The History of Golf in Henderson County

Annie Pierce Smyth tees off at the Connemara Golf Links

 

 

The very first golf played in Henderson County took place at Connemara, the very same place that is a national historic site today. The recognition is due more to the farm's connection to two-time Pulitzer Prize winning writer Carl Sandburg than to its golf heritage.  

One of the first things Captain Ellison Adger Smyth did after purchasing the farm of Confederate States of America Secretay of the Treasury Christopher Meminger in 1900 was to set about building a golf course on the property. Workers recruited horses and oxen to pull the drag pans to create the fairways and wielded shovels and mattocks to hack out and level sites for tees and greens. In those early days of American golf (the first United States Open had only been played five years earlier) both the tees and green were composed of packed sand laid atop hard clay. 

Preparing the seventh green at Connemara Golf Links for putting.

The work was carried out between 1900 and 1906. In the end there were nine tees and eight greens. The first green near the back lake was used as the ninth green as well. Tee boxes were just that - twelve-inch boards six feet by ten feet and filled with sand; the greens, typically square in the manner of the day, were about 25 feet in diameter. Maintenance was carried on mostly by sheep with the aide of a horse-drawn three-foot cut mower.  

The Captain’s 158-yard opening hole began beneath Connemara and near the barn. It ran towards the “back lake” and was dubbed “The Road” hole. The course then meandered around the pasture beside the Little River Road before returning to the lake and playing again into the first green to complete the nine-hole round. 

Captain Smyth had scorecards printed up for the Connemara Golf Links with the distances and names of each of the holes neatly printed. On the back were “local rules” for the 1,685-yard course. These included: 

“A ball driven out of bounds may be dropped on the fair green with the loss of one stroke.” 

“A ball falling in a rut cow track, ditch or marsh may be lifted and dropped over the shoulder with the loss of one stroke.” 

“A ball falling near a tree or fence may be moved two club lengths without penalty, but not nearer the green.” 

The course was gone by the time the Sandburgs arrived in Flat Rock in 1945 but Bill McKay, the Captain’s youngest great-grandson, reported that he remembers seeing the outlines of the golf course long after the Captain’s death. 

The next person to take a swing at golf in Henderson Country was George Erwin Cullet Stephens. Stephens was born in 1873 in Guilford County near Greensboro and gained recognition as a young man on the University of North Carolina baseball team - "the best pitcher Carolina ever had." As a football player Stephens was said to have caught the first forward pass ever thrown by the Tar Heels. But even for a college pitcher that legendary John McGraw called one of the best he had ever seen, there wasn't much future in professional sports at the turn of the 20th century. So after graduation Stephens headed for Charlotte to work in his roommate's family insurance business.

It was the perfect time to be in Charlotte, where several main rail lines had just converged. Within three years Stephens had helped form the Piedmont Realty Company and within five had organized a new bank. his realty company built Charlotte's first skyscraper, a seven story tower called the Trust Building. In 1902 he developed the tony Myers Park and was one of the most influential civic leaders in bringing the Queen City to prominence.

Stephens had begun casting an eye towards the Western Carolina mountains in 1899, acquiring large swaths of land in Henderson County. By 1907 the real estate man was ready to do some real developing. With some UNC cronies Stephens set up the Kanuga Lake Club and then dammed Little Mud Creek to get themselves an actual 100-acre lake. Stephens then started selling memberships back in Mecklenburg County to doctors and lawyers and bankers for his private club - $150 for ten years. The lure was outdoor recreation - swimming, shuffleboard, tennis, equestrian sports. And golf - a "nine-hole course the equal of any in the country" he promised.

Kanuga Lake in 1911.

Stephens' sales pitch for the Kanuga Lake Club stated confidently that the best known linksters in the land would gather at this lake for a "great golf tournament." The club, with a grand clubhouse and guest cottages, was indeed opened as planned in 1909. The golf course was ready as well, although perhaps not quite the equal of the finest course in America. The holes were laid out east of today's Kanuga Chapel Drive and boasted small circular sand greens with a radius of 15 feet.

