CHARLESTON, W.Va. – Mike Stevens is part of a group that travels to West Virginia every summer for an old-time re-enactment of golf at its American birthplace.
They use hickory-shafted clubs and yesteryear fashion statements, and hold onto hopes that Oakhurst Links can keep its heritage going, too.
Oakhurst has been on the market for more than a year. Lewis Keller Sr., the owner for 51 years, is frustrated over the lack of movement, considering Oakhurst’s significance.
The nine-hole course and museum in White Sulphur Springs are listed at $2.5 million, down from the initial offering of $4.5 million.
“It has been a bit of a disappointment,” Keller said. “But maybe things will turn around. I’m an optimist.”
Oakhurst, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, held its first competition in 1884, predating by a few years the St. Andrews Golf Club of Yonkers, N.Y.
“We want so much for it to remain in someone’s hands that will really have the stewardship and interest that we have had in it and maintain the history for the state as well as for golf itself,” Keller said.
The listing agent, Linda Brandt of Country Road Realty in Lewisburg, said the property will be sold to whoever wants it, even if it means becoming a future restaurant, bed-and-breakfast or wedding venue.
“We’re just anxious to sell it,” Brandt said.
Oakhurst is a mecca for the National Hickory Championship, where players shun modern technology that some claim makes the game too easy and predictable.
Stevens, a golf instructor from Tampa, Fla., won the tournament in June, adding to the title he earned in 2005. He doesn’t sound positive he will get the chance to seek a third one.
The course’s phone number has been temporarily disconnected and its website hasn’t been updated in some time. Gone are the sheep that until recently mowed Oakhurst’s fairways the way it was done a century ago.
“It’s kind of disappointing to a lot of us that go there annually to play because it’s really a one-of-a-kind facility in the United States,” Stevens said. “It’s a tough economy, too. I don’t know anybody that purchases it would make any money on it. It would have to be some sort of a labor of love.”
Count out any interest from Jim Justice, the owner of The Greenbrier who has pumped tens of millions of dollars into rejuvenating the resort, including landing this month’s PGA Greenbrier Classic.
He doesn’t want to revive nearby Oakhurst, too.
“Oakhurst Links holds a very distinguished place in American golf history and given its proximity to The Greenbrier, I do have an interest in seeing it continue as a tourism destination,” Justice said. “However, at this time I am not considering or discussing the possibility of purchasing the property.”
Keller’s daughter, Vikki Keller, said she’s noticed people staying at The Greenbrier drive up to Oakhurst to view the course because “they’re not sure if they would have another chance” to see it in its current playable state.
Oakhurst shunned today’s advanced metal clubs, golf bags and electric carts. The course’s own replica hickory clubs were made entirely of wood. Visitors formed tees from a mix of water and sand, hit balls that carry a few hundred yards at best and carried their clubs by hand.
“We all love going there every year,” Stevens said. “It’s such a little respite from the real world because it’s a beautiful location.”
Keller first learned about Oakhurst Links in the early 1950s from friend and golf pro Sam Snead, who lived just across the Virginia border. It was first owned by Russel Montague, who became addicted to golf while studying in Great Britain.
According to Keller, Montague’s doctor advised him in 1878 to move from Boston to a healthier climate. Montague chose White Sulphur Springs, partly because of stories about its so-called healing waters.
Montague and a small group of colleagues built the course and held the first golf competition around 1884 in the Scottish match play tradition, predating by a few years the St. Andrews Golf Club of Yonkers, N.Y.
But Montague and most of the original members eventually moved away. Play on the course stopped after 1910.
Keller, a New York native, bought the property in 1959 to use as a summer retreat and raise horses. He had a vision about restoring the course, but didn’t act until some coaxing from a golf writer.
Golf designer Bob Cupp heard about the course and volunteered with the restoration.
Work started in 1991 and was done by hand, with newspaper and magazine clippings and course photos serving as guides. The 2,235-yard course reopened in October 1994.
During the years that followed, the museum was filled with snapshots of visits from golfers such as Snead, Lee Trevino and Tom Watson, who is The Greenbrier’s golf pro emeritus.
Keller would greet visitors with a smile, a handshake and offer of a glass of lemonade.
Now, the 87-year-old Keller, whose wife of 60 years, Rosalie, died earlier this year, wants to focus on family.
“When we left, everybody was hoping somebody would purchase it, keep it as a course,” Stevens said. “But we left that same scenario after last year’s tournament, too.
“It would be a shame if it did close down. Once it’s gone, we’ll never have anything like it again in this country.”