Oakhurst: The Birth and Rebirth of America's First Golf Course


Golf formally came to America in 1884. Russell Montague—a thirty-two-year-old Harvard-educated lawyer—had moved to White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, to improve his health. His Scottish neighbors, George Grant and Alexander and Roderick MacLeod, were also men of leisure. When Grant’s golf-obsessed nephew Lionel Torin arrived from Ceylon, these five built, purely for their own pleasure, a nine-hole course on Montague’s land—unaware that it was the first course in the United States, and tenuously launching what ...

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Golf formally came to America in 1884. Russell Montague—a thirty-two-year-old Harvard-educated lawyer—had moved to White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, to improve his health. His Scottish neighbors, George Grant and Alexander and Roderick MacLeod, were also men of leisure. When Grant’s golf-obsessed nephew Lionel Torin arrived from Ceylon, these five built, purely for their own pleasure, a nine-hole course on Montague’s land—unaware that it was the first course in the United States, and tenuously launching what has arguably become America’s most popular sport.

Oakhurst tells the memorable story of this historic course, from its birth and brief first life of fifteen years to its miraculous restoration 110 years later. Weaving the lives of the founders through a fascinating history of golf, the evolution of its equipment, and the genesis of course design, Paula DiPerna and Vikki Keller recount colorful stories of early matches that astonished local residents, who thought the founders mad: “It may be a fine game for a canny Scotchman, but no American will ever play it except Montague,” one opined. Some sixty years after Oakhurst had fallen into neglect, legendary local golfer Sam Snead gave it new life, convincing his friend Lewis Keller to buy the land. Their dream of restoring the course was realized in 1994, when Keller and noted golf architect Bob Cupp—relying on scant clues, and intuition—unearthed the dormant holes one by one.

As Lee Trevino, Tom Watson, and many others who have played the course discovered, only period equipment (hickory-shafted clubs, gutta-percha balls) is allowed, and nineteenth-century rules prevail—making Oakhurst the only place in America where anyone can experience the game as it was first played. It is an important chapter in sports history, a nostalgic piece of Americana, and Oakhurst brings its magic alive.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Golf is a centuries-old pastime, but the sport did not really arrive in this country until 1884. That's the year that Russell Montague, a soft-spoken 32-year-old Harvard-educated lawyer, arrived in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, where he fell in with his Scottish neighbors, who happened to be golf-obsessed. At some point soon thereafter, Montague and his links buddies decided to create their own nine-hole course on his property. So private was their enthusiasm that they didn't even realize that their little course had no peers: Oakhurst was the first golf course in the United States. Golf writer Paula DiPerna and Oakhurst manager Vikki Keller tell an enlivening story about how a personal passion became part of sports history.
Publishers Weekly
At Oakhurst Links, a golf course in Sulphur Springs, W.Va., golfers are required to use hickory shafted clubs and sheep are allowed to graze on the grounds. That's because the course is America's oldest and it's still run according to 19th-century rules. In Oakhurst: The Birth and Rebirth of America's First Golf Course, golf magazine writer Paula DiPerna and Vikki Keller, who helps manage Oakhurst, tell the story of the course's initial creation by an American and four Scottish immigrants in 1884, when golf was still largely unknown in the U.S., and of its painstaking reconstruction over a century later. (May) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A polished, adroit history of America's first golf course, studded with yarns and deep with context, from golf-writer DiPerna and the course's manager, Keller. In the Greenbriar country of West Virginia, in the open spaces of woodland and tumbling hills outside White Sulphur Springs, sits Oakhurst, the first golf course laid out in the US-which happened, it has been agreed, in 1884. The course was built by four young men of substance who had migrated to lovely Greenbriar for various reasons. A cousin of theirs was set to arrive, and to entertain him properly-he was a fervid golfer, a Scot temporarily plying his game in Ceylon-they designed a nine-hole course, though "design" is a grand term, for golf courses were still rather makeshift affairs at the time: even playing at St. Andrews was a matter of picking an object down the links to aim at. The four builders and their guest became the Oakhurst Club, and remained the only five members. DiPerna and Keller do an exemplary vest-pocket job outlining the history of golf, its migration from Scotland (where it evolved, though ancient traces of it can be found in France, Belgium, Holland, and elsewhere in Great Britain and Ireland), and its passage to the Greenbriar. Additionally, the authors have a sharp eye for salient and entertaining moments in the game's history, from the part it played in the beheading of Mary, Queen of Scots, to the pleasurable stories associated with Oakhurst, such as the club's motto, "Sure and Far," though Russell Montague, one of the original fivesome noted that "none of us were very ‘sure' and we certainly did not drive very ‘far.' " Oakhurst fell into disuse but has been restored and can be played today with theequipment of old. Fans of the sport will relish this savory slice of golf's past, gracefully served. (51 b&w illustrations)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802713711
  • Publisher: Walker & Company
  • Publication date: 4/1/2002
  • Pages: 196
  • Product dimensions: 5.62 (w) x 7.74 (h) x 0.84 (d)

Meet the Author

Paula DiPerna took her first golf swing at the age of four, and has played golf on every continent except Antarctica. She has written about golf for every major golf magazine and for the New York Times travel section, where her article on Oakhurst appeared. One of the few women members of the Golf Writers Association, she lives in New York City.

