This week I ventured down memory lane into my early days covering golf from 1980-84 for the Durham Morning Herald, lugging my sticks around the venerable layout at Hillandale Golf Course. This is no-frills daily fee golf, a $25 tariff to walk on a weekend a course with a rich history that dates back more than a century.
Durham business magnate John Sprunt Hill first played golf in Pinehurst in the early 1900s and came home to build nine rudimentary holes on dairy land west of Durham. There was a valley running through the area and a stream bisecting the course, so Hill named it “Hill ’n Dale,” which would eventually be condensed into the course’s name, “Hillandale.” Donald Ross designed a more sophisticated layout by 1915.
“It is cool and restful in appearance and standing on the crest of a hill it overlooks hundreds of acres of beautiful landscape,” the Durham Morning Herald said in reporting the opening of the Dutch Colonial style clubhouse.
The course had various financial issues over the years, and in 1961 it arrived in its present iteration in a slightly different footprint after a new layout was built by George Cobb. Before the advent of the big-box retailer and the Internet, Hillandale was the place in central North Carolina to buy golf clubs, one nook crammed with the latest metal wood from TaylorMade, another cranny with sets of used irons you could have for a song. The golf shop, located just off I-85 west of downtown Durham, was easily accessible for locals and out-of-towners, golfers coming to shop for new clubs, chew the fat and play golf. Head pro Luke Veasey generated upwards of $1 million in annual sales and earned numerous PGA Merchandiser of the Year awards before retiring in the late 1980s.
“Hillandale was the most diverse place you could imagine,” says Zack Veasey (no relation to Luke), who worked in the golf shop as a teenager in the 1970s and later replaced Luke as director of golf and general manager before going off to other pursuits in the golf equipment business. “I would sell golf clubs to a doctor from Hope Valley one day and to the mechanic who fixed his Mercedes the next.”
Hillandale was also the home of the Herald-Sun Tournament, which back in the mid- to late-1900s was the U.S. Open of the local golf community. The tournament was a week-long affair held in early July, when the tobacco and textile plants shut down for vacation, with a 224-player field winnowing its way over the week through match play to a Sunday showdown in 12 flights, with hundreds of locals parking along the bordering roads and planting lawn chairs to consume the birdies, cold beer and sundresses.
Hillandale’s bottom line hiccupped significantly during the 2007-09 financial imbroglio, but a new owner partnership that stepped up in late 2011 comprised of Director of Golf Karl Kimball and South American businessman Juliano Hannud has given the operation new stability and direction. Hannud learned of Hillandale on visits to bring his son to Duke Children’s Hospital for leukemia treatments, and one of the course’s missions today is to provide recreation and outreach to youngsters and their families at Duke. Another of the course’s many philanthropic endeavors is Kimball playing 24 hours of golf on Patriot Golf Day each Labor Day, with proceeds going to fund the educations for children of deceased service men.
My group Sunday morning included C.J. Paschall, a 21-year-old from Chapel Hill who is a student and aspiring varsity golfer at N.C. Central University and works part-time at Hillandale. He got his start eight years ago in the First Tee, a national program designed to introduce and promote golf to youngsters, particularly those who might otherwise have limited access and resources to play.
Paschall has some history at Hillandale, remembering as a boy coming with his father and riding the course and hitting some shots on the practice range. He was intrigued with Tiger Woods’ style and meteoric drives and eagerly jumped at the idea about eight years ago of learning to play. His game has evolved and now he’s helping teach other kids in the First Tee in Durham and Chapel Hill.
“If not for the First Tee, I’m not sure where I’d be today,” C.J. says.
“Golf definitely has made me a more patient person, and it’s boosted my confidence. I was a bigger kid and would get picked on and made fun of. Golf built me up, gave me something I could be good at. It’s been a huge part of my life, and now I want to give back. I look in the kids’ faces and see a little bit of myself.”
C.J. (the appellation stands for Carl Jr., after his father, who died in 2010) is ebullient and friendly and converses easily among older men. “He’s like the Mayor of Hillandale,” says Wayne House, one of C.J.’s mentors in the First Tee and another in our group setting off at 8:20.
Sauntering around Hillandale was quite pleasant, the course measuring 6,300 yards from the back tees and greens and tees in close proximity. There are no arduous climbs, but you do deal with the urban setting of crossing Hillandale Road and Sprunt Avenue several times and settling over a chip shop by the seventh green with buzzing interstate traffic just a flip wedge away. One of Kimball’s first initiatives in early 2012 was closing the course down and rebuilding the greens with Bermuda grass, and the greens putt well and not too fast.
“I love it here,” C.J. says. “Everyone is so accepting and friendly. The course presents a challenge without completely destroying you. On some courses you might hit too far right, and you’re not going to find it. Here, you will—maybe in another fairway.”
One of my favorite holes three decades ago was the par-four 11th, a 392-yard hole with the ubiquitous Ellerbe Creek (a.k.a. “the Ditch”) running diagonally across the fairway. The green is elevated and quite narrow. The oldsters in the group drive short of the hazard, but C.J. waits until the group ahead is on the green before loading his driver and aiming to clear the hazard.
He takes one of his “Caddyshack Gopher” head covers off his driver and eyes the shot.
“I call him Ali,” he says of the head cover. “This club can float like a butterfly and sting like a bee if I catch it just right.”
Sure enough, C.J. cracks a rocket that soars high into the sky, never a doubt about it clearing the trouble. It comes to rest some 25 yards short of the green.
“That’s just a kid enjoying the game,” says the 29-year-old House, a lifelong golfer and financial advisor who works with the First Tee because he believes in spreading the values that golf represents. “I’ve played that hole with C.J. five or six times and I bet he’s gone for it every time. He has the confidence he can clear it and the confidence he’ll make up for the lost strokes a couple holes later if it doesn’t pan out.”
Indeed, Wayne says as we’re walking to the next tee, “Maybe we should all try that more often.”
Though my Hillandale memory bank is quite pleasant from three decades ago, the operation is superior today on many fronts. For one, I remember zapping gross hot dogs in plastic wrappers at the turn in 1982. Last Sunday I enjoyed a fresh hamburger prepared by pleasant ladies in the grill as I took a spot on a picnic table outside to reflect on four hours very well spent.
Next week: Just over six miles to the south of Hillandale on a winding and picturesque Dover Road is the grand old white clubhouse that is home of Hope Valley Country Club. More memories and another great walk then.