When Howard Lee was Secretary of the Department of Natural Resources under N.C. Governor Jim Hunt in 1977, he delivered a speech suggesting that the state of North Carolina should build a hiking trail stretching from the mountains to the Outer Banks. At the time, Lee was in his early forties and remained physically active by hiking and playing tennis.
“Little did I know when I made that speech that today I could say to you there are 1,170 miles of trails that are walkable from Clingman’s Dome at Mount Mitchell to the sand dunes at Manteo,” Lee says. “It’s called the Mountains-to-the-Sea Trail. I try to hike ten to twenty miles somewhere along the trail every week.”
Lee served as mayor of Chapel Hill from 1969-75, worked in the Hunt Administration and later was elected to the North Carolina Senate in 1990, and to that point had never played much golf, jesting with longtime friend and University of North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith that “real men don’t play golf.” But as Lee dove into his legislative work, he noticed a curious thing.
“At certain times of the day, in the afternoons especially, a lot of the leadership would disappear,” Lee says. “And I began to ask, ‘What the hell are these guys doing?’ And that’s when I found out they all go play golf in the afternoon. I quickly learned that if you wanted to be a part of the decision-making process, you’d better be on the golf course. That’s where a lot of decisions were made.”
So Lee called on Ed Ibarguen of the golf staff at Duke University, where Lee had been an administrator from 1966-75, for some lessons. He learned to play, caught the golf bug and a decade later became a charter member at Old Chatham Golf Club, conceived as a golf-only retreat and situated in the center of the triangle formed by Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill. Lee’s interest in hiking and good health and preference to walk when he played golf prompted him to push his fellow founders at Old Chatham to insist that architect Rees Jones build a course that was walkable.
“One of the points that I kept pushing when we were building the course is that it really should be accessible for walkers to the extent that it could be worked out,” Lee says. “And Rees assured us that it would be a good walkable course.”
Lee is four months shy of his eighty-fifth birthday one Saturday in April 2019 as he gives me a tour of the Old Chatham course that opened in early September of 2001 and has evolved into one of the state’s finest places to play, practice, socialize and escape around the game of golf. The club was the brainchild of former IBM executive, UNC Kenan-Flagler dean and investment banker Paul Rizzo, who was miffed one Friday in 1998 when his home course at Governor’s Club just south of Chapel Hill was booked for an outside outing.
“Maybe I’ll just build my own club,” said Rizzo, who insisted that it be an enclave for the golf purist and even told his own son after the club opened that he couldn’t hold a wedding reception there.
A round of golf with Howard Lee can span the conversational scope from his years in politics and education, but it always comes back to golf, learning the game late in life and the pleasure that walking the course has brought him.
“Ed had a challenge with me from the start,” Lee says on one hole. “He had to get the tennis swing out of me.”
Slinging the bag over his shoulder after one tee shot: “I enjoy carrying the bag, so I just think as long as someone my age can walk, it would be a sin not to do it.”
Strolling up to another shot: “I’ve been struck by the number of young people who are riders. They just jump in the cart and off they go. I hate to see that.”
On his surprise at seeing newfangled golf carts equipped with a means to power up a cell phone: “For what good reason would you put a USB charging port in a golf cart? Isn’t the whole point of golf to get away from your cell phone for a few hours?”
And walking up to the fifth green, which sits amid a symphony of white and pink azalea bushes at full springtime bloom, Lee takes it all in: “If you can’t be relaxed looking at this kind of beauty, I don’t know. And that’s the beauty of walking, whether it’s a trail or the golf course, you learn so much when you can commune with nature. There’s always something to appreciate, a bird or flower or something in nature.”
Also in our group is Steve Vanderwoude, who’s ten years younger than Lee and has been a member at Old Chatham for just over a year. Vanderwoude stopped playing golf in his early thirties because of the demands of work, family and graduate school, playing only once a year or so on a special occasion or event. But a friend named Paul Sunu was an Old Chatham member and invited him out to play golf, Sunu walking and Vanderwoude taking a cart.
“I assumed that my bad knees would object to walking,” he says. “But I experimented and was thrilled that I was able to enjoy the game walking and carrying my clubs without pain or injury.”
