The rain fell in barrels across central North Carolina in 2018 and the first days of 2019. Lowe’s was selling do-it-yourself ark kits and Amazon was shipping snorkels and flippers into the thousands. Some said the area from Pinehurst northward toward Raleigh got more rain in a record-setting year than Seattle ever gets. In fact, the rainfall registered at Raleigh-Durham International Airport in 2018 was twenty-five percent above normal and double the standard over the month of December. It turns out that Hurricane Florence and Tropical Storm Michael back in the fall were just appetizers to the near daily deluge of rain the state received as one year folded into the next.
“Well, the Dogwood Course drains pretty well. With some sun and a little wind, we should be okay,” Bill Clement offered from Pinehurst on the first Friday night of 2019 when I phoned to see if our game at the Country Club of North Carolina for Saturday morning was still on. “The sand makes a big difference.”
I had just played golf on a pleasant New Year’s Day, but on the red clay base of UNC Finley in Chapel Hill it was a mucky slog. Lift, clean and blow-dry all day. It’s amazing how much difference seventy-five miles to the south can make in soil structure. After all, it was the sand base at Pinehurst way back in 1900 that reminded the Scotsman Donald Ross of his homeland, leading him to accept a job offer from the Tufts family to set up shop from fall to spring and run their fledgling golf operation at Pinehurst.
“Ross was particularly attracted to the soil conditions here, as they reminded him of the old links land at home,” Richard Tufts said years later. “Even our native wire grass seemed to remind him of the whins he knew in Scotland.”
Ross had been dead more than a decade in the early 1960s when a Raleigh accountant named Dick Urquhart hatched the idea of creating a private club on this piece of land tucked between Pinehurst, Southern Pines and Aberdeen. While the Sandhills golf community had been built since the turn of the 20th century on resort golf and semi-private courses, Urquhart and founding members Skipper Bowles, Griswold Smith and James Poyner believed the state needed a private club centrally located that could draw members from Raleigh to Greensboro to Charlotte and beyond.
“What could be better than a good club centrally located for nearly all of us, ideally suited for golf, horses, hunting or just plain socializing?” Urquhart asked in a letter to charter members.
The course opened in 1963 with Willard Byrd providing the master land plan and course routing and Ellis Maples, son of Pinehurst greenkeeper and construction chief Frank Maples, shaping the fairways, bunkers and greens. The Dogwood Course, as it would come to be known when a sister course followed in the late 1970s and was christened the Cardinal Course, was one the original members of Golf Digest’s 100 Greatest Golf Courses and was site of the 1971 and 1972 Liggett & Myers Match Play Championship on the PGA Tour (won by Dewitt Weaver and Jack Nicklaus) and the 1980 U.S. Amateur (won by Hal Sutton).
The Dogwood Course was updated in 2015-16 by architect Kris Spence with Champion bermuda putting surfaces; four greens rebuilt to improve location, contours and drainage; new bunkers, expanded tees and trees winnowed for better sunlight and airflow where appropriate; and most importantly during this ultra-wet period, a new drainage system with four inches worth of organic material stripped off and replaced by a sand base and Zeon zoysia fairways.
“Dogwood had been one of the top courses in the Southeast for half a century. We needed to set it up for the next fifty years,” longtime Director of Golf Jeff Dotson says as we set off on our 9:47 starting time. “You can see today what the renovation has meant. Before, a lot of holes on the back nine would have been a mess. But today they’re playable.”
I had come to the Sandhills to play golf with the seventy-seven-year-old Clement because a member at Grandfather Golf & Country Club in Linville had alerted me to Clement’s stature as one of the most prolific walking golfers in the Carolinas. Clement is a former walkon quarterback on the mid-1960s era University of Arkansas football teams coached by Frank Broyles that included Jerry Jones, Jimmy Johnson, Ken Hatfield and a freshman team coach named Barry Switzer. He spent sixteen years in Ohio with Owens Corning, then moved to Southern Pines in 1983 to open a financial services firm.
“I decided I didn’t want a lifetime of midwest winters,” he said. “I moved south and haven’t looked back.”
Clement is a member of three clubs in the Carolinas, all of them with strong walking cultures—CCNC, Grandfather and Secession along the South Carolina coast, and had earlier joined another new Pinehurst-area club in the 1990s when it was touted as a walking club but turned out to be more residential oriented—and with the requisite long hikes from green to tee.
“I love walking for a couple of reasons,” Clement says. “I love the exercise and you can see the golf course much better. And it’s more fun walking with your buddies. I’ll keep walking as long as I can. I’ve got a sore knee that dates back to a football injury, but it’s manageable. In the summer when it gets really hot, sometimes I’ll walk nine and ride nine.”
At six-foot-three inches, Clement has a long gait and is part of a regular group of guys at CCNC that play regularly at 10 a.m. There’s no wasted time or wasted motion. They play ready golf, are quick to get yardages with their rangefinders and don’t find it necessary to analyze a put from 360 degrees. Sometimes they’ll get around on foot in three hours and a half.
“Bill is definitely an inspiration,” says Paul Zizzi, a regular walker at Grandfather. “Not only does he walk and carry his bag, but he’s in the weight room working out religiously. I love playing with Bill, because I can talk to him while we walk. And believe me, he’s got some great stories.”
And many of them are from his travels around the Carolinas, the country and the world playing many of the finest courses.
“People ask, ‘Which between Grandfather, CCNC and Secession is your favorite?’” he says. “That’s like asking which of your children you love the most. All of them are different and each one is special.”
CCNC and the Dogwood Course are special for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the club is the granddaddy of the gated community in the Carolinas built around at least one golf course. It’s also a club that has been proactive in allowing walking at all times and squelching one movement in the early 2000s of golfers who regularly rode suggesting that walkers be charged a “trail fee” commensurate with the cart revenue the club was losing. The club also allowed use of “trolleys,” which are commonplace in the United Kingdom but frowned upon at many American clubs.
“We developed a policy that said we think walking is a part of the game and should be allowed without any additional fee,” says Dr. John Ellis, the club president at the time. “As a doctor, obviously walking is the right thing to do for your health. Plus it’s more enjoyable that way. Allowing walking at all times and giving members the option to use a trolley better met the needs of our members, which is what a private club is supposed to do anyway.”
Today nearly one quarter of all rounds at CCNC are walkers, and the Dogwood Course offers one of the most winsome strolls in the Carolinas. The elevations and distances are modest, save the final hike up the hill on the par-five eighteenth hole. The par-three third is thought to be the oldest island green in the Carolinas, and the back nine is built around Watson’s Lake, with seven of nine holes playing to some degree alongside or over appendages of the lake.
“The No. 1 thing we’ve heard over the years is the beauty of the course, particularly the back nine,” says Dotson. “And it’s not just beautiful, it’s nine really good holes of golf.”
Clement, Dotson and I are joined on this sunny Saturday by Gene Upchurch, a retired government relations executive who moved from Raleigh to the CCNC community two years ago. The four of us (and all aged sixty and above) played eighteen holes in three hours and forty-seven minutes—at a comfortable pace between a sprint and a saunter. My GPS said I walked nearly six miles and burned 664 calories.
After too many Christmas cookies and a sodden month rife with umbrellas and galoshes, it was like manna from heaven to get outside on a wonderful golf course. I caught too many shots a little fat as I’m wont to do in the winter doldrums but did so at least with the sun in my eyes.
The Dogwood Course at CCNC is one of eighteen premier courses that Chapel Hill-based writer Lee Pace is featuring in a new book celebrating the joys of walking golf. Look for the book from UNC Press in 2020.