Roaring Gap Club
North Carolina, USA
Meanwhile, Roaring Gap is absorbing to play, requiring an assortment of shots without ever being back-breaking. Ross uses the slope of the terrain well both in the fairway and by the greens. A flatlander will struggle during his first few rounds as the course requires some getting to know. When you combine the uncertainty of the fairway lie with the smallish XXXX square feet greens, the golfer does not hit quite as many greens as he normally might expect on a courses that maxes out at 6,455 yards.
As at another Ross charmer, Holston Hills outside of Knoxville, a highlight of playing Roaring Gap is seeing Ross’s great penchant for locating natural green sites: the horizon green at the fourth, the unique Volcano green at the sixth, the wonderful seventh and eleventh greens on top of dramatic plateaus, the twelfth perfectly placed in a saddle, the sixteenth located in a dell, and the famed seventeenth green hanging on the edge of a bluff with seventy (!) mile views afforded all the way to the Winston-Salem skyline on a clear day.
Holes to Note
Fourth hole, 385 yards, Graystone; For all the world, this uphill hole feels like a Home hole as it is perfectly aligned with the majestic, architecturally significant Graystone Inn in the background. Indeed, for the first several years, this was the Home hole. Tufts realized that the members and their guests arrived at the club in the afternoon and relished the prospect of late day golf. Today’s intimate golf shop 3/4 of a mile away had yet to be built. Tufts consulted with Ross, who acquiesced for the fifth hole to serve as the first on a temporary basis. So it went with the fourth becoming the eighteenth. This arrangement lasted for fourteen years, from 1925 to 1939. Though it should go without saying, wherever there is a Donald Ross uphill green, a premium is gained by staying below the day’s hole location.
Fifth hole, 395 yards, Blue Ridge; Given Graystone’s splendidly commanding location along the crest of a hill, no surprise to find that this hole (and the next several) falls away downhill. While it may be easy to imagine this as an opener with its generous landing area, the green itself is quite wicked, having been a chief beneficiary of Spence’s work. Left and rear hole locations have been restored. Indeed, the back third of the green follows the general slope of the land from the tee (i.e. the green falls away from the golfer) and the closely mown banks work to sweep the overzealous approach shot well away from the putting surface. As well as any hole here, the fifth epitomizes the concept of room off the tee while challenging the golfer at the green. Given that the green is open in front, it’s also a prime example of how a grandfather, his son, and grandson can all enjoy playing the same hole. A high, soft approach with plenty of grab as executed by a strong player might be ideal for some of the more vexing perimeter hole locations but the wily veteran can also access them with a finely judged running approach shot. One envisages Ross himself playing it just that way, cagily making sure he carried his own bunker some thirty yards short left of the putting surface and then watching as his ball scampers onto the open green.
Sixth hole, 145 yards, Do Drop; Donald Ross designed well over one thousand one shot holes over five decades and in terms of memorability and distinctiveness, this volcano green complex must rank near the top. As at Rye, the second shot is often the more important one! While its modest yardage might seem manageable to the card and pencil sort, the sixth features a domed green that measures xxxx square feet – and then plays much smaller! The front third of the putting surface is one long, slow, agonizing false front. Watching from the tee as a ball lands six paces onto the putting surface before beginning a trickling retreat fourteen paces off makes for one of those indelible moments that Ross could create – and that many modern architects don’t. In the 2006 Senior North Carolina Senior Amateur, not confined by the one ball rule, contestants switched to the low spinning Pinnacle golf ball on this tee!
Seventh hole, 520 yards, Hillandale; This is the first of two bunkerless three shotters that the golfer confronts during his round. Let’s face it: the notion of sandy hazards (a.k.a. bunkers) is a bit out of place on top of a mountain. Ross only employed forty-four bunkers at Roaring Gap, instead using the natural attributes (pronounced landforms, creeks) to provide the challenge. To that point, Ross located the fairway between a hill right and creek left. Each shot becomes progressively more challenging as one tacks his/her way down the hole, thus fulfilling the definition of a classic par 5. Assuming that the golfer can avoid either obstacle on his first two shots, he is left with a pitch to an elevated plateau green that is tilted markedly from back to front. The tension of carrying the fifteen foot embankment on which the green is perched while staying below the hole has never wavered in its appeal. Indeed, with today’s swift green speeds provided by the native poa annua and bent mix, a canted green like the seventh prays more today on the nerves than it did in Ross’s day.
Eighth hole, 400 yards, Meadow Brook; Roaring Gap is a wonderful walking course, with no real hilliness to speak of save for the stretch from the elevated eighth tee to the twelfth green. While the golfer might not take kindly to the uphill walk to the elevated tee here, all is forgiven when he turns around and sees the sweep of the broad fairway some sixty feet below. Done too often and the course becomes unwalkable but this joins the tenth as the two great drops tee to green on the course. They are timely reminders that you are indeed enjoying mountain golf. After the round, you might well scratch your head wondering when Ross ever took you uphill the same amount but such is the skill of a master architect!
The inspired view from the eighth tee. Note how the green snuggles into the hillside.