The Kanuga Lake Club was a success and Stephens began an expansion plan. His momentum was squashed, however, in 1916 by hurricane-spawned storms that dumped as much as 23 inches of rain in parts of Henderson County. The county's largest dam - at Kanuga Lake - burst and when the waters of the Great Flood of 1916 receded the camp was in ruins. Stephens moved back to Charlotte where he became half owner of the Charlotte Observer. He returned to the mountains in the 1920s to take control of the Asheville Citizen, buy Biltmore Village and lobby for the creation of the Blue Ridge Parkway. In the 1920s Stephens sold 400 acres of the Kanuga Lake Club to the Diocese of Upper South Carolina to start a Christian vacation colony. Four hundred more acres were bought by the Kanuga Conferences Association.

Through all the financial wrangling, the nine-hole golf course survived. Miami businessman Van Carl Kussrow bought the course for his Camp Pinnacle across Crab Creek Road on 20-acre Wolfe Lake. In addition to being available to campers, the course was also available for locals to play. It closed permanently in 1942.

In 1910 Joseph Holt led a charge by Charleston and Columbia businessmen to Flat Rock to buy up 500 acres that became the Highland Lake Club. In short order there was a rambling rustic lodge for meals and dances. The lake was for boating, swimming and fishing. And soon after there was an 18-hole golf course - the only one in western North Carolina at the time - on the north side of North Highland Lake Road. John R. "Ernie" Inglis, who was hired by Donald Ross to supervise construction of a few courses around the Southeast was hired to design the project. Inglis' main job at the time was head professional at Fairview Country Club in Elmsford, New York before coming south to spend the winter. Inglis played in several United States Opens but never made the 36-hole cut.

Inglis would make headlines a half-century later when he celebrated his 50th anniversary as a teaching pro at Fairview; he estimated he had given some 10,000 lessons in that time. The Highland Lake Club was not quite so venerable. Over-excited boosters were making plans for Flat Rock to become the "Pinehurst of the Mountains." It didn't happen and the Club failed after two years and became the Carolina Military and Naval Academy. The core of the golf course, however, survived over a century. 

Jim Sparks, owner of the Course Doctors Golf Course Construction Company, took over operation of the course in 1994. By this time it was a nine-hole affair with holes snaking around Dye Creek that ran through the center of the property. Highland Lake was the kind of low-key place where Tom Watson could feel comfortable stopping to hit a few balls and put on a clinic for kids. In 2014 the Village of Flat Rock bought the property for $1.1 million and repurposed the property for a community park.

With all the golfing fervor taking place around it the oldest inn in Flat Rock - the oldest inn in western North Carolina - was not going to be left out. That would be Woodfield Inn that began life in 1852 as the Flat Rock Hotel. Andrew Johnstone of Beaumont and Judge Mitchell King, who donated the land for the new country seat of Hendersonville, paid for its construction to provide "a good, commodious tavern on or near the Main Saluda Road." Henry Tudor Farmer handled the construction for the three-story frame building designed by Edward C. Jones and after he was able to buy out the primary investors the public house commonly became known as the Farmer Hotel.

Henry's son Matthew was running the operation in the 1920s when he added a nine-hole golf course to the large, sloping front lawn where Confederate soldiers camped during the Civil War. The property was sold to Floridians in 1939 and became the Woodfield Inn. As it has continued to filter through new ownership - including Little River band bassist and lead vocalist Wayne Nelson in 2002 - golf faded away at the oldest operating inn in North Carolina. But, as with the Highland Lake Golf Club, you can still see the ghost holes as you drive along the Greenville Highway.   

Hendersonville was not "The Little Charleston of the Mountains" like Flat Rock next door but that does not mean it did not fancy itself a resort destination. And every top-shelf resort needs a quality 18-hole golf course. The movers and shakers in Hendersonville agonized over their golf-less situation as was reported in the Western North Carolina Times in 1922: The par on the Stoney Mountain golf course (situated where the Grimesdale neighborhood is today, north of town on the east side of Asheville Highway) was set at 38 by Mr. Clark, an Asheville professional, who came over Monday to look over the Hendersonville greens. Mr. Clark played around the course and after examining it carefully pronounced it to be in fine shape and excellently located. The Hendersonville golf club is endeavoring to procure a professional to have charge of the links, and has received several applications for the position. They are looking, however, not only for a good player, but for a man who can take charge of the greens and give them the necessary improvements. . The golf club is hard at work on the problem of improving the Stoney Mountain links, realizing, as does everybody else, what an asset a really good course is to the town."

