Through mid-June of 2019, Hayes Holderness had played seventy-eight rounds of golf domestically and in five foreign countries, seventy-two of them walking and most of those carrying his bag. In April he became one of the first two players to ever walk and carry his clubs at Santapazienza, a private course an hour outside Sao Paulo, Brazil, designed by Tom Fazio and his son Logan up and down a mountain and through a rainforest. In May he walked in a heat index of 120 degrees in Vietnam and, instead of a standard leather glove, wore rain gloves on both hands to absorb the sweat.
“I do a lot of traveling and looking at courses architecturally, and when you walk a course you just feel it and understand what the architect had in mind a lot more,” he says. “Otherwise you hop in a cart and zip down the fairway. You get out at your ball and hop back in and ride to the green. You don’t see the lay of the course and the way it’s built in the sense of strategy.”
On this bright June morning he’s back home in North Carolina, ready to walk the ninety-three-year-old course carved in the mountains at Roaring Gap Club, 3,200 feet up in the air an hour’s drive northwest of Winston-Salem.
I have played this Donald Ross gem three of four times over the years and check the scorecard and tell Holderness I’m fine with his suggestion of playing the back tees—6,455 yards—and remember something long-time club pro Bill Glenn said on my visit a couple of years ago: “I watch people play it year after year, and they always come in and say they’d like another crack at it. They think they should have scored better than they did. That’s a pretty magical thing for a golf course to have.”
Holderness and his wife Cherie live in Greensboro but spend most of their summers in this mountain enclave, conceived originally in the late 1890s by Hugh Chatham of Elkin, who was on horseback and struck with the splendor of the view near the hamlet of Laurel Branch. Holderness, sixty-one and a fellow 1979 Chapel Hill graduate, is at the stage of his life professionally (he’s a consultant with The Todd Organization, specializing in corporate-owned life insurance programs) and personally (three sons are grown and married) that he enjoys the freedom to travel extensively playing golf and serving as a panelist for GOLF Magazine’s Top 100 Courses in the World rankings.
“I played tennis as a kid and was introduced to golf by my father-in-law,” he says. “Cherie and I settled in Greensboro as newlyweds, and we’d go to cocktail parties and everyone talked about their golf games that day. No one talked about their tennis. That’s where it started. Cherie also plays and loves to walk and carry her bag, too. Golf is a great sport to enjoy as a couple, particularly walking.”
As we make our way around the course, Holderness is a font of opinion, perspective and interesting stories spanning his life in golf, which includes as of mid-2019 having played seventy-four of GOLF’s Top 100 Courses in the World. “I hope to complete my Top 100 quest in the next few years, but to me, it’s much more about the journey and the experiences along the way rather than completing a list,” he says. “ I want to take time to soak in the uniqueness of each course and the people associated with it. And walking while playing is a key part of that.”
We step lively up the first fairway, an uphill, dogleg-right par-five.
“Roaring Gap is a great family club,” Holderness says. “My mother is still a member, and she’s ninety-three and still plays occasionally. There are no rules other than be polite to other people and be considerate. It’s a very walkable course. The distances are very short from green to tee. There are only a couple of hills that make your heart rate go up just a little. Going up to the new back tees on number eight and fifteen are the two main ones, and even they’re not bad.”
We navigate the fourth fairway, the vintage Graystone Inn (modeled in the mid-1920s after George Washington’s Mount Vernon) looming in the distance.
“Walking, you just see the course so much better,” he says. “You see the run-off spots around the greens and where the big miss is, where you have no chance of getting up and down versus the acceptable miss, where you have a good chance to chip and putt. I love the pace of play. I love the exercise; if you walk eighteen holes, you’re walking about six miles. It’s great for fellowship, but it also offers a chance for solitude when you want a minute by yourself.”
Holderness points to the slope of the fifth green as we approach. I hit what I thought was a solid eight-iron to the middle of the green but am muttering as my ball is nowhere to be seen on the putting surface.
“This is the only green that runs front-to-back,” he says. “You’ve got to come in short on this one. Virtually everything feeds right-to-left. Just knowing the slopes and where you have to hit to end up where you want to end up is crucial. If you’re in a cart, you hit that approach and hit it great and it ends up long or way left. You’ve never crossed that ground, never walked on what caused your ball to be over there. In a cart, you still won’t have a clue next time.”
