Curating a classic

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September 4, 2019

One month after becoming the golf course superintendent of Carolina Golf Club in 2005, we hosted the North Carolina Junior Boys Championship. The event was won by a young man from Fayetteville named David Chung. David would go on to play collegiately at Stanford University and was the runner-up to Peter Uihlein in the 2010 U.S. Amateur contested at Chambers Bay, but I digress.

There was a moment away from the golf course during that tournament I’ll never forget. My assistant and I were waiting by the snack bar window for our lunch orders when the father of one of the contestants complimented us on the course conditions. After learning I was the new superintendent and recently relocated from Virginia, he asked, “You ever work on a Donald Ross golf course before?” I stated no to which he replied, “Different, isn’t it!”

My assistant and I enjoyed a good chuckle as we walked away. What in the heck did he mean by that? It’s not like the greens are where the tees should be and vice versa. An 18-hole golf course is like any other 18-hole golf course, right?

Looking back, I believe I had played only two courses designed by Donald Ross prior to my arrival at Carolina — the Old Course at The Homestead in Hot Springs, Va., and Ridgefields Country Club in Kingsport, Tenn. A quick search of the Donald Ross Society website only lists about a dozen in Virginia, most near Richmond and points north and east. I grew up in the portion of Virginia that’s almost in Tennessee or Kentucky. I am a late bloomer when it comes to Donald Ross and classic golf course architecture.

When I was hired on at Carolina, we were embarking on a four-year, four-phase Master Plan. Two new holes were constructed on recently acquired adjacent property. We then converted two parallel par 4s into our driving range and practice facility. In 2008, we completed the restoration of the remaining 16 holes, which included new tees, greens, bunkers, irrigation and pump station, and replanting of fairways and rough. The project took 11 months.

Our architect for the master plan was Kris Spence from Greensboro, N.C. Kris is a former course superintendent with an artistic talent for bringing Ross features back to life. Wanting to help me and other club leaders better understand what to expect from phase four, he suggested we travel and experience other recently restored Ross courses in North Carolina, including Mimosa Hills in Morganton and Sedgefield Country Club in Greensboro (home to the PGA Tour’s Wyndham Championship).

As this process was playing out, I received an email one evening from the president of the Donald Ross Society stating I was being named an honorary member. My club’s president supplied them with my name and information. I received a certificate in July 2007 that still hangs in my office and reads, “In recognition of a commitment to golf’s earliest traditions and the preservation of classic golf course architecture”.

There is something about those words that resonated. One doesn’t need to be a history nerd in order to be a fine agronomist and superintendent. But I do think being a golf course superintendent is not too dissimilar from being a museum curator. We are entrusted to care for and preserve the course at its highest level, regardless of whether it was designed by Seth Raynor or Tommy Raynor.

Recently, I ruffled a few feathers when I answered a question on Twitter about the most overrated golf course I had played. I didn’t name a course but said, “it was probably one designed by Tom Fazio.” Look, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and taste in golf courses is like that of automobiles or even golf course equipment. Some people like Chevy and others prefer Ford, some like Toro and others prefer Jacobsen or John Deere. It’s like that old saying about blondes and brunettes, which is why I married a redhead!

It doesn’t matter whether you appreciate the classics such as Ross, Tillinghast, Mackenzie and Raynor, or you find the more modern and penal nature of design by Robert Trent Jones Sr. and Pete Dye more to your liking. What’s important is you recognize our connection to their creation and our role in preserving and enhancing it for the enjoyment of our members, guests and/or patrons.

So, back to that day in 2005. It took me a while to understand, but I know now what he meant. Donald Ross is credited with the design of nearly 50 courses in North Carolina and his impact in our state cannot be understated. It is different and I thank my lucky stars every day for the privilege of caring for a piece of history.

Matthew Wharton, CGCS, MG, is the superintendent at Carolina Golf Club in Charlotte, N.C., and President of the Carolinas GCSA. Follow him on Twitter @CGCGreenkeeper.