Golfing Ghosts


The Birth and Rebirth of America's

First Golf Course

By Paula DiPerna and Vikki Keller

Walker -- 194pp -- $23

Golf today is a game of science and technology. Visit any pro shop, and you'll see a dizzying array of balls--designed to do everything but bring you a drink after the round--and new clubs made of materials once reserved for fighter planes. The sight of a player swinging a "wood" actually made of wood is about as common as seeing a Model T on the Long Island Expressway. Today's new courses are marvels as well, yet some have more in common with that place you take the kids--the one with a windmill and a dinosaur--than with the land on which they are built.

There is one place, however, where time has decidedly not marched on. Oakhurst: The Birth and Rebirth of America's First Golf Course, by Paula DiPerna and Vikki Keller, tells the story of a little nine-hole track laid out in 1884 by transplanted New Englander Russell W. Montague in the mountains of West Virginia, a full two years before any other course appeared in the U.S.

Unfortunately for DiPerna and Keller, no firsthand accounts of the Oakhurst Club's initial incarnation, which lasted until about 1900, survive. The authors spend too much time using scant genealogical information in an attempt to recreate the lives of the club's five members. However, they find their swing when describing the game as Oakhurst golfers would have known it--with gutta-percha balls, brassies, spoons, and needle nose drivers--and how the rules and equipment of the day guided the course's design.

The links lay fallow for more than 90 years after the club's members went their separate ways. Then, Oakhurst's current owner, an avid golfer named Lewis Keller (Vikki Keller's father), who had operated the estate as a Thoroughbred farm for decades, decided to bring the old course back to life. Knowing only that it would have begun and ended near the front porch of Montague's old home, Keller and a golf-course designer used a combination of archaeology and imagination, digging up clay irrigation pipes and hitting shots with period clubs and balls, to rediscover the old fairways and greens.

In 1994, Oakhurst was opened to the public--at least to the public willing to leave their Callaways at home and submit to the challenge of playing the game much as the club's founders had. Each year, Oakhurst is host to the National Hickory Championship, which, in its Historic Div., requires that players not only use period equipment but also dress in period clothing, giving it a feel something like the reenactment of a Civil War battle.

Maybe all of today's golf technology has come at a price. Sure, it's great to hit a 270-yard tee shot right down the middle of the fairway. But what have you missed? As the late golf legend Sam Snead says in the book's introduction: "Using wooden clubs makes you slow down a little bit more, think more about what you are doing." That said, if you've got a set of clubs out there that will get me to a five handicap tomorrow, I'm buying.

By David Purcell

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