains, where local farmer Russell Montague and four Scottish expatriates built and played the first golf course in the United States. And thanks to current owner Lewis Keller, that moment has been permanently frozen in time.

You can play Oakhurst's original nine-hole layout any time between May 1 and Nov. 1. But you need not bring your bag full of titanium-headed, graphite-shafted weapons. Forget your trusty lob wedge, preferred brand of spinning surlyn and even your softspikes. You won't even need a carry bag or a handful of tees.

At Oakhurst, golf is played 1884-style, with gutta-percha balls and four hickory-shafted relics that look more like cudgels than clubs. Armed with these crude but somehow elegant instruments, you'll likely find Oakhurst's par-37 layout the toughest 2,235 yards in golf.

But if scorecard desecration is a near-certainty from the first incompetent clack of applewood upon guttie, so is the overwhelming sense that you are rollicking among the game's roots. Oakhurst represents golf's ultimate interactive museum: a 116-year-old exhibit with "please touch" scrawled across every square inch of the property.

The founding fathers

In 1879, Russell Montague left his law practice in Boston and moved to White Sulphur Springs, following the advice of his doctor. Montague, it seemed, had a "frail constitution," and his doctor suggested he trade his Back Bay lifestyle for the ease of country living.

So Montague bought a farm three miles from the Old White Hotel that eventually would become the famed Greenbrier resort. And it was here in rural West Virginia that he met the McLeod brothers, Roderick and Alexander, and George Grant, three transplanted Scots who lamented the lack of golf in the States. Montague had played the strange game during a vacation to St. Andrews, Scotland, after his graduation from Harvard in 1870. Like his neighbors, he bemoaned the fact the game had not yet crossed the Atlantic.

The foursome likely would have done nothing to fill that void if not for the impending visit of Grant's cousin, Lionel Torrin, in early 1884.

Torrin, a player of some repute, always traveled with his sticks in tow. So in order to play the proper hosts, Montague and his Scottish pals decided to surprise their visitor with a course of their own creation. Montague's farm was chosen as the best site for the layout, and the men set about constructing a course in the fashion of their favorite Scottish designs.

Another local Scot, George Donaldson, was dispatched to St. Andrews to fetch a clutch of clubs. Upon his return to the States, Donaldson was stopped by U.S. customs, and his alien cargo was confiscated by an official who thought the clubs were "elongated blackjacks or some other implements of murder."

Eventually, the Treasury Department relented, forwarding the clubs to Oakhurst. Torrin arrived soon thereafter, and the first golf club in the United States was coronated. Undoubtedly, the country's first shank-induced profanity followed shortly thereafter, occasioning the first mulligan. Residents of White Sulphur Springs often dropped by Oakhurst to watch, as one early report put it, "the silly Scots chasing a white marble over the hills."

Renaissance man

In 1959, the legendary Sam Snead told his good friend and golfing buddy Lew Keller about a lovely piece of property on the market called Oakhurst that was owned by an 84-year-old minister named Cary Montague.

Keller, a successful real estate developer from Palm Beach, Fla., and a gifted amateur player, had settled on White Sulphur Springs as a summer retreat for his family and was looking for a homesite where he could start a thoroughbred farm. Snead, the Greenbrier's touring pro, told Keller the history of the Oakhurst course, which by then lay covered under years of growth.

Then practically blind, Cary showed Keller and Snead around the property by memory, pointing out tee and green locations he recalled from his youth. Keller was enchanted by the beauty of the place and purchased the property on the spot.

For more than 30 years, Keller raised thoroughbreds at Oakhurst, always tinkering with the notion of uncovering the national treasure beneath his horses.

But it was not until 1993, when Keller sold his string of horses and struck up a relationship with course architect Bob Cupp, that Oakhurst's excavation became a reality.

"Bob did it strictly by his eye and pictures," says Keller, still as sharp as a 1-iron at 78. "He said, 'We've got to do it this way because they didn't have anything to work with other than some shovels and a little bitty farm tractor.' We did it by hand every doggone inch of it. We started in March of 1994, and we finished in October.

"You could see many of the original contours, greens and tees and fairways, clear as day because I had never had a bulldozer on the property or moved any dirt. That made it easier for us. So Bob uncovered the exact original layout, and he received no compensation for it. That's how excited he was about it."

Keller converted the old Montague farmhouse, for years his summer home, into a clubhouse more museum than men's grill. He brought in a flock of sheep to keep the fairways trimmed to playing length, using the same mowing method used in the 1880s.

In a lone concession to modernity, Keller and Cupp agreed to plant bentgrass on the tiny greens. The original greens, like the tees, were probably covered with hard-packed sand.

