Old Town Club in Winston-Salem was designed and built by Perry Maxwell in the late 1930s, two decades before motorized carts became a blight on the American golf landscape. These grounds were lovingly and reverently restored in 2013 by architect and native son Bill Coore, who would sooner chug kerosene than ride a golf cart. Coore used to walk and play this course frequently during his days at Wake Forest University in the late 1960s, and the more he studied the placement and shapes of the design elements, the more he became fascinated with the art and science of what would in time become his calling.
“I’ve always said that any serious student of golf course architecture must first go to Old Town to see how Mister Maxwell laid out the course over such an extraordinary piece of hilly terrain,” Coore says. “Given the hole-variety and the fact that it’s still very walkable, that’s quite an accomplishment. Old Town has always served as one of the cornerstones for my early understanding of what extraordinary golf architecture is all about.”
It’s the foundation of why he always walks while working—whether over the volcanic ash of the Hawaiian Islands (where he and partner Ben Crenshaw designed the Kapalua Plantation course), the jagged coastline of Nova Scotia (where they built Cabot Cliffs) or the Sandhills of North Carolina (Dormie Club and the restoration of Pinehurst No. 2) that he gives only a cursory glance to a topographical map before working a site.
“You have to feel the land through your feet,” he says. “The topos will tell you a lot of things, but they won’t tell you the feel of the place. You have to walk a site and experience it, walk it up and down, get a feel for the way the golf course will circulate. Sometimes a map will appear totally uninteresting, but you get to the site and find all kinds of interesting features that didn’t show on the map.”
Which is why it’s delightful in 2019 to find such a healthy walking culture at Old Town, a club that opened in 1939 after a man named Charles Babcock, a stockbroker who was married to Mary Reynolds Babcock, believed Winston-Salem needed a second private club to complement Forsyth Country Club, which opened in 1913. Forsyth is the proud repository of an excellent Ross design (with some early holes by A.W. Tillinghast and recent restorative work by Kris Spence) and sits just three miles from Old Town. You’d have to go to Pinehurst to find another example in the Carolinas of two “Golden Age” courses of such quality so close together.
One week in June 2019 I visited Old Town late on a Thursday afternoon to join a regular group of businessmen and professionals who tee off at 5:30 for nine holes followed by a beverage and fellowship.
“If you’re a stickler for good golf, we’re not the group for you,” says Ernie White, who spearheads what used to be called “Walking Wednesdays” until a club scheduling conflict moved the outing a day later. “We’re here for the camaraderie, getting a little exercise, enjoying the outdoors and having a drink afterwards. There’s not a prettier time of day to walk a golf course.
“Some people call Thursday ‘Little Friday.’ It’s a good way to get the weekend started.”
It’s just after seven in the evening when we get to the tee of the par-four seventh hole and look down the fairway into the setting sun. One of the major accomplishments of Coore’s restoration six years earlier was to thin out a thousand superfluous trees that had grown over the decades and return the land to more of what it looked like when the Reynolds family was riding horses here a century ago. Only now across the rolling terrain would be tightly-mown fairways and accents of flaxen-colored broomsedge.
“You can see half the golf course from here,” White marvels, taking it all in. “This is why we play. Dusk here is a special time.”
I returned on Sunday to join another Old Town member, Jim Welsh, and three of his regular golf companions—John Millican, Rick Maloy and Trae Wilson. They are in a group of some twenty guys on an email string who set up games on weekend mornings. About half the guys always walk. We’re going as a fivesome at 9:30 on a Sunday morning and no one will blink an eye. “Several weeks ago on a Saturday, we played a sixsome and finished in three hours, fifty-eight minutes,” Welsh says. “We’re not out there running, we’re not in a race. But there’s an expectation that we will not play slow.”
These guys range in age from late forties to sixty and all have single-digit handicaps. They play ready-golf and figure their yardages and putting lines with dispatch. They kibitz among one another leaving a teeing ground, then disperse to hit their next shots. No one slams a club or clenches a jaw. They’re playing hard but hardly stressing. They’ve walked this course so many times they know the short-cuts of where to leave their golf bags and the faultlines and easiest climbs up the substantial hills, like the ones leading from the tees to the landing areas on five and sixteen.
And they’re taking in the scenery at their own pace.
“There’s not a level lie anywhere out here, so it benefits you as a walker to get the feel of what the next shot’s going to be,” Welsh says. “You hear about ‘Maxwell’s rolls’ in the greens. You can see them and read them walking up to a green better than if you’re in a cart coming up from the side. The institutional knowledge you can get as a walker is so much greater.”