Fortunately for supporters of Hendersonville golf the town was in the midst of a land boom in the 1920s thanks to Florida speculators flush with Sunshine State profits and looking for a place to spend it. In 1924 there were 89 real estate offices in town and some 800 individual brokers chasing deals. But one development scheme stood out among all the rest.

When J. Perry Stoltz set about to build the largest and most modern hotel in Florida his target market was yachtsmen coming down to Miami from New York for the regatta season. Stoltz knew his way around a yacht himself and so he was called Commodore. He named his grand 15-story hotel on Biscayne Bay, with its requisite moorings for visiting private vessels, the Fleetwood, borrowing a name from his wife's family. The Fleetwood was an immediate success and Stoltz began plotting the course for a chain of similarly grandiose hotels. His list began with Chattanooga, Tennessee, Augusta, Georgia and Hendersonville.

The site Stoltz settled on for his Hendersonville dream hotel in 1925 was Echo Mountain. A paved road up the mountain would be required to move $2 million worth of steel and bricks to the building site and it was quickly dubbed "the longest scenic highway east of the Rockies." Work progressed rapidly and as the steel skeleton for the 15-story mountaintop wonder rose the Laurel Park Estates Corporation was wasting no time with its golf course. Sparing no expense, Donald Ross, who had designed hundreds of golf courses by this time, was hired to create the championship track on the former goat and pony farm of the Ranier family in Laurel Park. Local contractors John R. Crye and Mark A. Kollock rounded up 50 teams of mules to drag pans around the terrain to shape the course. When 1926 dawned the corporation cheerily announced that the course "was 80 per cent complete and will open for play in the spring." Attention turned to the construction of a clubhouse, for which nearly $400,000 was allotted.

Before Donald Ross came to Hendersonville to build the city's first true golf course in 1925 he could play a little in his day.

And just like that the land boom was over. Laurel Park Estates went bankrupt and in May of 1926 its assets were gobbled up by the Central Bank and Trust company of Asheville. The Fleetwood Hotel stood unfinished for years and was finally torn down in the 1930s. No one hit a first drive on the new Donald Ross golf course. In a bit of golfing whimsy the fruit orchards Stoltz was unable to build on in Augusta were purchased by the Fruitland Manor Corporation and turned over to Bobby Jones who built the most famous course in America there - Augusta National. 

The land boom bust slammed the brakes on other golf projects as well. William D. McAdoo, who had made a killing speculating on land in St. Petersburg, Florida had bought The Castle in Flat Rock, now known as Chanteloup, in 1924. He planned to build a new luxury hotel with a golf course on the historic estate that had been constructedin 1841. But those plans were scuttled and he finally unloaded the property in 1930.

The Fleetwood Hotel succumbed to the wrecking ball but its golf grounds survived to become what is today Henderson County's oldest golf course. But not right away. It was actually preceded by the Lakewood Golf Club which was built by the developers of Lakewood Estates with the help of a $15,000 loan from the golf-starved City of Hendersonville. The 400-acre subdivision was located northeast of town on the north side of old U.S. Highway 64 at Clear Creek. 

In a special exhibition on July 4, 1928 two local crack golfers, Allen Smith and Harry Ehle, competed against the team of Chief Standing Deer and Chief Climbing Bear who used bows and arrow to shoot at balloons fixed to the flagsticks. In a more formal competition, Jimmie Williams, the son of mustachioed four-time mayor Jonathan Williams, won a tournament to become the first official Hendersonville golf champion. But the Lakewood course was judged not to be up to contemporary professional standards. Its financial backing disappeared and so too did the golf course. 

About that time Milo Strong arrived in town. An Ohio native, Strong was 64 years old at the time. He made his fortune as an engineering building the Santa Fe railroad and owning mines in Huerfano County, Colorad and Washington County, Idaho. Strong was more of a sailor than a golfer and after retiring in 1912 he and his wife, Eleanor, bought a yacht and spent the next couple of years at ports of call around the world. When they landed on the private island of Cat Cay in the Bahamas in 1914, the Strongs bought it.