Tenth hole, 370 yards, Spring Branch; Across the road from clubhouse, Ross intended this pleasant downhiller to be the first hole yet, it never once served that purpose! Once the golf shop opened in 1939, the decision was made that Ross’s tenth (today’s first) would be the opener. Why so, one wonders? Well, today’s first tee is both closer to the clubhouse and the practice area. More importantly, one imagines that the one-off allure of ending with the glorious valley views afforded from today’s penultimate green (Ross’s eighth) was an overriding consideration. Also, Ross’s own Home hole (today’s 300 yard ninth) wasn’t as inspired a conclusion as the indomitable 235 yarder that is today’s finisher.
Twelfth hole, 370 yards, Silver Pines; What a beast this hole would have been in the age of hickories! Not only is the drive a forced carry over broken ground but the hill’s shoulder on the far side would have stunted much forward progress. Most golfers would have been left with a mashie (5 iron) or more into the most sloped green on the course, featuring nearly four feet of fall from back to front. Though the green may look innocuous as it lays peacefully in its own saddle, any ball fractionally beyond the hole location is a genuine struggle to get down in two shots. Many a member advises of the merit of an uphill chip from just shy of the green versus a sidewinding first putt. If Sir Isaac Newton had been a golfer, he would counsel to use gravity as your friend and not fight it.
The most intimidating tee shot comes at the twelfth.
Fourteenth hole, 385 yards, Miss Alice; Aerials of the property from the 1920s show that Ross carved the first nine through a forest. That’s typical of most mountain designs but what is surprising to discover is that the middle section of the second nine was much more open, almost a meadow in fact. The golfer senses that here but it isn’t until he crests a ridge some 120 yards beyond the tee that the full expanse of this open area manifests itself. It’s one of the prettiest spots on the course. Ahead the green lies over a creek at the base of a hill. To the left, the full effect of the downhill tenth is enjoyed as is Ross’s clever use of the twisting topography at the eleventh. To the right, the massive, hundred yard plus wide shared fairway of the next two holes is evident.
Fifteenth hole, 410 yards, Straight-A-Way; To gain a sense of how much was accomplished from the Spense restoration, look no further than this hole where four crucial events dovetailed together wonderfully. First, there was an additional fifty yards behind Ross’s tee that allowed this hole to be stretched to 410 yards, making it the longest two shotter on the course. Second, Spense followed the old aerials, removed the lollipop trees that had once been mistakenly planted to divide the fifteenth and sixteenth, and reclaimed the shared fairway. All the bunkers on the hole regained a three dimensional quality as depth was returned to them, which additionally turned them back into true hazards that need to be avoided. Finally, the green was expanded a whooping 40% with many hole locations recovered front left, front right, and along the back. Many good players consider this their favorite hole on the course, both because of its aesthetic appeal as well as its stout golf requirements. When the author originally played it in 2001, the 360 yard hole from the lower tee to a small oval green generated little affection. No more!
Sixteenth hole, 540 yards, Dolls House; Living in Pinehurst/Southern Pines, the author is both perplexed and disappointed that the closest modified punchbowl green location by Ross is actually found three hours away in the mountains. After all, sand soil is typically what is required for such a green complex to drain properly. Nonetheless, Ross’s clever green placement in a natural dell area makes this hole a standout. Golfers going for the green in two – or those who get in trouble along the way – face a blind shot. As with the fifth green, the golfer must use the surrounding slopes to work the ball in toward the hole. Learning how to judge such approaches is something that the golfer never tires of trying. Architect and course critic Tom Doak was so captivated by this feature and the other par fives that he listed Roaring Gap as possessing one of the world’s best collections of par 5 holes in his 1994 Confidential Guide, joining such household name courses as Pebble Beach and Augusta National.
Seventeenth hole, 345 yards, Valley View; A shortish to medium length two shotter, this hole has great strategic value and yet is the sort of hole rarely built anymore. The infatuation seems to center around drivable par fours these days versus one like this that is more of a chess match between architect and player. Pity. In this case, a fairway bunker and out of bounds right and a serpentine greenside bunker left that wraps in front of the green create the enduring playing angles. The ideal tee shot flirts with the trouble down the right in order to give the golfer a clean look down the long but narrow green. A ‘safe’ tee shot to the left leaves a trickier approach over the serpentine bunker at an oblique angle to the green.
Eighteenth hole, 235 yard, Hill Top; Not to belabor the point, but Ross never intended this long one shotter to be the Home hole. It was always his ninth. Regardless, like Brora Golf Club in Scotland north of Ross’s Scottish home of Dornoch, a testing one shotter makes for a fitting one-off conclusion. Ending with such a challenging shot is but one of the reasons why many folks don’t realize that they just concluded a round on a sub 6,500 yard course. It’s a very neat – and hard to do – trick that Ross pulled off: make the design of the holes so diverse and compelling that length is largely immaterial.
With but two par four longer than 400 yards, Roaring Gap might not be ‘great’ by modern definitions but that only signifies that such definitions are in dire need of being re-visited. Nothing more asinine than a course that is ill suited for its membership. Back in the day, Roaring was lauded as the finest mountain golf course in the country; that sentiment contains a much greater degree of accuracy than most people realize today. Courses of this length are littered across the United Kingdom which helps explain why there – and not the United States – is the home of golf.
All in all, Roaring Gap is just what the founders envisaged – an engaging course for all to enjoy. Too bad more owners don’t allow today’s architects to worry less about distance and difficulty and focus more on fun and charm. No wonder golf is in the mess that it’s in, not that the perfectly contented members at Roaring Gap would know or care as they happily go about playing a sport that is actually fun.