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Oakhurst Links: Hickory shafts, gutta percha balls

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WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W. Va. – There is a certain reverence when a golfer is confronted by old-time equipment. When he closely examines a hickory-shafted club, or feels a gutta percha ball in his hands. It would be too poetic to contend that such a feeling transports the golfer to the bygone era of Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen, though hardly a stretch to maintain there’s a heightened sense of excitement mixed with fragility when not only handling these tools but actually utilizing them on the golf course.

This is a feeling that faces golfers every day at Oakhurst Links, the oldest golf club in the United States, where primitive equipment is not just an option. It’s the only option.


Video: Historic Oakhurst


The world’s best golfers are competing at The Greenbrier Classic this week, smashing golf balls with features such as “process core technology” and “a responsive ionomeric casing layer” into orbit with 460cc driver heads that sometimes look like they would be better used for toasting bagels.

Just a few miles down the road, the game is similarly being played, only what exists here appears to be part of some suspicious time warp.

Started in 1884 by a man named Russell Montague and a host of friends, Oakhurst Links is a nine-hole layout that was operated for nearly 30 years before, as legend has it, the property reverted to pasture, fading away into the West Virginia countryside.

The course remained incapacitated for some 80 years before Lewis Keller, a golf aficionado and history buff, restored the land to its original design. Playing to a wickedly devilish 2,235 yards, Keller also restored the idea that only equipment of long-ago generations would be used on the links – and with long-ago rules, of course.

In fact, the scorecard bears three local rules:

1. Play The Stymie Rule.

2. If Ball Breaks During Play, Play The Largest Piece Until Holed Out.

3. If Ball Lands In Sheep Castings, You Are Allowed A Free Drop.

These were the rules in place when the club hosted a handful of editions of the National Hickory Championship, a tournament featuring those who prefer to compete with the tools of more than a century ago.

Again, though, the course fell on hard times.

“One of golf’s real treasures kind of got lost,” says Jamie Hamilton, the head golf professional of The Old White TPC at the nearby Greenbrier. “Its future was really uncertain.”

On a course where history isn’t always a thing of the past, it appeared doomed to repeat itself. Once again, the land reverted to pasture; once again, it faded away into the countryside.

Until last year.

That’s when Jim Justice, the ubiquitous owner of The Greenbrier, took an interest in the property and decided to add it to the already formidable cadre of courses here in the foothills.

“It could have become a housing development and we would have lost a treasure,” Justice explains. “Sometimes you’ve got to step up. Maybe it doesn’t make financial sense, but there are times you just have to step up and save a treasure. I got calls from people all over the world who generally had some concerns, so it was good.”

Yet again, history has been restored.

There are plans to once again host the National Hickory Championship, and Oakhurst Links is again open for business, with golfers brandishing mashies and niblicks – and many dressing the part of turn-of-the-century competitors.

All is right in this world now, not long after the course could have faded away for good.

“To have a piece of golf history just down the road from a place like The Greenbrier, if this place would have went away it would have been a real sad thing,” Hamilton says. “It was a lot of hard work that went into bringing it back. It’s a fun project to run. It’s the same, but it’s so different from the game of golf that we all know and play now. People learn a lot about it and I know we learn a lot being involved in it.”

No longer is it just the purveyors of 19th century equipment who can feel the butterflies of grasping these tools in their hands and traveling back in time. The course is open to all comers, each of whom senses that mix of excitement and fragility.

And so Oakhurst Links continues on, a place where every day is 1884 all over again.