Three hours, forty minutes. On foot. On a busy Thursday afternoon on a popular golf course on an Indian summer afternoon with temperatures in the low-seventies. On a course where Sam Snead, Gary Player and Davis Love III have won. Where the great Scotsman Donald Ross conceived and routed the course. Where the holes are framed by the wispy brownish grass called broom sedge from which the property derived its name a century ago.
If you can’t check off all the traditionalist boxes on a round at Sedgefield Country Club on the western outskirts of Greensboro, you might as well take up tiddly-winks or cribbage.
“Pretty sweet, isn’t it?” Greg Greeson muses. “If you’re into understated, minimalist architecture and you’re into history, there’s nothing like this. You have to go to Pinehurst to get this kind of history.”
When my “Random Walks” blog was christened in early August, Greeson dispatched an email inviting me to come play. “I am an avid golfer and into minimalist architecture and golf bags,” he said. “I’ve been a member at Sedgefield for almost ten years. It’s a unique golf course on a great piece of ground.”
Sedgefield is situated on some 3,600 acres developed in the 1920s by A.W. McAlister, an avid golfer and originator of the opulent Irving Park neighborhood just north of downtown Greensboro. It has an intimate, graceful, old-world feel and was the co-venue for the Greater Greensboro Open on the PGA Tour along with Starmount Forest from the tournament’s inception in 1938 through 1960. The tournament was held at Sedgefield alone from 1961-76, and the latest iteration of the tournament, now the Wyndham Championship, has been held at Sedgefield since 2008.
“Sedgefield to the GGO is like the Greensboro Coliseum is to the ACC Basketball Tournament,” says Irwin Smallwood, a long-time Greensboro newspaperman. “There’s a mystique about it, something you can’t buy or manufacture.”
“Sedgefield is a gem,” adds Stephen Holmes, president and CEO of Wyndham Worldwide. “I think of Sedgefield and I think of the word, ‘character.’ Sedgefield has character, a lot of it. The players love it. It’s a beautiful course, and there’s plenty of challenge.”
The course opened in 1926 and reflects Ross’s consummate skills in routing and forcing the golfer to work the angles and chess pieces for the high percentage shots. The club spent some $3 million in 2007 restoring the course under the supervision of Greensboro architect Kris Spence, an expert in the nuances of capturing the flavor of Ross bunkers and greens articulations.
In early 2011, the club was bought by John McConnell as the seventh in what now exists as a 12-club stable of courses across the Carolinas and Tennessee. McConnell has spent upwards of $5 million at Sedgefield, including regrassing the greens with Champion Bermuda in 2012, building a new grill and activity center, overhauling the practice range and remodeling the Tudor-style clubhouse and the surrounding landscape.
McConnell also instituted another important change, one borne of his personal roots growing up on a farm in Virginia on public golf courses.
“Before McConnell, you couldn’t walk on the weekend before noon,” says Dupont Kirven, a member since 1995. “Immediately that changed—now you can walk anytime you want.”
“McConnell clubs are definitely geared toward the ‘purist,’” says Greeson.
The forty-year-old Greeson and fifty-year-old Kirven are hosts to your sixty-year-old correspondent on this afternoon in early November and tour guides around a course that has much the same look and feel as other Ross designs from the 1920s—Hope Valley, Linville and Roaring Gap that I have already visited since August, for example, and Mid Pines and Biltmore Forest to come.
It’s compact, most every tee just a few steps from the previous green. The maintenance staff does walkers a favor by cutting paths from tees to landing areas on many holes where the broom sedge and fescue are allowed to grow wild. The speedy putting surfaces demand a deft touch and careful management, a dozen feet always safer from below the hole than four feet from above it.
“Positioning on the green is everything,” Greeson says. “Before the conversion, if you hit the ball on the green, it basically stopped. Now when they’re superfast and firm, if you hit the ball pin high, it tends to run off the green.”
There’s Ross’s requisite hammer-lock par-three, this one the twelfth that plays 244 yards from the back tees. There are few forced carries or water features, with one creek affecting four holes on the front nine and Freemon Lake kissing up against the right side of the green on the par-five fifteenth and exacting revenge against gamblers going for the green in two and bailing right. You need all the club-head speed you can generate the on long fourteenth. You need to cut the ball off the tee of the short seventeenth, and it helps to pound a draw on the par-five fifth.
“Any golf course where you automatically pull out a driver, that’s a weakness in my book,” Spence says. “The twists and turns and the natural topography here make this course very special.”
Using aerial photographs and drawings by Ross from the 1940s, Spence restored the putting surfaces to their original sizes and rebuilt every bunker—placing some in their original spots and taking artist’s license in others to account for modern clubs and balls. He added approximately four hundred yards to the back tees, giving the pros a course of some 7,200 yards and a par of seventy. The course plays to about 6,300 yards and par seventy-one for the members.
“This course really got my attention when Kris did his work,” says Greeson, who began playing golf in 1996 and quickly became immersed in golf’s history and traditions. “This course had great bones before. I told myself in 2007 this place was going to be great. I joined a year later and have loved being here going on ten years now.”
Greeson and Kirven are frequent golf companions, sometimes walking eighteen holes in under three hours late in the afternoons. They have regular groups that play on the weekends, most of the players walking and lugging their bags or pushing trolleys.
“It’s more enjoyable and I definitely play better when I walk,” says Kirven. “It’s more interesting that way. If you hit a bad shot, you’ve got time to get it out of your head. It’s you versus the course.”
We’re enjoying a post-round libation in the member’s bar overlooking the ninth green when twilight descends, one foursome of middle-aged golfers finishing below us just in the nick of time. Two are carrying their bags, two are using push-carts. Kirven tells of having been chairman of the Green Committee a few years back and leading an effort to make push-carts permissible and available, the club previously having a standoffish attitude toward the “trolleys” that are part-and-parcel of golf in the United Kingdom but seen as low-rent in the States.
“Some of the classiest courses in the world, courses with so much history, all have push-carts,” he says. “Why can’t we do that here? Anything to help golfers walk and enjoy the game in its purest form.”
I thank Greeson for his invitation and both of my hosts for an afternoon well spent. My legs are kaput, suitably stressed by the myriad of hills over which Sedgefield is routed, most notably the sharp slopes up to the ninth and eighteenth greens. But as always, it’s a good tired, and we depart into the night with Kirven wondering, “Why would anyone want to ride a cart here?” Particularly when you can walk in well under four hours.
Lee Pace, a Chapel Hill-based writer and author of a dozen golf books, is searching out great walks in Carolinas golf and the interesting people, customs and clubs attendant to the old world elements of the game. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.