The first tee at Charlotte Country Club sits three miles to the east as the crow flies from the intersection of Trade and Tryon Streets at the heart of the Carolinas’ biggest city. But because the club’s founders had the good sense and fortune to acquire enough land to have accommodated nine more holes that never materialized, this club in contrast to many other early 1900s, in-town clubs with Donald Ross-designed layouts has plenty of elbow room. There are houses visible only along the right side of the first two holes, the rest of the layout with a verdant buffer of leafy hardwoods. There is even a fifteen-acre practice facility with two teeing grounds and a short-game area.
“About ninety percent of our play is members, so when guests come they always remind us of how blessed we are to have what looks to be a very remote setting in the middle of the city,” says Andrew Shuck, the club’s director of golf since 2011. “It’s so cool to peek over the trees and see the skyline.”
My host and playing partner today is Kitty Garner, whose golf bonafides feature multiple ladies club championships and a single-digit handicap. Her passion for walking harkens to her childhood in Knoxville in the 1970s, her family living across the street from Cherokee Country Club, a 1907 Donald Ross-designed course. She often played with her mother, a club champion, and her brother, a year older, everyone always walking.
“My Mom never let us take a golf cart,” she says. “Of course, that ticked me off, because as a kid you always wanted to take a cart. But Mom’s insistence made a definite impression on me, and walking the course came to be my preference as well. Ultimately, I would not take a cart unless forced to do so. The older I’ve gotten, the less completely adverse I am. Sometimes late in the day, I’ll play tennis and then slip out on a cart and play a few holes before dark.
“But I’d certainly much rather walk. I think it’s the way the game was meant to be played.”
Once she was invited to play “speed golf” with a friend at CCC. They teed off at 8 a.m. (after getting the okay from the greenkeeper), jogged the course, played as fast as they could, never took the pin out and finished in one hour, thirty-seven minutes. Kitty shot seventy-five.
When the first of her four children came along in the mid-1990s, she played a few times with a baby jogger. ”That raised a few eyebrows, I’m sure,” she says with a smile.
And when they got old enough for school, she’d get them out the door, dart to the club and play eighteen holes in about two hours, always on foot.
“Coming out early and walking was like finding peace for me,” she says. “I’d get the first tee time and walk really fast. I’d finish in a couple of hours and be ready for the next car pool. I didn’t have four hours to play. But I needed that quiet time.”
Kitty looks around at the landscape in front of her, the holes accented to the edges by acres of brown and wispy Virginia bluestem grass, century-old oak trees providing aiming spots for tee shots, the teeing grounds framed by solitary wooden benches. There are a limited number of paved cart paths positioned only in high-traffic areas.
“I like that the course isn’t covered with cart paths,” she says. “They put them only where absolutely necessary. The course has such a wonderful pastoral feel to it. And then you remember you’re right in the middle of this city that keeps growing and growing. The view from twelve tee back to the city is really special.”
Kitty and her husband Ted, himself an avid golfer and investment banker in Charlotte, were undergrads at Davidson College and then went to grad school at the University of Virginia, Ted receiving an MBA and Kitty a law degree. They worked in New York for several years but moved back south in 1993. They joined Charlotte Country Club in 1994, and the next year had the first of four children.
By sheer coincidence, when I was writing a centennial book for the Carolinas Golf Association from 2007-09, I hired a photographer to travel to a dozen courses around the Carolinas and take beauty shots of the golf and fun shots of random golfers enjoying their experiences. One that we used in the book showed a mother and her son carrying their golf bags and playing at Charlotte Country Club. But I never knew their names.
It turns out that woman was Kitty and her son, Teddy, at the time nine years old. She looks at the photo a dozen years later.
“That’s a very happy picture,” she says. “Golf has been a great family game for us. When Teddy and I played, we always walked. It was a great way for us to connect. I think golf is such a wonderful game for a young man to play. You learn etiquette, manners, discipline, integrity. The ‘foot wedge’ is always available if you want to try to use it. But you learn that’s not what you do.”
