- The Washington Times - Monday, August 2, 2004

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — Humility is a hickory shaft.

You are on all fours in knee-high fescue, desperation setting in as you sift through the hay adjacent to the second fairway at Oakhurst Links, searching frantically for your golf ball. Finally, you catch a glimpse of blue as the St. George’s cross you inked on your guttie reveals itself in mocking, subterranean fashion. Think BB buried in Don King’s scalp. You look at your grooveless, flangeless niblick (think 38-inch serving spoon) and barely suppress the urge to weep.

Four virtual whiffs, a hernia-inducing flail and a profane dictionary later, you exit the jungle en route to a 10 on the 322-yard, par-5 hole.

Suffice it to say, you won’t be slaying any dragons today.

As you walk up the hill to the third tee pondering the most humiliating five minutes of your golfing life, fellow competitor Jim Sherrill shakes his head at you in mock disgust.

“Ten? Ten? You’re not even trying,” Sherrill says. “I made a 22 on that hole a couple of years ago. Ten doesn’t even rate. It’s well short of a proper disgrace.”

Welcome to the National Hickory Championship, where a vintage experience is a guarantee.

• • •

Every year in July, dozens of hickory aficionados congregate at Oakhurst Links, the oldest golf club in America, to take part in what tournament director Pete Georgiady describes as “the most competitive and challenging hickory golf competition in the world.”

There are other hickory events in the United States each year, but no other takes place on a vintage course designed and maintained specifically for hickory play. To understand the event, you first must understand the history of Oakhurst Links.

In 1879, Russell Montague, a lawyer from Boston, moved to White Sulphur Springs on the advice of his doctor, who was convinced Montague’s Back Bay lifestyle was the source of his ailing health. So Montague bought a farm in the Allegheny Mountains and soon became friendly with three local Scottish natives, George Grant and Roderick and Alexander MacLeod. The three Scots were forever lamenting the lack of golf in the United States. And Montague, introduced to the game at St. Andrews during a holiday to Scotland in 1870, had a sympathetic ear.

Together the four designed a nine-hole, 2,235-yard layout on Montague’s farm in 1884 and called their club Oakhurst Links, predating the USGA’s founding clubs by more than a decade. Obtaining clubs and balls from overseas proved more of a challenge. Their first shipment of equipment was confiscated by a suspicious U.S. Customs official, who described the clubs as “elongated blackjacks or some other implements of murder.” Eventually, the U.S. Treasury Department relented and forwarded the equipment to Montague, and he and his Scottish mates enjoyed the course for nearly 30 years.

But in 1912, the MacLeod brothers left the area, Montague began spending extensive time in Richmond, the club was disbanded and the course was lost until 1993. At that time, current owner Lewis Keller, who bought the Montague property as a thoroughbred farm in 1959, sold his string of horses and decided to look into the story his friend Sam Snead had oft-repeated to him about the jewel buried beneath his land. Using core samplings, old photos and a trained eye, famed architect Bob Cupp helped Keller uncover and restore the course in 1993.

“I first played it back in 1997,” says Trey Holland, a former USGA president who was interested in his organization purchasing Oakhurst. “I thought it was just great, just an amazing experience. Books and photographs, other documents are nice. But to me the golf courses are our museums, and this certainly qualifies. It’s maybe the only place like this in the world.”

From May through October, Oakhurst is open to the public, providing that seminal experience (five replica clubs valued at approximately $500 and gutta percha balls are provided). But one weekend every July, that experience is escalated by some serious hickory zealots.

Georgiady, a freelance writer and golf junkie from Kernersville, N.C., and Keller held the first National Hickory Championship in 1998. This year’s 64-player field features a typically motley cast, from a Pittsburgh priest to an orthodontist from Santa Cruz, Calif., to a retired teacher from London, Ontario — all gathered in the name of resurrecting golf’s American roots.

