A 1924 land plan drawn by Olmsted Brothers for a new golf club and residential community north of Charleston included thirty-six holes of golf and some two hundred residential lots lining the fairways. The first course opened in 1925 under the architectural auspices of Seth Raynor and was a triumph from the beginning, Raynor saying he had been “charmed” by the land and the combination of sandy loam and sweeping dunes certain to “make one fall in love with golf.”
But then there was that little matter of Oct. 29, 1929, a twelve percent implosion of the stock market, and the Great Depression was on.
I looked around one February 2018 morning at what had actually materialized over ninety years at Yeamans Hall Club: A mile-long entry drive made of crushed rock that gently meanders amid the live oaks and pines; eighteen holes wrapped around a tidy campus of club buildings designed by architect James Gamble Rogers; thirty-five cottages tucked within the trees and foliage, well removed from the course; the waters of Goose Creek kissing up to holes three and eight to the northeast boundary; and a course with Raynor’s signature eccentricities—the square-cornered greens, a “thumbprint” in the middle of one green, the Alps and Redan and Bottle template holes.
“Maybe it’s best those plans never materialized,” I suggest to the golfer walking alongside me down the first fairway.
“Exactly right,” says Doug Dunnan, the club president the last fourteen years. “And it’s our job to see it stays this way. We are lucky the initial members were men of means, so they were able to go ahead and build the houses and use them. The club did sell some property across the street from the front gate, but it’s never had to do anything dramatic to raise money.”
Adds Charlton deSaussure Jr., a second-generation member and the club historian: “Some old-timers have said that whatever success Yeamans enjoys now is the result of the complete failure of what was anticipated in the very beginning. I am glad it turned out as it did, although I’m sure there was some very anxious moments for the club organizers way back when.”
Eighteen January days in my home of Chapel Hill were below normal temperatures, and we were hit with two substantial snowfalls—one of them a dozen inches, and two weekend golf availabilities were doused with rain. So by late February I was more than ready to accept the invitation from Yeamans member and retired Charlotte banking executive Mac Everett to come play the revered Lowcountry golf course.
“If there’s a better walking course around, I’m not sure where it is,” Everett says as he greets me outside the Golf House, the building that houses a golf shop and modest kitchen and grill room. Our clubs are taken by an attendant and strapped onto a trolley, the preferred method of walking at Yeamans.
“I’ve never understood why push-carts are frowned upon at a lot of clubs in the States,” Everett says.
“They’re everywhere in the U.K. They’re great as we get a little older and still want the benefits and enjoyment of walking without the strain of carrying the bag.”
We enter the Golf House and have a quick bite of lunch—the club’s signature chicken-salad sandwich, kicked up a notch with a subtle measure of hot sauce. Then it’s on to the practice field, as it’s known at Yeamans, and then to the putting green and the first tee—each of those areas all tied together on a compact, seamless piece of ground.
“I love the walk from the putting green to the first tee,” Everett says, then goes on to explain some of the changes made to the course during a 2017 restoration directed by architect Jim Urbina. “We lowered a number of tees, so everything flows together so much better now. Before, we had a handful of tees that were perched up and looked a little out of character.”
We played two rounds over two days, me pushing a trolley one round and then lugging my bag on my shoulder the second. The trolley had its plusses—convenient accouterments for a scorecard and a writer’s note-taking, a slot for a water bottle and a little less physical effort. But I still preferred carrying my bag because I could navigate with it anywhere I wanted, i.e., walk up on a green, repair a ball mark, spot my ball and walk to the far side of the green and set my bag down. And you miss one of the true pleasures of walking golf—hearing the irons gently click against one another as you stroll down the fairway.
What can you say about playing golf at Yeamans, ranked eighty-seventh by Golf Digest and sixtieth by GOLF in their respective 2017-18 lists of the top hundred courses in America? Certainly that it's a pleasure, for starters.
It’s wide and there’s little rough. “We joke you can go all summer without losing a ball,” Everett says.
But at par-seventy, those 6,300 yards are plenty from the member tees for those of us who don’t generate hypersonic club head speed.
You need a surgeon’s touch to navigate the greens, many of them with subtle vertical spines separating one side from the other. The putting surface of the picturesque par-three third hole features a “bath tub” or “thumbprint” depression in the center—lucky if the hole is in the middle as balls can ride the slopes into birdie territory, not so fortunate if it’s tucked somewhere onto the “horseshoe” perimeter.
Raynor was trained as a land surveyor and fell into architecture quite by accident, having been hired in 1907 by Charles Blair Macdonald to bring his technical skills to the construction of what would become the National Golf Links on the far east end of Long Island. Macdonald in the early 1900s believed America totally lacking in courses the ilk of the great ones in Great Britain, so his plan was to replicate some of the memorable holes he’d played there—the Road Hole at St. Andrews, for example, the Redan from North Berwick and the Alps from Prestwick.
Raynor carried that philosophy forward when he began building courses on his own in 1915, and he had hit his stride in the mid-1920s when he designed Yeamans and another gem ten miles away, the Country Club of Charleston (site of the 2019 U.S. Women’s Open).
Walking both of these relics is a pleasure, as a coastal environment ensures only modest hills to climb, and the 1920s era was well before developers stretched courses out to silly lengths to accommodate real estate and wetland obstacles. At Yeamans you can saunter along and notice all the little nuances—the green shapes and contours, the articulations in the fairways, the deep and sometimes elongated bunkers, the quirks like the “Dragon’s Teeth” mounds beside the twelfth green. Trees were removed in the 2017 restoration from behind the second green, which sits on a ridge, and you get a cool infinity effect walking up toward the green—something you’d never notice flying past in a claptrap machine.
Yeamans Hall ascribes to the “less is more” philosophy of course maintenance—groom the premium playing spaces to a fare-thee-well but have less of those acres and leave the extremities to their own devices. Superintendent Brooks Riddle and his staff maintain about sixty acres of turf and have four or five varieties of grass in the roughs, strains that are indigenous to the land.
“I’ve always loved the rustic look,” Riddle says. “I think that’s golf. It doesn’t look totally manufactured. You get to the heart of golf with this look. There obviously are some great golf courses that are wall-to-wall Bermuda and you’re maintaining 150 acres of green grass. But I believe that with what’s coming in the future with the cost and availability of water and the cost of labor and chemicals, this is the look.”
The founders of Yeamans Hall were affluent gentlemen from the north, the location deemed ideal after first traveling to Florida and, one of the early officers saying, finding the atmosphere there “enervating and debilitating.” This would be their “winter mecca.” Sounds spot-on to me, though thankfully there was that slight detour from the original drawings.
Golf writer Lee Pace is touring the Carolinas to find the best walking courses and the most vibrant old-school values for a book to be published by the University of North Carolina Press. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.