Chapter Three: Golf and the Charlotte Landscape
In May of 1962, a young Charlotte News sportswriter named Ron Green dashed off one of what would later amount to thousands of articles on the sport he loved, namely golf. This one, cleverly entitled "Fore! Charlotteans Golf in Ever-Changing Number," may not have set the presses ablaze at that particular deadline but today helps to show just when golf became a true Charlotte pastime. As the summer sun began to shine, it was becoming apparent to more locals that the fairways were the place to be. Green noted that this year there would be 189 holes of golf to be had, up from 117 just three years before in 1959. He mentioned public courses that still see action today like Cedarwood and Larkahaven and some that don't like Eastwood and Sharon. New on the scene were a number of private clubs too, like Quail Hollow and Carmel. But wherever golf could be had, it didn't seem to matter, according to the writer. "Golf's nationwide boom is being felt here and there are times when a fellow is hard put to find a place to peg up."1
Whether because of the sport's immense popularity or simply sheer size, golf courses belong in this examination of landscape. A golf course has immediate impact on 200 acres of land and generally affects the land parcels bordering it in both positive and negative ways. It can be said that golf course construction is the highest form of art in the industry of landscape architecture. There are few tracts of land so dramatically altered and then meticulously maintained as the land occupied by the 30-plus courses in Mecklenburg County. Courses fall under public, semi-private and private domain and raise several social issues over how green space is used. Moreover these issues of design, land use, and society span over a century of history in the Queen City. Since the first course was completed in the heart of the city in 1911, golf clubs, country clubs, and public courses have spread to the entire region adding to the chain of green space evolution.
As all parts of this study should exhibit, green space does not evolve, in Charlotte at least, unless people demand it. Golf courses are perhaps the greatest examples of this phenomenon. Since golf courses are so often a private green space venture they are built only when perceived demand matches or exceeds the necessary investment. The heyday in Charlotte for golf courses, as Mr. Green's article indicates, began in roughly 1960 and continued until 1980. In this chapter I begin much earlier and look at the histories of one private course and one public and how these forms of green space evolved in comparable and contrasting ways. Charlotte grew up first with mostly public courses but in the last forty years has come to accommodate as many private country clubs as the public day-rate courses. Still, the understanding that a course will not survive without fervent interest on the part of its players applies in both cases.
This landscape economy, now the status quo in the golf world, has not always dominated the fairways. A brief look at the history of this sport not only provides some background on course design but also shows that golf has not forever been tied to the greenback.
Golf is an ancient game but has only been played with popularity in this country for about a century. As far back as before the Revolution, golf immigrated to the colonies from Great Britain. There are records of golf clubs in Georgia at this time, though no records as to whether there was a course or if golf was even played. One problem with dating some modern American courses is the earlier existence of a hunting, field or polo club on the same grounds. Recognition of the first American course often goes to a six-hole course built in Yonkers, NY in 1888 by a local and dubbed St. Andrews. Other claimants are courses in Burlington, Iowa, White Sulpher Spring, West Virginia, Foxburg, Pennsylvania, and Dorset, Vermont. According to one source, once golf did establish itself, it spread quickly to approximately 80 courses in operation in 1896 and 982 just four years later in 1900.2 Once this rise to American popularity occurred, the game had already evolved from its Scottish roots.
Golf was invented over a period of 500 years on the Scottish linksland3 and was a completely public form of leisure for several reasons. The game was played on the links or on linksland, property that was public by nature since it was not enclosed by fences. Before the earliest zoning laws or even the Enclosure Act, shepherds tending their flock in these publicly held grazing fields passed the time with a ball and crook. As the sport became established, the linksland remained public territory set aside for golfing. Private golf clubs like the Society of St. Andrews Golfers were not founded until the 18th century and remained an anomaly.4 Furthermore, the fact that Scotland lies so high in the latitudes of the globe makes for days in the summer with twenty hours of sunlight. All people, not just men of leisure, found time to play. Thus when Donald Ross, father of golf course architecture and Scottish-born, said, "There is no good reason why the label 'a rich man's game' should be hung on golf," he probably felt justified.5
The nature of land ownership and leisure in America, however, has combined to make golf a very expensive game and this reality may never change. Linksland does not exist in the States and land must be purchased or rented. Daylight hours in America are much shorter and thus men of all occupations do not have time to get in 18 holes. Leisure is for the affluent and when there is an opportunity to turn a profit someone will grab it.