With the restoration complete the last week of October 1994, Snead and Ping inventor Karsten Solheim hit the first shots to reopen Oakhurst Links.

Several months later, Keller's ultimate brainchild came to Oakhurst. Some 30 sets of replica hickory-shafted clubs, each consisting of a long-nosed driver, driving iron, lofted iron and wooden putter, arrived from a special clubmaker in St. Andrews. The reproductions were crafted from the same woods and molds used in the 1880s, with each set valued at about $500.

Along with the clubs, Keller received a special shipment of $7 reproduction gutta-percha balls from Birmingham, England.

"It was important to me to have people play this course with the same clubs and balls they would have played with in 1884," Keller says. "It is expensive to let people use the replica equipment. We have 10 to 15 clubs broken every year that we have to replace. But without the replica clubs, you would not get the significance of the game and how far it's come."

Enlightening experience

Make no mistake, after one swing with the shillelagh they call a club at Oakhurst, you'll know exactly how far the game has come. The needle-nosed driver, which approximates a telephone poll in flex, length and weight and looks like something you would find in Jaromir Jagr's trunk, is less forgiving than Dan Snyder during a bear market.

This is unfortunate because the first hole at Oakhurst, a 226-yard par-4, requires players to carry a road and a pond off the tee, split a pair of fairway-lining trees and, if possible, impart a slight fade to find the center of the landing area.

Even teeing the ball up is a production at Oakhurst. Two buckets, one filled with water, the other with sand, stand on each teebox. It undoubtedly will require several awkward minutes on all fours to master the drip-castle process of elevating one's ball.

If one does miraculously manage to A) tee the ball, B) avoid a hernia while wielding the war-club and C) clear the aforementioned hazards with a ball better suited for pingpong, then more fun awaits in the fairway.

Realize that when they use the term "fairway" at Oakhurst they do so in the loosest sense possible. Simply finding your guttie, which can travel anywhere from several inches to 200 yards with a reasonable swing of the driver, is a small victory.

The sheep are not particularly adept at providing tight lies or consistently trimmed playing surfaces, so the entire course consists of a 2-to 5-inch stand of "fairway" that pampered modern players might fairly describe as rough. The omnipresent sheep are, however, adept at carrying out their other duties. This brings us to one of the three local rules in effect at Oakhurst Links: If your ball comes to rest in sheep castings during the course of play, you are allowed a free drop.

Once you have located your guttie in the first fairway, you need not look for a yardage marker they weren't obsessed with such trivialities in 1884. Even knowing exact approach yardages would be only somewhat valuable.

That's because your approach shot at No. 1 must be struck over another road, between two trees and onto a green roughly the size of a Frisbee with a "lofted iron" of unknown loft. Keller scoffs when you ask him to estimate the degree of loft of the lofted iron, but after repeated trial and error, it seems roughly the equivalent of a modern 8-iron (about 38 degrees).

Intermittently eyeballing the distance to the dwarf flagstick and staring down in terror at the tiny grooveless face of this lofted iron, the player then tries to properly gauge the distance, loft or de-loft the iron accordingly and gouge the ball out of the thick, inconsistent grass onto the tiny green.

The second local rule could come into effect at this point, owing to the guttie's somewhat fragile constitution when contacted with steel. If the ball flies apart on a shot, the player is instructed to "play the largest piece until holed out."

Once the player reaches the green, a decidedly shaggy surface but somewhat more familiar shot awaits. Looking much like a shorter version of the driver, a wooden-headed putter with no discernible sweet spot is then used to finish the hole. On the greens, the final local rule the stymie rule comes into play. Players are prohibited from marking their balls. This turns every opponent's guttie into a potential hole-blocking obstacle and can lead to some croquet-like lunacy.

For those daring enough to pay $50 to play this seminal version of the game, play proceeds in this alternately frustrating and intriguing fashion for eight more holes. Those wishing to play a full 18 pay $80 and make the nine-hole loop twice.

Keller, who has taken a few Lincolns off Snead over the years, has carded an even-par 37 once to set the course record. Tom Watson, who plays the course almost annually, has broken 40 only twice. After the first hole, you're likely to dismiss the notion of shattering standards and focus on perspective and appreciation.

You'll realize the 160 that Jack Simpson shot over two rounds at Prestwick to win the 1884 British Open was a darn good score. And you'll realize people like Lewis Keller and places like Oakhurst Links mean just as much to the history of the game as Tiger Woods and Augusta National.

"It's not a money-maker at all for us, but it's a heck of a learning experience," Keller says. "We're very happy because we just got together with the USGA and formed the Oakhurst Links Foundation. They're just getting underway gathering funds so that Oakhurst Links will be preserved and maintained forever."

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