Each green setting is like its own novel, with a set of plots to figure out, the original shapes carved out by Ross’s builders with mule and scraper eons ago and the current iterations recreated by architect Kris Spence a half dozen years ago. There is the “volcano” shaped green on the par-three sixth and the “punchbowl” on the par-five sixteenth. There are false fronts on some greens and spines running through or across others. Two par-fives have no bunkers, Ross using merely the slope of the land to vex the golfer. In front of us looking at the par-five eleventh green is the starkly canted fairway—high on the right, with severe slope down to rough on the left.
“It amazes me on this hole people in carts do not understand why they’re down there in the rough on their second shot,” he says.
The sun’s high in the sky as we continue on the back side, but the temperature is only in the low-eighties. Looking at the intricacies of the course, enjoying the conversation and conjuring up a repeatable swing cue are so much more pleasant on foot. We compare notes on our experiences arriving at the first tee and the ensuing yin-and-yang between walkers and riders.
“Someone might say, ‘Oh, you’re going to be anti-social and walk,’” Holderness says. “I say, ‘You’re the one being anti-social. You’re welcome to join me walking.’ It’s good-natured kidding, no one gets upset about it. But the truth is, we can talk a lot more if we’re walking. The entire foursome can talk. If everyone’s in carts, you mainly talk to your cart mate.”
This summer is a watershed moment of sorts for walkers at Roaring Gap.
Because of the increasing number of members who prefer to walk, the club Board of Directors and Golf Committee in 2019 are allowing non-restricted walking, including weekend mornings, rather than the previous policy of weekday-only walking.
“The main thing you heard was they were concerned that it would slow play down when it’s busy,” Hayes says. “I’ve demonstrated that I can walk faster than most people playing in a cart. When you have multiple people walking, it’s just as fast as a cart because when you walk, you walk straight to your own ball and are ready to hit. Otherwise you park a cart here and wait while someone plays their shot, and your ball is twenty yards over there. Walkers get together, then you disperse, and then you get together again. If you play ready golf, it’s very efficient.”
Holderness can regularly walk eighteen holes by himself or as a twosome in just over two hours. He believes that clubs exist for the enjoyment of their members, and there’s nothing more natural in golf than walking.
“To restrict it somewhere is a shame,” he says. “If concerns are over pace of play, slower walkers simply need to be considerate and let cart people zip through when ready. And if cart revenue is that important, they could charge walkers a nominal trail fee.
“But one way or another, just let me walk.”
I ask Hayes on the fifteenth hole about his passion for golf and traveling. He tells me of getting an invitation to play Augusta National to celebrate his fiftieth birthday and how that ignited his drive to learn more about course architecture, golf history and rev up his travel schedule, eventually being invited in 2014 to join the GOLF rating panel.
“I enjoy spending time around a club, getting to know it, know its members, know its history,” he says. “You hang out in a village in Scotland after golf, you talk to the people. That’s what is so great about walking—you have conversations with three people over three to four hours. Some of my friends don’t understand how I can enjoy traveling on my own as much as I sometimes do, but that actually gives me many more opportunities to interact with the locals, as opposed to only spending time with an established foursome from home. I enjoy both types of trips.”
I am struck as our round nears its conclusion that Holderness, like most other avid walkers, loves the game but isn’t obsessed over his score. He hits the green of the par-five sixteenth hole in two shots and two-putts for his birdie.
“Unless I’m playing in the club championship, I’m not grinding,” he says. “It probably helps my game. You’re not taking it too seriously. What golf is about to me is the people experiences. I love playing the course, but I really don't care what I shoot. Granted, it’s more fun to shoot seventy-four than it is ninety. But if I can hit it and find it, hit it and find it, hit it again and enjoy the people I’m with, I absolutely love it. I don’t take the game too seriously because I know that there are real-world problems elsewhere and that I’m very fortunate to have the golf experiences that I do.”
A visit to Roaring Gap certainly feels like an escape from that real world. The club and surrounding summer residential community evolved in the 1920s from Chatham’s original vision. But the Chathams, who began manufacturing blankets at an Elkin mill in 1877 and sending them around the world, were experts in textiles but knew little of running a golf club or resort, so they recruited Richard Tufts of Pinehurst to supervise the construction of the facilities and then manage the club and golf course. Tufts brought Ross, the Scotsman who by then had designed four courses at Pinehurst as well as the one at Mid Pines in Southern Pines, into the project. The golf course and a sixty-five room hotel opened for the 1926 summer season, and guests enjoyed golf, archery, horseback riding, piano recitals and a bountiful table. They were also in no hurry to get out of bed in the morning, flummoxing the native mountain folk who were up before the roosters.