Vikki Keller, daughter of Lewis Keller, helps manage Oakhurst today.

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Read an Excerpt

The Birth and Rebirth of America's First Golf Course

By Paula DiPerna & Vikki Keller

Walker & Company

Copyright © 2002 Paula DiPerna and Vikki Keller.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 0802713718

Chapter One


All golf games are part dream. Anyone who stands over the first shot of the day has already conjured the result in the mind's eye, and heard a contact as clean as the snap of a dry twig as the ball takes flight in a certain undying arc across a peerless sky. All golfers dream of playing beautiful golf, and they keep coming back because the quest is always as near and as possible as the next chance to play. Russell Montague was one of these.

    In 1852, the year Montague was; born in Dedham, Massachusetts, due east across the Atlantic Ocean, at the legendary seaside at St. Andrews, Scotland, a new jet-black steam locomotive chugged against the taut sea wind along a rambling stretch of hallowed ground known as the Old Course. It was inauguration season for the first railway link between the ordinary outside world and a royal and ancient world of devotees and diehards.

    The earliest golf games were played in Scotland at tiny medieval St. Andrews. The game grew out of the primeval geology of the Scottish coast and sea, and became inseparable from the coastal comb of sand and grass that had gradually become, by invention, play, decree, and then widespread public habit, the venerable Old Course. All golf courses in a sense have derived from this setting: The Old Course at land's end has become the reference point of all play thereafter.

    The railway completed in 1852 was a pet project of the provost, Sir Hugh Lyon Playfair, surely a felicitous name for a man with golf as his mission. The fastidious Playfair was so dedicated to the improvement of the town that he insisted on being rolled around in a rickshawlike chair by a city clerk so he could spot disorder and have it tidied up.

    Sir Hugh had also been busy fighting the ocean as it sought to steal back the land it had given up. To protect the edges of the fairways at the Old Course against the eroding forces of high tides, Playfair ordered the building of three breakwaters. They were fortified by landfill built from the public garbage that Playfair loathed, which was covered with sand and soil brought from inland.

    Playfair had wielded the clout of his office for a decade, and his dogged beautification plans began to pay off with the advent of the railroad. It soon brought so many golfers and holidaymakers that the eighteen holes of the Old Course, where golf had been played for uninterrupted centuries, no longer sufficed to meet the burgeoning Victorian demand for amusement and escape. Golf at St. Andrews would never be the same.

St. Andrews hangs on the coast at the mouth of the river Eden, a lucky stretch of land constantly lashed into salty wounds by the busy North Sea, yet never quite vanquished by its force. Instead, the constantly surging tides created the hlincs—Old English for land ridges left unplowed—and the flowing river inexorably transported banks of soil to the coast.

    Thus linksland evolved, mounds of dune and sand carried onto the coast by wind and water, deposited like surplus, and left behind as useless. Links land is held together by sparse grass and vegetation fit to survive only in harshness. Fists of thorny gorse, as yellow as hot mustard when in bloom, spike the hand or finger. At times winds sweep the dunes to the height of modest buildings. Linksland has little farming value, no soil nutrients, an unstable shape, and severe vulnerability to rain and erosion.

    As it happened, these lean tongues of unpredictable land for which humans had no conventional use made possible an unconventional vocation. The hard facts of where and when golf actually began are lost in at least five centuries of debate, argument, and mystique. As golf scholar and writer Robert Browning explained in his classic work The History of Golf, establishing the truth of golf's origins is not as easy as looking it up in an irrefutable encyclopedia. The task is more a matter of piecing together snippets of history and far-flung sources and commentary. Browning noted that a prior writer had remarked in 1890, "To write the history of golf as it should be done demands a thorough study of all Scottish Acts of Parliament, Kirk Sessions records, memories, and in fact, of Scottish literature, legislation and history from the beginning of time.... A young man must do it, and he will be so ancient before he finishes the toil that he will scarce see the flag on the short hole at St. Andrews from the tee."

    However, for those who don't want to make a life's work of golf history, there are a few undisputed touchstones. One of the earliest written references to the game came in 1457, in an act of the Scottish parliament. King James II had felt obliged to outlaw the playing of golf because he was concerned that his troops were so enamored of the game that they were spending more time perfecting their golf shots than keeping watch on the realm.

    This was an era of intense rivalry between the thrones and royal families of Scotland and England. In that golf clubs were produced by bow makers at the time, it is easy to understand how a Scottish king might have worried that his soldiers, who claimed to be headed out to practice their archery, might pick up a golf club at the bow maker's instead.

    The first known image of what could conceivably be the sport of golf predates the edict of' King James by more than a century. A panel set in a stained glass window in England's Gloucester Cathedral, which was built between 1340 and 1350, depicts a male player swinging a stick with what might be a clubhead for some deliberate purpose resembling a golf shot. Centuries later, veteran golf writer Al Barkow, in his book The Golden Era of Golf, observed that "golf is an extension of a very ordinary instinct; hitting an object with a stick to propel it is as elemental as looking to see where you are going."