These same looming forces, lack of links, and shortened leisure time, have also changed the golf course in America. Landscape like that found in Scotland, the windblown hills covered in wild grasses and sandy soil, is not found anywhere in America. Moreover, with the limited time a golfer has in the day, courses must be constructed in convenient locations. There has never been much choice in where to put the American golf course; the creativity has come in the design.
Design and maintenance were simply not part of golf in Scotland. Bird droppings and periodic showers from the sea kept the turf healthy. Grazing sheep kept the grass short. Strong gusts of wind raked the bunkers smooth and rabbits nibbled the greens short around their holes, which may have been the first cups. Though the links were typically devoid of trees, ponds or distinct fairways, there was no end to natural hazards: patches grazed bare by livestock, topsoil eroded to a sandy base, sand and pot bunkers, and nests and holes of small vermin that collapsed into large pits.6
As soon as golf migrated out of Scotland, golf course design as a concept was born. As golf course historian Geoffery Cornish puts it, "While the avowed purpose of course designers throughout history has been to imitate nature, the actual practice of golf architecture has demanded modifications of existing terrain and soil to create conditions resembling those found on the links." The standard has forever been the links at St. Andrews. Since 1834 when King William IV dubbed the course "royal and ancient," it has been the precedent for Scottish, English and American courses. The best example of this fact is the adoption of 18 holes as the standard length of a course, by chance the number of holes at St. Andrews.7
Early American courses were functional but primitive. Construction often consisted of removing a few fences, large rocks and mowing the grass. Quite often, however, obstructions such as stone walls, fences, chasms, and plowed fields were considered legitimate hazards. As early golf clubs often shared land with hunt clubs, it was not uncommon to have a game disrupted by a troop of horsemen. Many hazards of the "sandlot" courses have fortunately been naturally selected against such as "chocolate drops," sharp mounds of stone simply covered with dirt, and "dragon's teeth," patches of unmowed vegetation left to grow inside sand bunkers.8 Other design elements less dubious but equally odious have also disappeared, like symmetrical, square bunkers placed in the middle of fairways, large square-shaped greens, and tee boxes, literally wood framed structures elevated off the ground.9
The first professionally designed course in America is credited to Shinnecock Hills Golf Club in Southampton, New York. The old course, one of America's most famous, happens to lie on sea-swept terrain naturally resembling Scottish linksland. Not coincidentally, the wealthy partners who founded the club chose to hire a Scotsman to design the course. "Young Willie" Dunn completed the first twelve holes in 1891 and added six more in 1895.10
Thus golf established itself in America as a sport for the wealthy to be played on courses of manicured grass and raked bunkers. Shinnecock Hills is still a far holler from the sandhills of North Carolina in many respects. Golf finally came to Charlotte in 1911 when a group of investors founded the Charlotte Country Club and built an 18-hole course. The golf course was the centerpiece of the new suburb Chatham Estates. Chatham Estates was one of several developments that popped up on Charlotte's periphery in the first two decades of this century. The Charlotte Country Club certainly helped to distinguish the suburb from others. Myers Park too would establish a country club in the interior of its suburb not ten years later. These two establishments went beyond the simple golf course. They were social organizations with posh clubhouses, swimming pools, dining rooms and fine fairways and greens designed by Donald Ross.11
Charlotte and Myers Park Country Clubs offered the first 36 holes to be found in the Charlotte area but this trend of private clubs did not last for the Queen City. Private clubs saw a lull in the next few decades. While several public courses opened up in the '20s and '30s there was not another private club until 1958 when the public Carolina Golf Course established a private club among its regular members that would become in the next year the Carolina Golf and Country Club.
One of the many public courses that opened in these slow years was Eastwood Golf Course. Eastwood is a particularly interesting subject to study since it represents a finished chapter in this city's evolving green space. The 18-hole course opened in 1947 on its site near the intersection of the Plaza and Eastway Drive and closed just recently on January 15, 2000. The history of Eastwood not only shows the personal and impersonal forces involved in the evolution of a golf course but also the ways in which a space can have different meaning to so many people.
