Roaring Gap Club
North Carolina, USA

By the 1920s, the Tufts family had done the hard part and turned the sandy scrubland around Pinehurst into a world renown golf destination. People showed up October through May to enjoy golf under the fragrant pines and fast-draining soils. Yet, Leonard Tufts also stood by as such folks retreated to Boston, New York, Pittsburgh and Chicago for the summer. After all, the air conditioner had yet to be invented and the sun’s heat reflecting off the sand was more than most people cared to bear June through September. Working with a who’s who group of investors from Winston-Salem, Tufts assisted in the early development of Roaring Gap. Crucially, he solicited Ross for the creation of an eighteen hole course.
The course opened in 1925 with Tufts proudly using the phrase ‘Aristocrat of Courses’ in promotional material. For a period of eight years, much of the staff of the famed Carolina Hotel in Pinehurst made the northwest journey of 160 miles to work at the 55 room Graystone Inn during the summer. The overlap of clientele and staff between the two places made for a wonderful atmosphere. Indeed, Tuft’s own summer residence was located near the entrance to the 1,200 acres. Unfortunately, the Great Depression rudely inserted itself into the mix and forced Tufts not only to withdraw his expansion plans for 300 more rooms but to cease his involvement in 1933 when it became evident that the social aspects were to outweigh the economic benefits.
The founding members weren’t profit motivated as much as they were interested in creating a relaxing place for their friends to gather in an invigorating climate. Ross delivered the goods in typical Ross fashion by having the course play relatively wide off the tee and defending par at the green. As this was meant to be a retreat, the course opened at under 6,200 yards and its elevation of 3,700 feet helped it play a touch shorter than that.  His instructions to build a fun, relaxing course are – bizarrely – rarely issued today by owners/developers. Rather, they are more likely to order the architect ‘to build a championship course that will be ranked in the Top 100.’ Such misguided wishes lead to dull 7,200 yard, par 72 courses ill-suited to both their property and potential members.

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.

Taken from behind the fourteenth green, the brown fescue rough provides excellent texture. This green is typical of what to expect: small, pitched from back to front, and no extraneous mounding to ‘frame’ the approach shot.

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.

The graceful placement of the 13th green complex looks as if it has been there forever.

If the course is so architecturally engaging, why isn’t more heard about it? The answer is two fold. First, it is a discreet membership, seeking no attention nor course rankings. Second, the course has only in past few years blossomed again into how Ross had it. The usual had transpired over the five decades since Ross’s passing in 1948. Trees had encroached from the sides, robbing the course of Ross’s playing angles. Greens had shrunk from the edges of his fill pads, becoming both detached from the greenside bunkering and as well as monotonously oval. Additionally, the bunkers overall had lost their ability to intimidate and impress. While Ross’s bunkers had been cut into up-slopes and enjoyed a commanding presence in their day, the ones in 2002 were but two dimensional shadows of their former selves.
Lead by green chair Dunlop White, that all started to change in 2002. He contacted a young, budding architect named Kris Spense who also lived in the Winston-Salem/Greensboro area. Together, they accessed the historical information that Dunlop had assembled. A vision began to appear of a more dynamic, multi-faceted course than the one that presently existed.
Armed with incontrovertible photographs, White and Spense campaigned for work to be done. The green committee and then club saw the wisdom in pursing a proper restoration and work eventually commenced in October 2012, once the course shut for the season. As highlighted below by the numerous photographs, the work was a runaway success on all levels. As such, Roaring Gap is now the kind of course that the author cherishes the most: a quick walking course that is fun to play for all levels and that possesses distinctive holes derived from the site’s one-off natural attributes.
Particular focus needs to be given to the green complexes and the work that was carried out on them from 2012 to 2014. They had shrunk from XXX square feet in 1930 to something under YYY square feet by 2000. The vast majority of the most exacting hole locations had disappeared too. There is no such thing as an interesting 6,400 yard course that features dull targets. Yet today, these green complexes create much of Roaring Gap’s enduring appeal.  Ross aficionados will delight in seeing them, in part because they are some of the most authentic Ross greens in the country.
By doing soil probes, Spense determined that the putting surfaces had risen some 10 inches in the middle and 4 inches on many of the sides. This was enough to alter for the worse sight lines from the fairways as well as rendering the targets less interesting overall. Having developed over eight decades from topdressing, this organic matter was pulled back as part of the restoration. Now the greens bleed off on the rounded edges (examples include front left at the second and back at the fifth) while possessing more interior contour (examples include the spines once again found within the third and thirteenth greens that can be used to funnel balls toward certain side hole locations). Taken as a set, these greens offer genuine insight into Donald Ross the architect. As we see below, the variety found within them is such as to preclude them from being stereotyped – and that’s a most laudable quality to possess.

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.

Another perfect horizon green – the 4th at Roaring Gap. The deep green side bunkers are below the surface of the green and are out of sight but not out of mind.

The picture perfect clubhouse at Roaring Gap is found in between today’s 4th green and 5th tee.

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!

The golfer walks toward the hard to hit 6th green with the 7th fairway stretching out in the distance.

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.

The obvious task at hand on the approach to the 10th is to avoid the deep greenside bunker. The less obvious challenge is to make sure one’s ball stays below the day’s hole location. The green follows the flow of the land, making it extremely quick from back to front.

As seen from behind the green, the 10th plunges down the hill. The ornamental trees along the right of the fairway should be removed.

Eleventh hole, 515 yards, Eleventh Heaven; Roaring Gap opened in the age of hickory golf and the seventh and eleventh would have been largely unreachable in two blows back in the day. Roll the clock forward to 460cc drivers and steel fiber shafts and the accomplished golfer can carry a draw far enough to get additional scoot to reach either green in two. Plenty of other sub – 6,500 yard course might be overwhelmed by the relentless onslaught of technology but not Roaring Gap: its green complexes are too well conceived. Both at the seventh and again here, the plateau green with its steep embankment in front is a trying target to hit from 220 plus yards away. In the case of the eleventh, its embankment is double in size of the seventh’s and shots just short roll back a good 50 yards, leaving the dreaded half wedge shot. Similar to Pinehurst, having the ball return to your feet after an inadequate wedge shot is disgruntling, to say the least. Bottom line: Fine targets of the sort that Ross created a Roaring Gap stand the test of time.

The bunkerless 11th hole highlights Ross using the terrain in lieu of bunkers.

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.

How perfectly integrated into its surrounds is the 12th green?

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.
The openness of the fourteenth is an unexpected delight to find on a mountain course.

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.

The 17th green is on the edge of a bluff, from where it is 1,000 feet into the valley below, and is protected on its left side by the sepentine bunker pictured above.

The undeniable charm of mountain golf is captured in the photograph of the 17th green above.

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.

The End