    It is also generally agreed that a game like golf, called kolven, played with an implement known as a kolf, was a pastime in Holland in the mid-1400s. The kolfs looked like golf clubs, the name sounds enough like golf to hint a connection, and the gist of the game was to move a ball around a field or on ice.

    A cousin to this game known as chole was played in Belgium and northern France a century earlier. Its early depictions also resemble what we know as golf today. Browning prefers the chole origin to the kolven link. He theorizes that a group of Scottish soldiers on duty in France picked up the game of chole in roughly 1420. Then they brought it back to Scotland, where it rooted and evolved into a game to be played over a planned route by players in a group, each autonomous, yet all aiming to get a small ball into the same hole in the ground.

    By 1502 sufficient peace reigned in Scotland that King James IV felt it safe to be seen playing golf. He bought some golf clubs from a bow maker in Perth that year. The next year James IV married Margaret, daughter of Henry VII, then king of England, a marriage intended to seal an era of peace with England. In 1504 James IV played perhaps the first royal golf game, recorded in the royal Treasury accounts, with the earl of Bothwell.

    The game rapidly became a Scottish national pastime, enveloping even women, including the embattled Mary, Queen of Scots. In fact, it can be said that golf may have contributed to Mary's losing her throne, and perhaps later her life. She apparently loved the game and was seen playing publicly within a few weeks of the murder of her husband, Lord Darnley, in 1567. This was deemed suspiciously unmournful behavior for a mourning widow, and it was among the evidence that led to Mary being charged with complicity in her husband's murder; this, and other hints of treason, forced her to flee for her life. She took dubious refuge in England, where she was imprisoned for years and finally executed in 1587 by her cousin, the dour Elizabeth I. Elizabeth had wanted to dampen any claims to her throne by rival factions, particularly Scots. Shortly after Mary's denunciation, several orders were issued banning the playing of golf during the time good citizens were supposed to be in church, or as it was put, "in tyme of sermonis."

    The public's right to play golf on the links land at St. Andrews was firmly established by royal decree as early as 1552, even though the same land was also being used for pony riding, drying clothes in the sun, carpet beating, cricket, croquet, and even rabbit raising. In fact, rabbit holes are often presumed to have been the first golf holes. Still, no formal golf entities existed then, and organized golf clubs would remain unknown until the mid-eighteenth century.

    Strategically situated and famous as a learning and ecclesiastical center, St. Andrews was also a thriving trading town. Many Dutch merchants came and went, doubtless also exchanging tales of pastimes and distraction. It is likely through this commercial interchange that the Dutch-Flemish experiences of kolven and chole amalgamated into the Scottish version of the game.

    By 1618 there was enough demand for golf balls that King James VI of Scotland sold a monopoly for golf ball production to two merchants, James Melvill and William Berwick, to promote a new national industry. Meanwhile golf had crossed boundaries, for in 1603, when James VI had also gained the throne of England, he seeded golf there too. The king and his courtiers played on open lands at Blackheath before any formal club or golf course existed there. As Browning sums it up, "From the Peace of Glasgow in 1502 to the Revolution of 1688, every reigning monarch of the Smart line—two kings and one queen of Scotland, four kings of the United Kingdom—was a golfer."

    By the late 1600s the English were so enamored with golf, they were arguing with the Scots over the origins of the game. In roughly 1680, a match was played to decide the question. This was the first known international golf tournament. The Scotsman, James, then the duke of York and the brother of the king of England, Charles II, was serving his brother as emissary to the Scottish parliament. James was dared by two visiting Englishmen to prove Scottish golf superiority with the partner of his choice. The match was to be played at the links at Leith, and the duke put out the call for a golfer to join him in defending the golfing honor of Scotland. The man recommended to him by the regulars at: Leith turned out to be someone well beneath the duke's social station, a poor shoemaker named John Patersone. Nevertheless, Patersone was reported to be the best golfer of his day, descended from a long line of distinguished local golfers.

    The pairing proved perfect, and the duke and the shoemaker won the match handsomely. To show his pride and gratitude, the duke split the significant purse with Patersone. This amounted to enough money for Patersone to build himself a stately house in Edinburgh, right off the regal Royal Mile. The duke also had designed and affixed to the wall of the house a crest with the seal and arms of the Patersone family. To further honor Patersone's golf skills, the duke had carved into the crest the words "Far and Sure," adorning an image of a hand clutching a golf club. There were other words too—"I hate no person"—derived from the letters of the name John Patersone.

    The building and insignia stood for several centuries longer, demolished only in 1960, when it was deemed a neglected tenement. Nonetheless a replica plaque, still marks the spot known as Golfer's Land, in a narrow alleyway off Number 77 on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh.

    The Patersone tale proves that while kings and queens loved golf, in the early days the game was also a sport for all social classes. This egalitarian flavor contributed to the worldwide spread of the game. Scottish workers of all


Excerpted from OAKHURST by Paula DiPerna & Vikki Keller. Copyright © 2002 by Paula DiPerna and Vikki Keller. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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