After a dozen years of living "a continuous weekend party," as he once described it, Strong sold the island in 1927. The couple had summered in Western North Carolina before and this time came to live, on a 22-acre spread on Haywood Road. Strong never had prior dealings in Henderson County but he threw himself into the business community nonetheless. He became president of the Rotary Club and the Chamber of Commerce, traveling to promote Hendersonville on his own dime.

Welcome to golf course building, early 1900s-style.

One of Strong's main goals was to see the realization of the community's long-standing ambition to get a real golf course. There's no time like a Great Depression to get good deals on land and Strong, J.L. Weddington and James W. Duff pooled resources to buy the dormant 132-acre Fleetwood golf course property out of receivership in 1932 for $1,500 plus some back taxes. They immediately formed the Hendersonville Golf and Country Club corporation at par value of $10,000. Shares were offered at $100 and the membership was quickly 90 percent subscribed. Hendersonville had a golf course.

To help insure the project's success the board of governors turned the title of the club over to the City to operate. Strong, drawing on his engineering background, took the lead on getting Ross' nine holes ready for play. Opening day was July 4, 1933 and the first summer went so well that another nine holes was quickly planned. Since it was a city-owned property the expansion qualified for government assistance funds under Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. The foundation laid, Milo Strong resigned as president of the Hendersonville Country club on September 25, 1933. He died less than four years later.

Hendersonville Country Club was now a full 18-hole course with an expanded clubhouse, a stone caddy house, new pro shop and locker rooms. But it was still the Depression and money was always hard to come by. Funds were raised with slot machines in the clubhouse and it was said that they would be hastily buried in sand bunkers when there was a whiff of the local sheriff. And finally on December 6, 1945 the property was conveyed back to the members as it has remained ever since.

It would be nearly a quarter-century before Henderson County received an 18-hole public golf course. It happened on an old brick manufacturing site in Etowah. Etowah was exclusively an agricultural community until the arrival of Philadelphia businessman Bruce Drysdale carting satchels of George Moland's money. The Moland family money came from selling hams, bacon and dried beef in the City of Brotherly Love. Drysdale wan't interested in Etowah livestock but the clay that lay under the grazing lands. He purchased 350 acres and started building wood-burning "beehive" kilns. Each brick had to be handled six times in the production process. The first Moland-Drysdale bricks were sold in 1920, pioneering light-colored brick in the Southeast. George Moland died in 1936 and Drysdale continued to grow the brickworks in Etowah until the 1950s when the operation moved to Brickton (Fletcher).

Drysdale retained the exhausted Etowah land and in 1964 decided to convert the brick plant into a championship golf course, a project that would enhance the value of the surrounding land owned by many of his former employees. Architect Edmund Ault was hired to execute the transformation. A one-time scratch golfer, Ault was an engineer by training. After several seasons apprenticing in golf architecture he entered private practice in 1946 at the age of 38. Based in the Middle Atlantic, Ault once estimated that he had designed or remodeled one-fourth of all the courses in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs around Washington, D.C. He was recognized for his advocacy of flexibility in course design.

At Etowah, Ault oversaw the first course in Western North Carolina to have fully integrated fairways and he incorporated paved cart paths throughout the entire 18 holes, another Blue Ridge first. The course opened for play on July 8, 1967 but Drysdale was not as fortunate as Milo Strong had been - he never saw his vision of an 18-hole golf course in Henderson County come to fruition - he died the day the final survey of the golf course was completed.

The public could play at Etowah Valley for a $25 annual membership fee and greens fees of $2.50 and $3.50 on the weekends. In 1971 the new course was tapped as the site of the Kemper-Asheville Open, a PGA tour satellite event. The winner was 41-year old Charles Owens, an early African-American touring professional. Owens had busted both knees and an ankle during a parachute jump at Fort Bragg twenty years earlier and played with a limp. All his shots were cross-handed and he later pioneered the use of the long "belly putter" to help cure his yips on the greens. In 1987 Ault returned to expand the facility to 27 holes.

Another birdie at Crooked Creek Golf Club.

