Roaring Gap Club
North Carolina, United States of America

Seventh hole, 520 yards, Hillandale; This is the first of two bunkerless three shotters. 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-six bunkers at Roaring Gap, instead using the natural attributes  (pronounced landforms, creeks) to provide the challenge. To that point, Ross located this 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 both obstacles on his first two shots, he is left with a pitch to an elevated plateau green tilted markedly from back to front and right to left. 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 on the nerves today than it did in Ross’s day when the greens ran 25% slower.

The creek left and sloping land right provide plenty of natural challenge. No need to clutter the hole with bunkers.

Short grass and slopes ensure that the seventh green is well defended.

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 tee here, all is forgiven when he turns around and sees the sweep of the broad fairway some sixty feet below, as captured by the lead photograph of this course profile. 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!

Note how the smallish 3,600 square foot green snuggles into the hillside.

Note how the smallish 3,600 square foot green snuggles into the hillside.

Tenth hole, 370 yards, Spring Branch; Across the road from the golf shop, 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 golf shop and the practice area. More importantly, one imagines that the singular 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.

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 tenth cascades down the hill.

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 courses 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. As well or better than any architect before or after, Ross’s fine targets stand the test of time.

The bunkerless eleventh highlights Ross’s use of the tumbling 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 forward progress. Most golfers would have been left with a mashie (5 iron) or more into the course’s most viciously sloped green, 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. The hill’s pronounced shoulder shunts tee balls left to the point where the overhanging branches from the massive oaks become a consideration.

This side view across the twelfth (and up toward the one shot thirteenth) only hints at the green’s terror.

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 140 yards beyond the tee that its full expanse manifests itself. One of the most captivating spots on the course, the fourteenth green lies ahead 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 120 yard wide shared fairway of the next two holes is evident.

Ever faithful to Ross’s hole diagrams, Spence restored this ‘top shot’ bunker that Ross had carved into the crest of the hill some 140 yards from the tee. Once beyond it, the fairway tumbles down a steep valley hill.

 

Fifteenth hole, 410 yards, Straight-A-Way; To gain a sense of how much was accomplished from the Spence restoration, look no further than this hole where four crucial events dovetailed together. 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, Spence followed the old aerials, removed a row of eleven pine trees that had 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 55% with numerous hole locations recovered front left, front right, and along the back; it’s now the biggest green on the course and perfectly punctuates the longest two shotter. 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!

The fifteenth and sixteenth holes share a colossal fairway that is interrupted by …

... this central hazard whose steep face precludes much hope of forward advancement!

… this central hazard whose steep face precludes much hope of forward advancement!

An abundance of testy hole locations now exists.

Sixteenth hole, 540 yards, Dolls House; Living in Pinehurst/Southern Pines, the author is both perplexed and disappointed that the closest modified punchbowl green by Ross is 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 imaginative green placement in a natural dell area makes the sixteenth 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. The severity of the side-sloping green site – and the options available to a creative shot maker – reminds the author of one of his favorite greens in the world: the fifth at Merion.

The golfer strives to reach the crest of the far hillside in two as only then does …

… the sunken green reveal itself. From the spot of this photograph, the author witnessed perfection: a member punched a low rolling draw with a hooded seven iron at the large oak tree behind the green. The ball scooted onto the green on line with the smaller tree beside it. As the ball slowed, it dutifully started to break left … and continued doing so. By the end, the ball was traveling perpendicular to the line of the shot and finished a few feet away.

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