These age-old values of golf and its original intent as a physical examination of shot-making and endurance skills remain alive and well at Charlotte, first founded as Mecklenburg Country Club in 1910 with nine holes thought to have been designed at least in part by one of the club’s founders, Fred Laxton Sr. Ross traveled from Pinehurst and revised the first nine in 1913 and added nine more in 1915, and the club’s name changed to Charlotte Country Club in 1917. A 1923 course routing shows that sixteen holes are essentially intact, and before his death in 1948, Ross drew plans for a third nine holes. Robert Trent Jones in the early 1950s supervised new positioning and routing of holes sixteen and seventeen to accommodate the new nine, but the club instead devoted financial resources to improving the tennis facility and never built the additional nine. That acreage is now part of the practice complex.
“We’re unique for an in-town course,” says Lee Keesler, who first played the course as a nine-year-old, has been a lifelong member and now is chairman of the Green and Grounds Committee. “I’m familiar with other clubs that are a little space-constrained. We have ample room for the course and a magnificent practice campus. People are practicing more today than ever. We need more space and more turf than ten years ago, even five years ago.”
The golf course itself is one of the best in the Carolinas and has hosted the U.S. Amateur (1972), U.S. Senior Amateur (2000), the U.S. Women’s Amateur (2010) and U.S. Mid-Amateur (2018) as well as eight Carolinas Amateur Championships. Briar Creek and its tributaries offer one notable feature, posing second-shot carry challenges on the par-four eighth and thirteenth holes, and a spin-off pond stretches the distance from tee to green on the oft-photographed par-three eleventh.
The club made a concerted effort a dozen years ago to “de-clutter” the look of the course, removing ball-washers, signs and some trash cans and reducing the number of tees to the old-school set of back (6,763), middle (6,159) and forward (5,102). There is a “hybrid” course at 6,493 yards that designates each hole as using either the back or middle tees. Wooden benches are placed by the maintenance staff each morning to help golfers find that day’s position.
“We wanted to present a more minimalistic, classic, clean look,” Shuck says. “Before, we had as many as six sets of tees. We now send golfers out with a towel in their cart or on their bags if they want one. They can keep their ball clean without having ball-washers everywhere.”
The club is committed to allowing members and guests to enjoy this environment by whatever means they choose—walk and carry, pull a trolley, take a caddie or ride a cart. The only rule is that on Saturday mornings, you either take a caddie or a cart, a gesture toward supporting the caddie program that still retains a dozen or so loopers on a regular basis. The club recently joined the Evans Scholars Par Club program and now has three students working toward carrying a hundred rounds or more over their high school careers and earning a college scholarship.
“I have never had a CEO or CFO ask me to promote riding to generate cart revenue,” Shuck says. “Whatever the members desire, it’s our job to accommodate them. Caddie, carry, push or ride—let people do what they want to do. It’s important to the game. Caddies are a treasure to the club. We embrace that tradition.”
Caddie master Mack Ferguson is eighty-three years old and first started carrying golf clubs in 1949.
“We could make four dollars a day carrying two bags,” he says. “All the members had these big, heavy bags. Caddies today wouldn’t carry them. They’d say, ‘Get me something lighter.’ But we were happy to have them. It paid better than what I had been doing, working at a barber shop and the A&P store.
“Everyone walked back then. Then the golf cart came along and put a lot of us out of work. We’ve got twelve or thirteen here on a regular basis. We’re about the only club in town that still maintains a caddie program.”
Caddie rounds were up from seven percent in 2017 to thirteen percent through 2018, and total walking rounds now measure fifty percent after registering forty percent one year before.
Keesler is a third-generation member, worked summers on the maintenance staff as a teenager and played golf at Duke University in the early 1970s.
“I really don’t like riding,” he says. “The physical activity is such a fundamental part of the game to me. I’ve traditionally taken a caddie, but I’ve also carried my bag and enjoyed getting into the pull-cart. Anything that allows me to walk works. Walking these grounds—what could be better?”
Kitty and I play eighteen holes in exactly three hours, that twosome in a cart behind us left in our dust by the fourth hole. I thank her for her hospitality and good company and ask when her son, a rising senior at the University at Virginia, will be back in town from a summer job in New York. Mandatory for my book is replicating that photo we took a dozen years ago—mom and son enjoying the walk, the golf, the companionship and certainly the venue.
Charlotte Country Club 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. Up next: Old Town Club in Winston-Salem.