In 1968, Henderson County got its first 18-hole daily-fee public course. Crail Farm had once belonged to Aaron "Albert" Warner, one of Hollywood's Warner Brothers. During World War II Warner was plucked from a day job of handling financial matters for his family’s famous movie studio and put to work making propaganda films for the U.S. Army. “Major” Warner was also apparently an early “prepper” who was convinced the American coasts were under imminent attack. He had read in a military publication that Asheville and Hendersonville were among the “safe” places to reside and so he purchased the property on Crab Creek Road.

The Major provisioned Crail Farm so well, including a herd of dairy cows, that it was said his family could live on the property “for an indefinite period” should the need arise. During his stay Warner hosted several of the studio’s big name stars for vacations in his hideout. After the property passed out of the Warner family it was renamed Crooked Creek for the stream that snakes through the valley and developed as a golf course, designed by Stuart Gooden. 

The clubhouse at Crooked Creek was once the home of a Hollywood mogul.

Crail Farm retained its Hollywood ties all the way until it was turned into the Crooked Creek Golf Club (the current clubhouse was stately Warner manor) in 1968. In the honorary foursome for the Grand Opening was none other than Jethro Bodine himself, Max Baer, Jr. of the hit television show, The Beverly Hillbillies. Baer was a crack golfer; a two-time Sacramento junior champion and the winner of that year’s pro-am at the Andy Williams San Diego Open.

Broadmoor Golf Links joined Henderson County's exiguous roster of public golf facilities in 1993. The Fletcher course was designed by Boca Raton, Florida-based architect Karl Litten, then sixty years old and at the time building the Middle East's first grass golf course in Dubai at Emirates Golf Club. After the facility was purchased by Warrior Golf in 2013 the club staged the John Daly Golf Tournament with the two-time major winning folk hero as host. 

Also in 1993 Orchard Trace, a sporty 18-hole executive par-three course with plenty of elevation changes was built on Sugarloaf Road. The course is lighted, providing Henderson County with its first nocturnal golf. Southern Tee, another executive course, opened in 2001 on Howard Gap Road in Fletcher. Although flat, the challenging track will have you reaching for your long irons often, especially on the home nine. Southern Tee also introduced Western North Carolina to FootGolf, a Netherland invention that combines soccer and golf with 21-inch “cups.”

Hendersonville Country Club's reign as the county's only private golf club lasted almost half a century. When it ended top-name golf architects beat a path to Apple Country. They included Tom Jackson, a top designer in Myrtle Beach (High Vista Golf Club, 1978), Joe Lee, a legend in Florida golf course architecture (Kenmore Country Club, 1983) and Bob Cupp, a member of the Georgia Golf Hall of Fame (Cummings Cove, 1985).

When Tom Fazio got called to Hendersonville to design the Champion Hills course in 1988 he was so enamored with Henderson County he not only invested in the project but moved his home here. Fazio, at the vanguard of modern golf architecture, is likely the last of his profession to come into the business the old-fashioned way - working on crews and bypassing college. For Fazio it was working in high school for his uncle George at the Kimberton Golf Club up Route 23 near his home in Norristown, Pennsylvania.

George Fazio was a standout Philadelphia-area golfer in the 1940s and 1950s who won twice on the PGA Tour but made his biggest splash by tying Ben Hogan and Lloyd Mangrum in the 1950 U.S. Open at Merion. If that 18-hole playoff had gone differently Fazio might never have gone into golf architecture and no one would remember Hogan’s one-iron from the 18th fairway.

The Kimberton Course that opened in 1964 was the first George Fazio had designed and built. After his nephew Tom graduated from Bishop Kendrick High School he cast his lot with his uncle’s construction crews. Later his brother Jim would join them. By the time the Fazio family business relocated from Pennsylvania to Florida, where they created the acclaimed Jupiter Hills, in 1973 Tom was running the creating the routes and running the projects.

Fazio's golf courses dominate national and world rankings of the game's top courses. Champion Hills hasn't been accorded those honors but it is recognized as one of the top courses in North Carolina and feted by Golf Digest as  the #1 private, year round course in Western North Carolina. Golf in Henderson County has come a long way since Captain Ellison Adger Smyth laid out some holes around his Flat Rock estate.