“The genius of Pinehurst resort management, regarded highly by an army of sportsmen for several decades, discovered last year a summer field for its endeavors,” a 1927 Pinehurst Outlook story noted. “To habitues of North Carolina’s famous golf center, the growing need of a community that would carry on the Pinehurst tradition during suspension of activities here was fully recognized.”
Like all business enterprises conceived in the Roaring Twenties, Roaring Gap sputtered during the Depression. The Tufts scaled back all of their operations during those fallow times and in 1933 ceased their management role at Roaring Gap. But under the steady guidance of Thurmond Chatham (Hugh’s son) and his family, the club survived the hiccup and over time matured into the comfortable venue it is today.
Among its devotees are Spence, who supervised a major restoration job during the winters over 2011-13, and Chuck Duckett, a member from Winston-Salem.
“Roaring Gap is absolutely my favorite place to go and play golf,” says Spence. “It’s so laid back and comfortable and relaxed. You go in one screen door and out the other, and right there you’re on the 18th green. The ambiance is one of a kind.”
“I can take any group I want to Roaring Gap and they’ll love it,” adds Duckett. “And I can go out my back door with two beers and my dog and play a few holes and no one cares. And my dog can get a drink at the clubhouse because they’ve got a water dish outside for dogs.”
Spence had previously refurbished Ross courses at Greensboro Country Club, the Grove Park Inn in Asheville and Mimosa Hills in Morganton when he first started visiting Roaring Gap and spit-balling restoration concepts with club officials in the early 2000s. The quality of the turf had deteriorated enough that the club approved a significant project that’s now six years old.
By using Ross’s original 1925 blueprints and digging up the greens and finding clues to the original dimensions, Spence replaced what had become round and “pancaked-shaped” greens with modern versions of the originals. He rebuilt bunkers that had lost their shapes or been buried and found several hundred more yards, stretching the course to nearly 6,500 from the black tees. The irrigation was totally rebuilt and great pains were taken to insure the preservation of the original grass blends—roughly seventy percent poa annua, twenty bent and ten mutations.
“Roaring Gap has a great and authentic set of Ross greens, in my opinion,” says Spence. “That whole golf course was laying there but it was buried under that buildup of many, many years. The wind whipped through there—hence the name ‘Roaring Gap’—and it blew sand and soil around and the course lost its definition.”
Bailey Glenn, who grew up in Winston-Salem and played golf as a boy at Forsyth Country Club before going to Duke University, was hired as the head golf pro at Roaring Gap in 1957 and stayed there until he retired in 1993. Son Bill has been running the golf operation since, and he joined Hayes and me for a post-golf repaste on the back porch of the quaint clubhouse.
This view toward the east encompasses the par-three eighteenth hole and the promontory on which the seventeenth green is perched, offering its oft-photographed “infinity view” toward Pilot Mountain and Winston-Salem. Someone has left two golf carts parked between our table and the scenery, so Hayes gets up and moves them out of the way.
“Actually, we do have one rule—you shouldn’t block the view,” he says.
The 1939 clubhouse is relaxed and unpretentious and fits like a pair of comfortable slippers. There’s a modest grill where they make outstanding cheeseburgers and where Bailey Glenn used to feed ham sandwiches and tomato sandwiches to the caddies, maintenance staff and golfers as well—“With peeled tomatoes, that was a detail he insisted on, and mayonnaise my grandmother would make,” says Bill. Later Bailey expanded the menu to include milkshakes and burgers; he would drive regularly twelve miles to Sparta to a grocery there where he’d pick up orders of forty pounds of freshly ground beef.
“I know this place has some creaks and has holes here and there, and as you travel around there are certainly better structures out there,” Bill says. “But it seems like people who really ‘get’ this place appreciate it for what it is. They’ll say, ‘Golly, I wish I had something this simple back home.’”
It’s nearly two o’clock as we finish lunch, and one of those frequent summer afternoon thunder-boomers is rearing up a head of steam. I thank Hayes and Bill for their hospitality. What more could you want? A sated belly. Legs tuckered out. And as I head down Hwy. 21 around the hairpin turns for the first five miles back to civilization, my mind rolls with all the intricate details of Roaring Gap, all of them still fresh in my mind after experiencing them slowly, one step at a time.
Roaring Gap 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.