The Old White is a testament to Charles Macdonald

When Charles Blair Macdonald opened the National Golf Links in 1911, most of America’s golfing elite beat a path to the Long Island mecca to observe what was touted as the greatest course built in North America. Macdonald had studied the venerable courses of Scotland and borrowed hole designs he considered uniquely challenging, adapting them to the Southampton site.

False fronts and flanking bunkers make a classic presentation.

As his fame as a designer spread, Macdonald was asked to design private courses for Piping Rock, Sleepy Hollow and the St. Louis Country Club, eventually catching the attention of the owners of the Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va. The Greenbrier possessed a nine-hole layout installed by Alex Findlay in 1910, but contracted with Macdonald in 1914 to plan one of his classic designs, slightly geared down for the playing talents of resort guests.

Director of Golf Maintenance Pat McCabe, right, and Old White Superintendent Billy Bobbitt.

The Old White, as the course eventually was named, featured all the prototype holes Macdonald was known for, but as the years passed and other courses were built on the property, the Old White lost its edge. Mounds were removed, bunkers filled in, greens softened and the personality of the holes faded. Some at the resort were content to allow the layout to morph into a gentle round of recreational golf; but not Director of Golf Robert Harris.

“For four years, Robert Harris worked to get the approval to look at Old White and do this work,” says Pat McCabe, Greenbrier’s director of golf maintenance. Harris brought in a succession of golf architects to examine the watered-down features, while educating himself on the other Macdonald layouts that still existed. “It was a process for him because there’s a percentage of people here and some of our guests who liked it the way it was; but it was a big maintenance challenge for a long time. He gets a lot of the credit for getting people on our side; that was his baby.”

McCabe has supervised all three of the resort’s courses for 18 years. “Twelve of the 18 years I’ve been here something has been torn up,” says McCabe, who engineered four years of restoration work on the Old White. With a sophisticated clientele that expects the golf courses to be playable April to November, McCabe’s mission was to complete four phases of renovation in the off-season. “We generally just keep one course open for the winter, and customarily it’s the Meadows Course because it has continual cart paths,” says McCabe. “The other courses close in October. The goal in three of our four phases was to get the greens in by Thanksgiving. What I mean by that is the sand in the greens well and the sod on the green surfaces. A lot of bunker surrounds were not completed, but our major objective was to give me some grow-in time coming out of the winter. One of the phases, we got it done the day before Thanksgiving.”

The Greenbrier wanted a golf course architect who understood Macdonald’s dynamic designs and would make numerous visits during the remodeling. Harris interviewed quite a few. “One of the big things with Lester George was his location; we thought he could make a few more visits compared to some of the other architects that Robert interviewed,” says McCabe. George is based in nearby Richmond, Va.

Harris, McCabe and George visited classic Macdonald layouts such as the Chicago Golf Club, and they also relied on original photos of their own property. “We had so many photos of the Old White. Even now things are turning up, but we had a good supply I thought,” says McCabe. The motivation to return to the old features was twofold. “I think from a golfer’s stand point it was bringing back the risk and reward play in the game. We had some bunkers that weren’t in play with the modern golf ball. From a maintenance standpoint, I had bunkers that didn’t drain; every half inch of rain we had to pull the bunker pumps out. All the sand was flashed up on the banks where now we have the grass down to the toe of the slope. We wanted to offer our guests a different experience too; I think that played a part in it.”

The Redan hole is one of the boldest copies on the layout.
The renovation brought risk/reward play to the forefront.
Grassing choices for the bunker surrounds generated discussion for a couple of years.

The team of George, Harris, McCabe and Aspen Construction of Daniels, W.Va., worked well together. “Lester was fine to work with; the more we associated with him the better it got,” says McCabe. “Lester’s greens mix is 100 percent sand with Ecolite, which is a ceramic material, and Renovate, a nutrient package with hard and soft rock phosphates; a fertility package that was blended in. Like most architects, he was very open-minded about the grasses. Basically, grassing was left up to us, and a lot of the discussion on the grass was done in that first phase.”