Everyone in the foursome carries a lightweight golf bag, Welsh and Wilson like me preferring single-strap, no-stand models. Welsh’s bag is a slender Titleist bag with an Old Town Club logo in white over black fabric.
“I have had one bag with a stand in my lifetime and it was about twenty years ago, an old Ping bag,” he says. “It was fine, but I realized that I preferred one without a stand because of the classic look, it was lighter, and I just found the stand clumsy to deal with. I like the single-strap, too. I tried the double strap once and it just didn’t take with me. One strap is a more old-school look and, as silly as it may sound, it is a reminder of my youth and how I got started playing golf.”
Director of Golf Charles Frost came to Old Town in early 2016 and was surprised to find as many avid walkers. He says that twenty-nine percent of all rounds are walking rounds and there are no restrictions on walking or trolleys. Old Town has a limited number of cart paths, most of them on par-threes and others connecting one green to the next tee. If the course gets a decent amount of rain, Director of Agronomy Bryant Evans will make the call to keep all carts off the course that day.
“We encourage walking at all hours,” Frost says. “There are a lot of days we have walking only. We might have a Saturday or Sunday when it’s been wet and have sixty-five to seventy-five golfers, all walking. I’ve never worked at a place that had as few rules as here. Walking is a great member experience. They do a nice job of moving around. On days there are no carts, it’s golf like it was meant to be.”
Silas Creek meanders through the course, and the club has bridges located on the perimeter of a half dozen holes to accommodate carts. As walking has become more popular over the last half dozen years or so, the club has built footbridges out of rocks and railroad ties at more convenient spots toward the center of the creek passages, saving steps and time.
The clubhouse sits about one-third of a mile north of Coliseum Drive on the northwest side of Winston-Salem. Holes one-three run in a loop toward the south and then come back to the clubhouse, and the rest of the course is routed northeast of the clubhouse. Frost says the club in 2018 did about five thousand “loop rounds” of golfers playing three holes late in the day.
“A lot of members will hit balls, then play three holes and walk from three green right to their cars,” he says. “They get a little practice, a little golf, a little exercise in a short window of time.”
Evans came to Old Town to run the course maintenance operation in October 2018 from the top assistant’s job at Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa, another Maxwell design. He was pleasantly surprised to learn of the membership’s growing passion for playing the game on foot.
“Golfers who walk should get a medal or something,” he says. “Cart traffic is one of the biggest challenges a superintendent faces.”
Dunlop White III has been chairman of the Golf Committee since 2012 and worked with predecessor Logan Jackson and other club officials in hiring Coore to breathe Maxwell’s authenticity back into the routing. He more than anyone takes pride in the course’s upward ascension among various golf rankings. Old Town is fourth in Golf Digest’s 2019-20 “Best in State” category and twenty-third nationally in Golfweek’s “Top 200 Classic Courses in America.”
“The big takeaway from any ‘walk’ around a golf course is the routing and character of the land—how it appeals to the senses, stirs the soul and provides varied experiences each time around,” Dunlop says.
Coore found the essence of his mission on the second hole, a downhill par-three surrounded by seven bunkers that had morphed over time into perfect ovals and circles with neatly coiffed edges and sparkling white sand—”tiddlywink” bunkers, as Coore calls this sort of artificial looking feature when he comes across them. He reduced the bunkers to five and on this hole and across the layout gave them all jagged and haphazard borders and replaced all the bunker sand on the course with a more yellow-hued native Yadkin River sand.
“The bunkers on the old, classic courses left you the impression they had been formed over the years in some natural process from the wind, from erosion, from different grasses coming up,” Coore says. “They were, indeed, hazards and they weren’t maintained very much. They were very formidable looking and dramatic.
“That’s what we tried to re-introduce at Old Town.”
Several years ago I played the course with Dunlop White while researching a chapter on the Old Town restoration for a yet-to-be-published book that Coore and Crenshaw were considering publishing. White stood in the tenth fairway that summer day and pointed to the fairway grass, to the inconsistent hues of green and occasional infiltration of strains beyond the bermuda base. Someone concerned about perfection might have tried to kill out the imposters.
“Bill said, ‘Leave it alone,” White remembered. “He said those inconsistencies give the fairways a ‘mottled look, a sense of yore.’”
Sense of yore. What an appropriate sobriquet for a golf course enjoyed so much by members slinging their bag over their shoulder and venturing out to be tested by the bounce of the fairways, vexed by the rolls in the greens and enthralled by the views each step of the way.
As Jim Welsh says after our golf, “We’re very fortunate for sure. I’ve played a lot of great golf courses, and there aren’t many I’d rather play than this one.”
Old Town 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 the University of North Carolina Press in 2020. Next up: Roaring Gap Club.