Friday, March 21, 2014

Chart Buster: Winston-Salem's Old Town Club makes big jump in Golfweek rankings

Following Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore’s golf course restoration, Winston-Salem’s Old Town Club makes one of the biggest jumps in Golfweek magazine ranking history.

(WINSTON-SALEM, N.C.) — No surprise at the top of Golfweek magazine’s recently released 2014 rankings of America’s 100 Best Classic Courses (pre-1960), as Pinehurst No. 2 still reigns as the leading vote-getter in North Carolina. Securing the 13th spot overall, the Donald Ross masterpiece was recently refashioned to its original playing character by architects Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, and will enjoy two consecutive weeks of limelight in June when it plays host to back-to-back men’s and women’s U.S. Open Championships.

Yet, Pinehurst No. 2 wasn’t the biggest newsmaker in this year’s rankings. That honor was bestowed an hour-and-a-half northwest of Pinehurst in Winston-Salem, N.C., where Old Town Club returned to national prominence as one of the most highly regarded venues in golf following Coore & Crenshaw’s restoration of its 1939 Perry Maxwell classic.

Much of Old Town’s recent acclaim actually dates back to 2008 when the golf course debuted at No. 86 on Golfweek’s list of America’s 100 best classics. Then, four years later, Old Town reached another plateau when it climbed 16 spots to the 70th position in Golfweek’s 2012 rankings.

This year, however, the jump was historic as Old Town catapulted an unprecedented 43 places up the chart to the 29th spot — out of roughly 6,500 classic layouts in the country. That’s the biggest leap by any classic course in the history of the rankings according to Bradley S. Klein, Golfweek magazine’s veteran architecture editor and ratings director.

“I’ve visited Old Town off and on for 15 years, and every time I go there — wow — the place looks even better,” said Klein. “Now, they have completely outdone themselves by recapturing a Perry Maxwell gem in all its naturalistic detail.”

At No. 29 in the country, Old Town is ensconced as the second-ranked classic course in North Carolina. Charlotte Country Club (No. 72), newcomer Mid-Pines Inn and Golf Club (No. 77) and Pine Needles Lodge and Golf Club (No. 85) — all Ross creations — are the only other three classic courses in the state recognized on the list. In addition, Old Town is now ranked alongside many early American treasures such as Olympic Club’s Lake Course (No. 27) and Southern Hills Country Club (No. 26), which are celebrated U.S. Open venues.

“Old Town’s jump in the rankings clearly demonstrates the value of classical golf course restorations,” said Dunlop White III, the club’s golf chairman. “Six years ago, Old Town wasn’t on anyone’s radar. But now, thanks to ‘Team Coore and Crenshaw’ and our strong in-house restoration program, we are back in the conversation today with some very good golf courses.”

For Coore, the Old Town restoration represented a homecoming. Born in Richmond, Va., Coore grew up 24 miles away from Old Town outside of Thomasville, N.C. Though he only remained a member of the Wake Forest University golf team through his sophomore year and never played in a varsity match at Old Town (the Demon Deacons’ longtime home course), Coore developed a keen sense of knowledge and understanding of the Maxwell design while regularly playing the course all four years as a student.

Coore was all smiles when asked about returning to his old stomping grounds. “I keep pinching myself”, says Coore. “Is this really happening? Old Town and Pinehurst No. 2 were the greatest two early influences in my understanding of what extraordinary golf architecture was all about. What are the odds of coming back to be a part of this now?”

Old Town’s reclamation focused on recapturing the size, shape and character of Maxwell’s original bunkers, which often contained jagged-laced edges, exposed dirt faces and tall stalks of native grasses — “closer to what Mother Nature would have left behind,” according to White.

The restoration also featured the redesign of Old Town’s double green at holes 8 and 17. Here, Coore enlarged the dual putting surface from 8,200 to 16,700 square feet to more closely resemble its source of inspiration at The Old Course at St. Andrews — home to seven double greens. In the same spirit, Coore also ushered in a new joint tee for holes 9 and 18, where golfers tee off between the same two tee markers when playing both holes.

Like Pinehurst, Coore also eradicated more than 25 acres of Bermuda rough at Old Town in favor of re-establishing expansive outstretched fairways. Now, in more old-school tradition one single swath of fairway connects holes 4, 7, 17, 8, 9 and 18 successively without interruption of rough.

Perhaps no other improvement contributed more toward Old Town’s visual transformation than the removal of hundreds of overgrown trees and secondary tree plantings. As a result, turf quality improved and breathtaking panoramas were rediscovered from most every vantage point on the property.

“We like to think we’ve done some work [at Old Town] Mr. Maxwell would be proud of,” said Coore. “I don’t know if we’ve lived up to what he would expect, but we hope so.”

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