[Click images to enlarge them.]
In his fantastic and thoroughly exhaustive study on the evolution of golf in the Pinehurst area, Pinehurst, Home of American Golf. The Evolution of a Legend (published in 2007), renowned golf course architect, Richard Mandell, classified Southern Pines Country Club as a course "shrouded in mystery." On page eighty-eight he refers to Southern Pines CC as, "...the mysterious appearance of another golf course in Southern Pines with many unanswered questions."
It was a cold day in March. My love and I decided it was time for a golf adventure and our digs in New Jersey just wasn't gonna cut it. We're spoiled. Ten years earlier we moved to St. Andrews for three months. And while "The Cuteness" cut her teeth on the Balgove course, I spent every waking hour carrying my bag over the Old Course, 36, sometimes 54 holes a day. And every round with beautiful strangers all basking in the glory of God's primordial design.
And ever since our time at St. Andrews, The Cuteness bravely ventures out with me whenever the links call, dropping all hope of steady income and stability in exchange for travels to the windswept holy lands of Machrihanish, Dornoch, Cruden Bay, Ballybunion, Lahinch, Troon, Carnoustie, North Berwick, Lundin, Dunbar, Kingsbarnes. As they say in Brasil, "Sarava!"
I'm a 42 year old retired attorney who managed to get through sixteen sporadic legal years without suing a single person or being sued myself. I'm proud of that. I'm also proud of my job working behind the counter at the incredible, mysterious Southern Pines Golf Course (aka, the Elks club). For that is where our true tale begins and ends.
I won't bother you with my sad golf stories, like when The Cuteness caddied for me in a 2000 British Open qualifier or my failed attempts to make it into the Metropolitan Amateur (aka The Ike) after leading a strong qualifier two years in a row for 10 and 16 holes respectively. All you need know is that sometimes I can flat out stick it. And I can also shoot 95 any day of the week trying my hardest. I've quit playing golf exactly as many times as I've started.
As I write this, living in the Pinehurst area, mecca of USA golf, and having playing privileges at six dynamite courses (the spoils of employment with the wonderful team of Avestra Golf), I haven't struck a single golf ball in a month. As fate would have it, this self imposed lack of golf led me to psycho hours searching the internet and skulking in various libraries looking for clues to one hell of a golf mystery.
Our story begins a few days after The Cuteness and I arrive in town. She secured a stellar waitress position at a fine eatery immediately, while I struck out looking for crappy wages and unlimited golf. But I just don't fit the bill. What's a fairly young guy with a legal resume like mine doing looking for a cart attendant job? It's a fair question.
A week goes by. No job. I'm jonesing to get my golf game on, but still no free golf and money is tight. Leaving a certain course -- which shall remain nameless -- after not making it past the security dude at the gate, I find myself lost driving down Morganton Rd. and cursing my chances when I look up and see a sign for "Southern Pines Golf Course, A Donald Ross design."
Now, I may not be playing in this town yet, but I know the Ross tracks, Pinehurst 1-4, Pine Needles, Mid-Pines.
Sorry, never heard of Southern Pines Golf Club.
Then I come upon an abandoned overgrown course, like something right out of a dream. It's dilapidated and obviously not in use. And I cry to the heavens, "How does a Donald Ross course become abandoned...in Pinehurst?"
I left the car to amble around the weed infested grounds fascinated by the intense layout. Crazy. I stumble upon the Fifth hole, a plaque still remains for this gorgeous downhill par five. I can't believe nobody plays golf here anymore, but they really don't. The greens are all sand, fairways ankle to knee deep weeds. But I can feel this place. I can feel Donald Ross, and he's not happy about it.
Now I really want to play golf.
Heading back to Route 1, I was ever more desperate for a place to call my new golf home. So I took another look at my scratched off list of courses, exactly one left I hadn't tried, Foxfire.
Voila. Director of Golf, Bill Baker, cackles through my mobile speakerphone, "Come on over, we'll take a look at ya", and I just knew this was gonna be the place for my dusty sticks.
Bill and I hit it off right away. We have a similar level of higher education neither has any use for. So he understood my plight better than most and sent me into General Manager, Howard Cannon's office. Five minutes later,I was hired to work in the pro shop at Foxfire. Hooray!
During my interview with Howard, he mentioned that Avestra Golf, the parent company of Foxfire (as well as the Country Club of Whispering Pines) had just taken over management of Southern Pines Golf Club to which I responded, "You're going to renovate that abandoned course? Wow! I just came from there."
I was then enlightened about the "other" eighteen holes at Southern Pines. (It's hidden from your view if you're driving by and don't know it's there). This course, as well as the abandoned nine, is owned by the local Elks club, and was "apparently" designed by Donald Ross ages ago.