If it can be said that up to this point, this paper has had a monochromatic tinge, Eastwood Golf Course brings a splash of color. The course was always well known for attracting a diverse, golf-loving clientele. Above all the folks were middle-class Charlotteans. The clubhouse was not paneled in oak or mahogany but fake wood. The grill room didn't serve pork tenderloin, it served hot dogs. Celebrities like Willie Nelson, Reba McIntyre and Morganna Robert the athlete-kissing stripper visited Eastwood. For years the course earned a reputation as being a gamblers' paradise. Golfers tried all kinds of stunts at Eastwood to win bets, such as playing shots off the roof of the clubhouse, playing the 18-holes with a lacrosse stick, and playing the course in nothing but a pair of swimming trunks. Ron Green, Jr., son of the aforementioned Green and writer for the Observer, described it as a "P. T. Barnum history" and it was this reputation that made Eastwood appreciated.12
The land that was Eastwood Golf Course changed over the years and these changes would partially contribute to the course's ultimate demise. The course sat on approximately 110 acres in east Charlotte that between 1947 and 1999 became dense with middle-class apartments and housing as well as commercial areas. Soon train whistles and car horns replaced whippoorwills and thrushes as the golfers' prime distractions. By the time the course closed, a gas station sat some 30 feet from the 10th green and a Bojangles restaurant just across four lanes of traffic from the 11th tee.13 The last owner of the course Pat Whisenant tried to do for the course in the '90s what even famous chicken and biscuits could not do and that was remodel it.
The course had come to be known as "Eastweed" and when Whisenant purchased the land in 1991 he applied to it, in his own words, the "Course of Dreams Theory: If you rebuild it, they will come." He extended cart paths, added some 300 trees and shrubs, and completely closed down the front 9 and back 9 in alternating years. His attempts to spruce up the course could not seem to stop the decline in rounds played. Between 1991 and 1999 Whisenant raised greens fees three times and saw play decline each time. In 1999 he sold the land to Mulvaney Properties, a group planning an infill residential development with a possible park. And very quickly 110 acres of green vistas were overtaken by homes.14
But perhaps the true value in Eastwood was not in the cart paths, bentgrass, or even crab grass. Reportedly when Whisenant first bought the course he asked some regulars why they came around so often and their reported answer was, "We get good gamesŠ and we don't have to pay sometimes." What made Eastwood Golf Course a rich piece of land was not the design therein but the people and memories attached. In one of numerous pieces eulogizing the old course Ron Green, (Sr.) described the place as "headquarters for hustlers, delivery-truck drivers sneaking off from work, hackers who wore Hawaiian-print shorts and black dress socks and no shirt, and the general run of public-course players." These players got all they could out of the 18 holes and it did not seem to matter that the fairways might be scorched dry in the summer or swampy in the winter. Whisenant's improvements to the course may have made for more attractive play but regulars had never made attractive play their top priority. In this respect, the old public course was a very versatile space because folks came for not only golf, but also for hot dogs and regular conversation. Unfortunately for Eastwood regulars, these types of uses do not make money for public forms of green space.15
Private clubs in Charlotte are not too different from public courses like Eastwood in that they are appreciated for the atmosphere generated by regulars. The greens are typically better tended and the fare at the clubhouse may include hotdogs but topped with Grey Poupon. Essentially it is still a collection of hackers spending the day on a hundred or more acres of green space. The most salient difference is that membership dues and not meager green fees are the means of financial support. The large coffers allow for players to simply come through, smoke cigars and knock back a few. As the case of the Carolina Golf and Country Club shows, even private status does not change the conditions of a golf course or its members so much from the scenario seen on the "links" at Eastwood.