Billy Bobbitt was the superintendent of the Old White for three of the four phases, coming over from Kinloch, another course George had designed. “Billy was on the day-to-day and weathered all the cold and wind,” says McCabe. Everyone was involved in grassing choices. “L93 was chosen for the greens, there really wasn’t any discussion regarding that. That’s the grass I wanted, and that’s the grass we put on it,” says McCabe. “The bunker faces on phase one got a blend of bluegrass and fine fescue. We wanted see how it was going to do, see the look, and we thought doing that small piece in phase one would lead us to a more definite choice of grass in phases two, three and four. We used an 80 percent bluegrass, 20 percent fine fescue and a couple of the bunkers got a 50/50 blend. As the project progressed we basically went to 100 percent fine fescue. We had our reservations about how our guests would handle it because we wanted to produce a seed head and allowed that to happen, and there were some challenges after it seeded out at the end of June. It was a challenge for our guests, playabilitywise, so after the latter part of June, we started to trim it back.”

McCabe was drawn to the look of tall fescue in the old photos. “I would have gone with solid bluegrass around our bunkers and green complexes because it would have been a little bit easier to manage, but after looking at Lookout Mountain and some others, I realized it’s the design that makes the restoration, not the grass,” says McCabe. “Being a grass grower, I was probably hung up on that maybe more than I should have been. My desire was to allow the fine fescue to grow, seed out and give you that good aesthetic, old-course look, but play can’t handle that.”

Given the time frame, when grasses were chosen, all surfaces had to be sodded. “First of all, the time of the year we did this restoration we had no choice but to sod. Nobody wanted to, but we had to if we were going to have it open for play in May,” says McCabe. “Anytime you sod greens you’re importing thatch already in the grass, so we knew we had a big challenge in front of us with sodding the greens. The sod we purchased was from Colin Boyd up north of Pittsburg, and I went up there to look at it and it was growing in 100 percent sand base, which is what the greens are at Old White, so it matched pretty well. He’s got a very small nursery, and he treats it like a green. It’s a little more expensive, but we wanted to match the medium we have here.”

The par-3 third hole, known as Biarritz, features a huge green with a deep swale cutting through the green’s heart.
Huge chocolate drop mounds just off the L93 putting surfaces demand chipping skills some modern golfers have never mastered.
Rectangular fairway bunkers honor an early era in American golf.

McCabe also realized that he couldn’t expect miracles from the L93 in Greenbrier’s mountainous environment. “We’ve learned that coming out of the winter, we can’t push that L93. Getting the courses ready for April 1 play, if we want to do any aerification we have to do it before April 1, and L93 does not recover from an early spring aeration; it’s slow to come out of that dormancy and get going,” says McCabe. “Even with the old Poa greens on the other two courses, you have to be very careful. You can get yourself into a situation, if you’re aerifying late in the fall, that you’re going to look at those greens April 1 and it will look like you just aerified them, so it’s a big challenge. If you think you’re going to push it with fertilizer, it just won’t work. You’ve got to have a fertility program monthly or every two weeks. You’ve got to spoon-feed it; it’s sure not as aggressive as Penncross.”

In addition to greens and bunker complexes, all the tees were redone and some fairways were reshaped. The amazing thing is that during four winters, the weather was never a project killer. “I have to admit we were very, very lucky with the weather on all phases,” says McCabe. “I couldn’t have asked for better weather; I don’t remember any lengthy cover of snow. The contractor had to push snow out of the way to build some tees, and we did it, but there was no prolonged stoppage of work because of the accumulation of snow. Now, we had the cold weather, but we’ve been very fortunate the last six, seven years with snow. It’s funny when you see a contractor take a chain saw out to cut in a bunker edge, that can be interesting, but I can’t say enough about those guys at Aspen Construction, they’re awesome.”

McCabe also got to test the value of greens covers. “We played around with winter covers to give that L93 every advantage we could, besides praying. In phase three we covered three-fourths of the greens that were built. We also incorporated black sand, some we put straight black sand as a topdressing, some we put covers only, and some we put covers with black sand underneath and one green we didn’t do anything to. And, we came to the conclusion that neither the black sand or the covers gave us any advantage. It didn’t appear to be any different than the one that was not covered.”

The final product is a testament to Charlie Macdonald and the perseverance of everyone at the Greenbrier. The Old White now features a dazzling array of classic holes, and the resort has educated golfers with informational signs at each tee. The massive Biarritz green at number three and the outrageous Redan at number eight are standouts, but every hole has unique, old-time features. The spirit of one of golf’s greatest designers has been honored, more than 90 years after he first set foot on the acreage.

Bob Labbance is Turf’s golf editor and a frequent contributor. He resides in Montpelier, Vt. He can be reached with your ideas and comments at blabbance@notowngolf.com.