• • •

You are standing in line at Arby’s, anxiously anticipating the pre-tournament meal of champions, when you realize everyone in the restaurant is gaping at you with a mixture of confusion and derision.

Maybe it’s the knickers, shirt, tie and ridiculous straw cap. Lewisburg, W.Va., the home of your hotel and a shocking number of NASCAR and country music devotees, isn’t exactly accustomed to 1884 period dress. In fact, it suddenly dawns on you that in a place with one radio station, a bar named “Someplace Else” and an establishment called “Robinhood Rentals — Guns and Ammo,” there might be no better way to provoke a perfunctory butt-kicking than to show up at Arby’s dressed like Walter Hagen. You decide to skip lunch and head for the course.

The key to scoring at Oakhurst, you have determined during three practice-round loops around the par-37 track, is to survive Nos.1, 2 and 9 (the three holes that play up, down and around the clubhouse hill) without a disaster. Augusta National has Amen Corner; Oakhurst has Hallelujah Hill. Now, Nos.1 and 9 are drivable par-4s, and No.2 is a reachable par-5 (322 yards). All three also are lined with the thickest rough this side of the Amazon basin and traversed by a gravel road from which you are afforded no relief.

The mentally sound will use a driving iron/cleek off all three tees, accepting three 175-yard drives and three conservative pars. However, you have decided your inaugural trip to the National Hickory Championship is the perfect setting to buck conventional wisdom. You are quite smitten with your borrowed driver, a needle-nosed applewood cudgel of unknown loft and shockingly flexible shaft that looks quite like something you might find in Gordie Howe’s garage. It has the word “Venticique” burned into the head, which you now are quite certain is French for “moron.”

Still, you have routinely whacked your guttie bullets 225 yards with this alien shillelagh, and you can’t help envisioning a 2-3-2 trip around the hill that would leave two-time reigning tournament king Randy Jensen groveling at the throne of your genius.

Of course, Oakhurst Links has other plans. Your brilliant stratagem yields a 16-over total in your four loops around that trio of holes during the 36-hole tournament. You bomb your way to only two fairways on those holes, carding a 10, several doubles, two pars and zero birdies. You might look like Hagen (a tournament requirement), but you think, and play, like the devil incarnate.

You do, however, leave Hallelujah Hill with a handful of entertaining memories. There was a first-round approach to the ninth off the gravel that sent sparks flying, if not the ball. There was a third shot from the stone wall adjacent to the first green that you had to play in ricochet fashion. Note to self: Balls rarely bounce predictably off stone walls. And you’re considering having your ashes scattered left of the second fairway, seeing as how your reputation as a serious golfer died several times in that particular patch of rough.

At least you manage not to kill any of the course’s resident sheep, which supposedly are on hand to keep the fairways trimmed 1884-style. This duty they perform quite poorly, though they are extremely proficient at handling their bodily functions.

When the final bleat sounds on the weekend, you have posted ego-galling rounds of 92-90, good for a tie for 18th among the 31 entries in the Open category.

And Jensen, of course, has won again, edging you by a paltry 30 strokes.

“It was a grind out there because any of the four guys in my group had a shot right to the end,” says Jensen (79-73), who has won the event five times in seven years after clipping Mid-Pines (N.C.) head professional Rob Pilewski by three strokes. “I might have won five of these things, but none of them was easy.”

Jensen, a club pro from Omaha, Neb., who played college golf at Creighton, owns virtually every meaningful record at Oakhurst: low 9 (33), low 18 (72), low 36 (147). He plays a dozen hickory events a year and wins more often than not. But the 49-year-old is typically ‘Husker humble when it comes to his game.

“I just consider it a great honor to have had success here because this is easily the best hickory tournament of the year,” Jensen says. “The primary reason for that is because this is a landmark of American golf. You could probably play 25 different hickory tournaments a year. But this is the only one held on a course that was designed specifically for hickory. There is no other place like Oakhurst Links in the United States.”

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