The land today occupied by the Carolina Golf and Country Club was a century ago the Blackman Dairy Farm. Sometime in the first decade of the century a man from the western part of the state, H. J. Dunavant, bought 4,000 acres of land in southwestern Mecklenburg County which included the dairy. Dunavant didn't have fairways or even the dairy farm in mind when he bought the land. His business was heavy construction and he sought land for a rock quarry. However, in 1928 he passed away and left much of this land untouched and in the trust of his wife. In that same year for reasons unknown Mrs. H. J. Dunavant leased the land from the trust, hired Donald J. Ross to design a golf course for $3,200, and opened the Carolina Golf Course to the public.16
As a public course, Carolina appears to have been a prosperous family business. It would remain in the trust of the Dunavant estate until the club members bought the land in the '60s. From the early 1930s until the course entered its private era, management stayed in family hands too. Either Jack Dunavant, son of the elder H. J., or son-in-law Sutt Alexander kept the club running. It was the only 18-hole public course in Charlotte in fact until Eastwood came about in 1947. When family problems forced the Dunavants to put the course up for public auction, Alexander purchased Carolina Golf Course for $210,000 and kept the business, at least, in the extended family. His son Sutt Alexander Jr. would become manager for a short stint in 1960.17
It was Alexander the elder, though, who was for years the shepherd watching over these manicured pastures. When he married Louise Dunavant in 1934 he was already well known in the South as a tremendous amateur golfer, having won collegiate titles at Kentucky's Center College. Excluding service time during the Second World War, he managed the club from 1934 until his death in 1959. It was he that purchased the struggling course from the Dunavants in 1957 and he that initiated the process by which the Carolina Golf Course became the Carolina Golf and Country Club.18
Though the privatization of the Carolina Golf Course was ultimately a large step in the history of this club, the event had little immediate affect on the green space or the people who used it. The Carolina Golf Course may never have become a private organization had its regulars not been so enthusiastic about golfing. In 1957 these weekend warriors were, however, suddenly denied entry into Carolina Golf Association Amateur tournaments. The CGA was and remains the official governing body over golf in this state and when they told the regulars from Carolina that they were just public course players and not "gentlemen golfers" belonging to a private club, it left an impression. The golfers at Carolina took enough pride in their course and their play that they consulted their manger and new owner Sutt Alexander about the matter. His simple reply was, "Why don't you start a club here? It will cost you two dollars apiece to enroll." Later that year, this group of players sent a $35 check to the United States Golf Association and founded the Carolina Golf Club, Inc.19
These new members did not settle for just a country club in name. In an ambitious manner, they quickly went about leasing the rights to the course from Alexander, Sr. and then buying the actual land from the Dunavant estate. The new board of directors, which included five officer positions that rotated among the same dozen or so members for the next two decades, established initiation fees and membership rates. The board concocted commodities such as Founders' Bonds and Participant Bonds that were intended to encourage club members to contribute towards the down payment on the land. There was a strong effort in just the years from 1958 to 1960 to make the course and the land their own.20
The Carolina Golf and Country Club, which officially became the name in 1964, remained modest even in its private status. The fees for initiation and family membership in 1959 were only $25and $150 respectively. The history of the club records numerous facts like officer rosters and budget reports but the specks of history that sift out are the small accomplishments in that the club took true pride. These events include the planting of some 2000 loblolly pines in 1961, the building of the swimming pool off of a loan from North Carolina National Bank, today Bank of America, and the completion of the clubhouse. Also notable in the history is that three separate times the club was offered land elsewhere in southeast Charlotte for trade. The club has chosen to remain, however, in southwest Mecklenburg County, a place that has grown little around them, and the spot on which the course has sat for over eighty years.21
It was about the time that the Carolina Golf Course became a private club that Charlotte saw a rise in the demand for more such clubs. In April, 1959, 21 members of the Charlotte Country Club came together to form the Quail Hollow Country Club. These founders sought at first simply a club at which to relax out in the country. They built their clubhouse in southeast Charlotte on farmland owned at the time by James Harris. The story went that he hunted quails on the property. By 1961, though, this club offered a pool and 18-hole course.22 Carmel Country Club established itself in the early '60s as well. Today there are as many private as public courses to chose form in Charlotte.
The histories of Eastwood and the Carolina Golf and Country Club show that the status of the players and their course do not change many of the land issues around these parcels of green space. A golf course, whether its players pay by the round or year, still offers the same type of sculpted landscape to the masses. Players seem to go to a particular course because they feel comfortable there. This does not have so much to do with the lie of the fairways or the sand in the bunkers. The golf course is a piece of green space very wrapped up in sentiment and emotion. It means different things to different people but to the regulars and members it is a place of serenity. In America, this serenity will never be without a price. Private clubs seem to provide for this necessity more readily and securely than the public courses. Like any piece of green space, there must be an intrinsic value and individuals prepared to stake claim to it. Otherwise the social and economic nature that governs green space will select against it.