And therein exist the two key mysteries:
What year did the Southern Pines Country Club open for play?
Did Donald Ross design the Southern Pines Country Club?
Despite many attempts and various publications, nobody in the golf universe has been able to officially connect Donald Ross to the Southern Pines Golf Club course(s) despite local legend and the fact that it looks, smells and feels like a classic Donald Ross design. Mr. Ross was based only five miles from Southern Pines as the demi-god of Pinehurst. If he didn't design the course, then who the hell did?
Just yesterday, I was discussing this question with Rand Morrisette, a member of Southern Pines, and also the author of an incredible golf course architecture web site Golf Club Atlas.com. (Ran is part of the development team who will unleash the sure to be spectacular Cabot Links in Nova Scotia on some stunning true links land.)
Rand's statement rang so true, "The routing is so sophisticated, I don't see how it could be anybody but Ross."
This sentiment was thoroughly endorsed by Michael Fay, Executive Director of the Donald Ross Society. Yesterday, whilst searching through a December, 1907 issue of Pinehurst's ancient newspaper, The Outlook, John Root (blessed volunteer at the Given Memorial Library) introduced me to Jay Harris, "The Hickory Nut", a man I had been told tall tales about from former Mid-Pines Pro, Rob Pilewski, during a particularly spiritual round at Southern Pines back in May (Rob, 36-33= 69, Leo, 36-45=81, typical me).
Jay, who plays most of his golf to a 5 handicap with hickory shafts, was drawn into my quest. He phoned Mr. Fay and said,"I've got a live one here you should speak to."
Mr. Fay assured me that he, as well as Richard Mandell, and countless others, had failed to find even one shred of documented evidence that Donald Ross had designed the course.
But no lack of documented evidence could convince Mr. Fay, who has played over 240 Donald Ross courses, that this track was anything but a gift from the master.
Rand Morrisette was the first person to inform me that there was absolutely no evidence tying Mr. Ross to the course. Nothing. Nada. Zippo. Zilch.
And this lack of connection had also become of great interest to my boss, Mr. Woody Davis, President of Avestra Golf. Certainly, the future marketing potential of the club was somewhat effected by Mr. Mandell having just published his book in June '07 within which Mandell flat out denies there is any "concrete" connection between Donald Ross and the Southern Pines Golf Club. From page 91 of Mandell's book:
"The time frame for Ross's career move might suggest a possible association with Southern Pines Country Club. However, no one can truly say for sure without concrete documentation. There are no drawings of Southern Pines Country Club, nor any references to the project in any of Ross's writings."
Mandell takes up this mystery again on page 305:
"Another course that lost it's identity over time is Southern Pines Country Club. There is very little information regarding the original course design available... In fact, there is no concrete evidence of Donald Ross's involvement with the course. Either his contribution was legend that has grown to fact over the years, or he deliberately kept his name off of the project because it was in conflict with his employers' business. He freely discussed Pine Needles, and Mid-Pines (which were Tufts developments) over the years but the same could not be said about Southern Pines Country Club."
So that's the mystery. A certain sylvan spirit directed me to the abandoned course, then to Foxfire a few minutes later and eventually right smack into the pro-shop here at Southern Pines when new Avestra head pro, Rodney Russel, needed an assistant. The course has cast a spell on me, and for good reason. It has been denied its deserving place in the history of American golf, and the course now wants it back.
ANSWER TO MYSTERY #1:
"EXHIBIT 1" is a postcard which depicts the 11th hole at Southern Pines:
Anybody who has played the course will recognize "EXHIBIT 1" instantly as the 11th hole.
(Courtesy of the Moore County Historical Association, Larry Koster Collection.)
And while these two EXHIBITS don't have telltale postmarks or dates, Susan J. Pockmire of the Moore County Historical Society informed me they come from a collection of Southern Pines Country Club postcards and photos with postmarks or other time stamps ranging from 1907 to 1917.
"EXHIBITS 4 and 5" are two newspaper clippings from The Outlook, December 1907. They document a match played between a team from Pinehurst and a team from Southern Pines. "The recent match was played on the visitors' grounds", the grounds at Southern Pines. The match ended in a tie and was completed two weeks later at Pinehurst. (Southern Pines won. Go team.) Take note that Mr. Ward shot 57 for the nine hole match which established a course record. How freakin' hard was this course playing for 57 to have been a course record?
EXHIBIT 6b (click image to enlarge print):
Taking all of this evidence together, and comparing the images depicted therein with the course today, it becomes clear that the Southern Pines Country Club golf course came into existence in 1906.
His second design (and first full eighteen hole course) was the Winchester Country Club in Mass., 1902.