Roaring Gap Club
North Carolina, United States of America

Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent building mountain courses since Roaring Gap opened in 1925. The question persists: is Donald Ross’s recently restored course the most fun of all?

By the 1920s, the Tufts family had done the hard part and turned the sandy scrubland around Pinehurst into a world renowned golf destination. People showed up October through May to enjoy golf under the fragrant pines and fast-draining soils. Yet, Leonard Tufts also watched as such folks retreated in the summer to Boston, New York, Pittsburgh and Chicago. 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 and Elkin, Tufts played a large role in the early development of Roaring Gap. He served as Roaring Gap’s first president and crucially solicited Donald Ross for the creation of its eighteen hole course.

The course opened in 1925 with Tufts proudly describing it as the  ‘Aristocrat of Courses’ in the promotional material. For the next eight summers, much of the staff of Pinehurst’s famed Carolina Hotel journeyed 160 miles northwest to work at the 65 room Graystone Inn. 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 acre parcel. Chris Buie, author of The Early Days of Pinehurst, notes ‘Some may wonder why a club tucked away in the mountains, hours from the Sandhills village, would be considered an integral part of the Pinehurst story. In addition to a superior Donald Ross course, Roaring Gap was managed by Tufts and fully staffed by personnel from Pinehurst. The same style and aesthetic was successfully transported up the road to Alleghany County. Although this made it “the summer Pinehurst”, it was, and remains, more than that. Roaring Gap Club happens to be located in one of the most stunning corners of the Carolinas. The phenomenal beauty of the area has always given the club an allure that rivals the best.’

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 for economic reasons. The founding families, like the Chathams of Elkin and the Reynolds, Hanes and Grays of Winston-Salem, weren’t profit motivated; their business interests lay elsewhere. Rather, their focus remained true to create a relaxing place for their friends to gather in an invigorating climate. Ross delivered the goods in typical Ross fashion by having the holes 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.  His instructions to build a fun, relaxing course are – bizarrely – rarely issued today by owners/developers. Rather, they are more likely to bellow ‘build us 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 being back-breaking. Ross expertly used the slope of the terrain both in the fairways and around 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 soft shouldered, medium size 5,500 square feet greens, the golfer does not hit quite as many greens as he normally might expect on a courses that measures 6,455 yards.

A highlight is studying Ross’s wonderfully natural green sites: the horizon green at the fourth, the striking volcano green at the sixth, the seventh and eleventh 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 to the Winston-Salem skyline on a clear day.

At the aptly named Do Drop sixth, ‘do’ hit the green or your ball will indeed ‘drop’ somewhere less advantageous!

 The diversity of green sites sets Roaring Gap apart, from the plateau one at the eleventh to...

The diversity of green sites sets Roaring Gap apart, from the plateau one at the eleventh to…

... the twelfth in its own saddle ...

… the twelfth in its own saddle …

... to the famous skyline seventeenth.

… to the famous skyline seventeenth.

Just appreciate how the challenge varies at the four holes above! The key at the sixth is to hit the knob-shaped green or your ball will drop down one of the slopes. At the eleventh, the risk is coming up short and rolling fifty yards back down the embankment. Find the green though and you’ll have a relatively flat putt. At the twelfth, many golfers intentionally come up short to diminish the aggravation caused by the green’s wicked four foot fall from back to front. At the penultimate hole, its infinity green tests depth perception. Ross’s disparate green sites ask the golfer sundry questions in the most natural, uncontrived manner possible, which is the very essence of golf course architecture of the highest order.

If the course is so architecturally engaging, why haven’t more golfers heard about it? The answer is two fold. First, it is a discreet membership, seeking neither attention nor course rankings. Second, the course has only in the past few years blossomed again into how Ross originally envisaged it. The usual had transpired over the six decades since Ross’s passing in 1948. Trees had encroached from the sides, robbing the course of his intended playing angles. Greens had shrunk from the edges of their fill pads, becoming both detached from the greenside bunkering and monotonously oval and bland. 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.

Led by Dunlop White, a long-time golf committee member, it all started to change in 2002. He contacted a budding restoration architect named Kris Spence, who also lived in the Winston-Salem/Greensboro area. Together, they accessed the historical information that Dunlop had assembled, much of it from the Tufts Archives in Pinehurst, including a full set of Ross hole drawings, green sketches and a routing plan. A vision appeared of a more dynamic, multi-faceted course than the one that existed.

Armed with incontrovertible photographs as well as Ross’s own notes, White and Spence campaigned for work to be done. The green committee and then club saw the wisdom in pursing a strict restoration and work commenced at a measured pace, first with some prudent tree removal that both helped the quality of the turf as well as opened up long views. Stands of native fescue grasses were also reclaimed throughout the course. America’s 2008 economic recession hindered progress but in October 2012, work to the holes began in earnest once the course closed for the season. As highlighted in the numerous photographs below, the project was a runaway success on all levels. As such, Roaring Gap is now the kind of course that the author cherishes the most: one that is fun to play on a frequent basis courtesy of its series of distinctive holes organically 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 to them from 2012 to 2014. They had shrunk from almost 100,000 square feet in 1930 to 72,000 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 genuine Ross greens in the country.

