Last week I had the pleasure of playing two mainstays in the Durham golf community—on Sunday at Hillandale, a daily-fee course scrunched between the busy Hillsborough Road complex to the south and I-85 to the north, and Wednesday at Hope Valley, a club tucked into a leafy neighborhood of streets with dignified names like Dover, Exeter, Eton, Rugby and Cornwall.
Among the riches of the North Carolina golf landscape is a preponderance of private, in-town clubs at or near the century mark in age with the indelible design stamp of Donald J. Ross—from Cape Fear in Wilmington on the coast to Biltmore Forest in the Asheville mountains. Most are in old neighborhoods inhabited by the town’s skippers of commerce and the professions. They tend to max out at around 6,500 yards or so but they’re never a pushover, Ross having seamlessly infused them with devilish greens, perplexing chipping areas, tight landing areas on short holes and a handful of stout uphill approaches in every eighteen.
Hope Valley is exhibit A, having opened in 1926 as the lynchpin to a club and neighborhood designed to attract doctors and other high-ranking academic types from Johns Hopkins and other points in the northeast to Duke University and its new hospital and medical school, some five miles to the north. Ross was retained by developers R.J. Mebane and W.E. Sharpe to build the golf course on land parceled together from dairy farms. Aymar Embury II, the architect who’d designed the stately Mid Pines Inn and the grand Weymouth House in Southern Pines, was hired to create the clubhouse, which sat on a high point overlooking the valley where the first and tenth holes would run.
“Hope Valley is Ross at the peak of his power,” architect Brian Silva says.
Silva was hired in 2003 to lead a restoration that included opening the course to sunlight with removal of several hundred trees and replacing bunkers filled in over the years. ”The routing is perfect—it was the one thing that wasn’t tampered with over the years," he says. "You don’t see an uncomfortable hole out there, not a hole out of place.”
The club has been host to six Carolinas Golf Association championships and the 2009 and 2015 Western Women’s Golf Association Junior. It was the venue for the short-lived Durham Open on the early PGA Tour. Byron Nelson won the competition in 1945, the fourth of what would become a record-setting streak of eleven straight wins, and Frank Stranahan won a second Durham Open later that year in an odd tour schedule obviously affected by World War II. Doug Sanders was eighteen when he won the Jaycees International Junior Championship at Hope Valley in 1951, and Mike Souchak was a Hope Valley resident and member after playing for Duke in the early 1950s and graduating to the pro tour.
“This course has stood the test of time,” says superintendent David Lee, who’s been the agronomic guardian of the course for just over a decade. “The course record of sixty-three was first set in 1973. That says something about how well it’s stood up to technological advances. The course forces you to hit so many shots—uphill, downhill, sidehill. You can hit down the middle and the next shot the ball’s six inches below your feet.”
I joined Lee and two other golfers for a late-afternoon round in early August, all of us carrying and lugging and directing considerable invectives toward our pantywaist companions in an earlier foursome who opted for those ungodly machines. It seems particularly sacrilegious on such pristine property to pound the turf with a thousand pounds of metal, but what do I know?
Though Hope Valley was conceived as a residential neighborhood, the land planners and accountants had yet to seize on the idea of stretching the holes out in order to squeeze in another “golf course view” building lot between greens and tees. So it’s a compact journey but one not without its physical challenges. The land is quite rolling, with 14 greens posing some degree of elevation and the fourth, sixth, seventh, 11th, 12th, 15th, 17th and 18th all decidedly uphill on the approach shot.
The fairways are wonderful to walk and from which to play iron shots, firm but with enough grass that you can make crisp contact. Lee believes in “less is more” where water and chemicals are concerned, and the fact the club is on city water and can ring up a bill for half a million gallons of water over one night’s worth of watering further prompts a conservative approach to dousing the grass.
“We try a minimalist approach,” Lee says. “We try to be good stewards of the environment. Our membership likes it firm and fast. That’s the way traditional golf is played, the ball bounces around, you run it up on the green, there no real forced carries. You have an opportunity to hit lot of different kind of shots.
“This club didn’t have irrigation until 1997, so it went some seventy years without water in the fairways. That’s part of the history of the club—let the ball bounce and run and play out. Hit it and go find it.”
The course plays 6,700 yards from the back tees with a par of seventy, and its six-year-old Champion Bermuda greens are maintained at a pretty quick gait. For the members the course plays in the comfortable 6,200-yard range.
Hope Valley was at the leading edge of mid-Atlantic clubs tiring of the annual July and August battle to keep bent greens healthy and reasonably quick, so it converted in the summer of 2011. Six years later, there aren’t many bent courses left, with Pinehurst No. 2 going to Bermuda immediately after the 2014 U.S. Open and Eagle Point in Wilmington having dug its bent greens up this summer after the Wells Fargo Championship completed its one-off run in May.
“We’re no longer worrying about survivability in the summer,” says Lee. “Now we focus on improving the quality of the surfaces every day. We’re a summertime club and our members wanted firmer, faster conditions. Before, we couldn’t do that in the summer on bent greens.”
The course demands a battery of shots—a long, uphill approach on four and a surgically spun wedge on the tiny seventh, a cut off the tee on twelve and a draw on sixteen. Walking up the eleventh fairway, a par-four supposedly lauded by both Nelson and Ben Hogan, you look for vestiges of the creek that once crossed the hole and then ran along the right side until it was filled in by a green committee chairman who tended to slice the ball. A pleasant stroll reveals interesting little touches to the neighborhood—like the house to the left of twelve built by former Blue Devil basketball coach Eddie Cameron from the brownish stone typical of Duke’s campus to the miniature “doll house” replica of the Colonial Revival house originally built by Hubert Teer further up the same hole.
The history and the character seem to meld on the sixteenth, a dogleg left par-four that violates one of the supposed tenets of good golf architecture—the fairway cants from left to right in the elbow, away from the turn.
“I guess that horse could only move so much dirt,” Lee says.
We agree that the problem is solved by simply hitting a nice draw, the better to hold the slope of the ground. Certainly one of the first-world problems encountered up close, personal and on foot at
Stories like this extolling the great golf in the Carolinas and clubs with healthy walking cultures will be profiled by Chapel Hill-based writer Lee Pace in a forthcoming book to be published by UNC Press. Write him at email@example.com with ideas and comments.