So Vanderwoude joined Old Chatham and draws a parallel to walking the course to his days living in Southern Pines and, as an avid equestrian, riding the four thousand pristine acres of the Walthour-Moss Foundation preserve in the horse country just to the east of town.
“The course is our private preserve,” he says. “Back in my equestrian days I often would hack out on a horse after a training session. Often I wouldn’t see anyone, and our only company was a hawk. It was peaceful and a wonderful experience. Walking the course at Old Chatham is a similar experience—including seeing the occasional hawk.”
Vanderwoude’s fairly recent return to golf leaves him with a certain sense of innocence. I told him I was writing a book built around clubs and courses that allowed walking and enjoyed a healthy walking culture, and he wrinkled his brow and asked, “You mean there are places that don’t allow walking?” I told him that sadly there were indeed.
He was also somewhat distressed wondering if walkers, by not having access to the divot-fill bottles carried on most golf carts, were doing the golf course a disservice by not filling their divots. So he asked Suno about what he called the “divot-repair conundrum.”“Paul answered quickly that carts do significant damage to the course, but walkers leave no trace,” Vanderwoude says. “That was a very satisfying answer.”
Like his friend Howard Lee, exercise has been a lifelong pursuit to Vanderwoude.
“A round at Old Chatham is about six miles for me, and requires about six to eight hundred calories per round,” he says. “My heart rate varies with the terrain and the temperature, but it gets high enough to qualify as a low-intensity cardio workout.
“So I get to play golf, I get to take a hike in a beautiful wooded setting, often alone, and I get a good workout, all in one!”
The tone for a round at Old Chatham is established by the understated signage just off O’Kelly Chapel Road—a simple wooden sign with nothing but the overlapping “OC” logo. It’s enhanced by the drive up the third-of-a-mile road that winds uphill through a canopy of hardwoods and pines and ends in front of a modest but handsome and well-pointed clubhouse made of shingles, native stone and slate.
“When you go through the gate and you drive up that winding driveway, you’re struck with the serenity and the peace and the quiet,” says Jim Hyler, another founding member and former club president. “There aren’t many like it.”
Rizzo and his early partners were committed to making Old Chatham work without real estate and other recreational amenities, figuring that for most members, this would be a second or third club and they could get their swimming pool, tennis courts, bridge clubs and Easter brunches at a more traditional country club. That gave Jones free run of four hundred acres to find the best eighteen holes. Every hole is tree-lined, but the corridors are generous. Old Chatham converted its greens to ultradwarf Bermuda in 2012, providing members and guests outstanding putting surfaces even in the hottest months of the year. The club has hosted several notable competitions, including the 2009 N.C. Amateur and 2014 N.C. Mid-Am, and this August will be the venue for the U.S. Senior Amateur Championship.
“The course is reminiscent of the days when tee and green sites were natural and little earth was moved,” Jones says. “Having four hundred acres enabled us to find the best natural land. It’s a classic layout on a really good piece of property. We were able to put the holes where they fit because we had so much acreage.”
Dr. George Leight Jr. was a surgeon at Duke and a member for more than a quarter of a century at Hope Valley Country Club in Durham. He won thirteen club championships at Hope Valley and almost daily in the summer after leaving the hospital would lug his bag around however many holes he could get in before dark. As high in aesthetic value as Hope Valley ranks (1926 Donald Ross course routed among handsome homes and leafy avenues) the crunch on tee times and the requisite sounds of a neighborhood made the idea of Old Chatham appealing. Leight joined the club and became its green committee chairman in 2006.
“I loved the thought of a nice walk in the woods undisturbed by someone’s leaf blower or lawn mower, that there were no houses lining the course or streets running through it,” he says.
Interesting that Howard Lee, Steve Vanderwoude and George Leight are all seventy years or better and show no signs of capitulating to the ills of machinated golf—even if you can power your iPhone between shots.
Old Chatham Golf Club is one of eighteen clubs, resorts and public courses to be profiled in an upcoming book by Lee Pace to be published by UNC Press. Publication date late 2020.