The importance of Roaring Gap's green reclamation project can't be overstated because it was the hole locations of exception that were recovered. Take the thirteenth as prime example. Its green almost doubled in size, picking up nearly 3,000 square feet of putting surface that allows for all the best perimeter hole locations to once again be utilized.

The importance of Roaring Gap’s green reclamation project can’t be overstated because it was the hole locations of exception that were recovered. Take the thirteenth as prime example. Its green almost doubled in size, picking up nearly 3,000 square feet of putting surface that allows for all the best perimeter hole locations to once again be utilized.

By doing soil probes, Spence determined that the putting surfaces had risen some 10-12 inches in the middle and 4-6 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 removed 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).

What’s fascinating is the process that was employed. White and Head Golf Professional Bill Glenn were adamant that the restored greens should not look like new greens. The members loved the evolution of their mottled greens and the mix of poa annua, bent and other mutations that had been carefully refined over the years to create lovely putting surfaces. Green Keeper Erik Guinther and Spence stripped back the green surfaces and stacked the sod to the side. They then pulled back the organic matter and cored out to the original green sizes, going down to Ross’s burnt cinders. Finally, they shaped the greens mix and replaced the sod. The rub is that often times they were ~35% short of sod because that’s how much the greens had shrunk over time. Therefore, they borrowed sod from the second green to complete the first green,  and so on. By the time they had done the sixth green, all the sod on the first nine greens had been utilized. For the last three greens on the front, they sourced the sod from the 20,000 square foot sod farm they germinated from green plugs near the maintenance facility. The sod from there was of the same composition and enjoyed the same appearance and texture albeit being younger. Importantly, none of the younger grass from the farm was ever mixed with the older grasses on the same green. This process played out over three autumns until the club ended up with eighteen newly restored, seasoned greens.

As seen from back right, the tenth green lays peacefully on the ground yet is full of mischief with its high front left and back corners. Modern architects too often build more compartmentalized greens, which are far more garish in comparison to Ross’s nuanced handiwork.

Taken as a set, these greens offer great insight into Donald Ross the architect. As we see below, the variety found within them is such as to preclude them from being stereotyped – a most laudable quality that has gone wanting in the evolutionary process of some of Ross’s more noted designs. Indeed, the author scratches his head in attempting to come up with just three Ross courses that are as authentic to Ross’s interpretation of good golf as Roaring Gap.

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 fifteen 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.

The picture perfect clubhouse at Roaring Gap is found between today’s fourth green and fifth tee. Its exterior has been faultlessly preserved for nine decades.

George Washington's Mount Vernon served as the inspiration for the Graystone Inn, whose exterior is has been faultlessly preserved for nine decades.

George Washington’s Mount Vernon served as the inspiration for the Graystone Inn.

Fifth hole, 395 yards, Blue Ridge; Given Graystone’s splendid location along the hillcrest, no surprise to find that this hole (and the next several) falls 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 recovery 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 executable by a strong player might be ideal for certain vexing perimeter hole locations but the wily veteran can also access them with a finely judged running approach shot that takes into account the general right to left tilt of the green and its surrounds. 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.

An elevated view of the enticing fifth hole.

As seen from short right, the fifth green is open in front. See the low mounds around the perimeter of the green? In 2002, they were five paces removed from the shrunken putting surface. Ross's features are again part of the putting surface where they influence play.

As seen from short right, the fifth green is open in front. See the low mounds around the perimeter of the green? In 2002, they were five paces removed from the shrunken putting surface. Ross’s features are again part of the putting surface where they influence play.

A common sight: the right to left sloping fairway produces too much draw and a player's approach hits the left edge of the green, only to release down the tightly mown bank.

A common sight: the right to left sloping fairway produces too much draw and a player’s approach hits the left edge of the green, only to release down the tightly mown bank.

Sixth hole, 145 yards, Do Drop; Unlike C.B. Macdonald and Seth Raynor, Donald Ross didn’t believe in template holes. One imagines him thinking, Every site is unique and so too should be their holes! However, one particular type hole did seem to capture his fancy and that was a one shotter to a knob green falling away on all sides. Some dub it a volcano green and examples are found in Pennsylvania, upstate New York, New Hampshire, Florida and elsewhere in North Carolina. Even for Ross who designed well over one thousand one shot holes over five decades, Roaring Gap’s 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 3,950 square feet – and plays much smaller. Akin to some of the most wicked greens such as the fifth and sixth at Ross’s beloved Pinehurst No. 2, only ~40% of the green is suitable for hole locations. 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 2008 Carolina’s Senior Amateur, not confined by the one ball rule, contestants switched to the low spinning Pinnacle golf ball on this tee so that the first (and second) bounce would be forward on this putting surface.

Do Drop is one of the state’s most iconic holes. Its green size was expanded 19% during the reclamation project, allowing balls to depart the green at a greater velocity, ending up in more places. A wider range of recovery shots is required, which highlights an indisputable but often overlooked fact: larger greens actually make certain holes more challenging.

As seen from the left, Ross draped the putting surface with both a false front and false back. The more you play it, the tinier the effective hitting area in the middle of the green becomes!

This gentleman’s tee ball was rudely kicked to the side and down, leaving this problematic recovery.

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