Listen, Do You Want To Know A Secret…

North Carolina is known to gemologists as one of the world’s best locations for precious gems, and in particular, the highest quality emeralds. But it is a hidden gem of another green sort that I want to tell you about. That gem happens to be a golf course right here in the triangle by the name of Old Chatham Golf Club. I had only recently heard of the course when a playing partner mentioned how much he would love to see and play the course.

The genesis of the club began when several members of other clubs, frustrated by the inability to play when they wished to—or for having to play on a crowded course—began to think about founding a club unlike all the country clubs being built around the Triangle. They decided to build a golf only club for golf enthusiasts. Its founder/owners could play when they wished without being crowded or rushed.  In short, a new golf family for its members. The original founders club consisted of 114 members, and in the late 1990s the search for suitable land began.

With help from founding members who were involved in golf course ownership and management, 403 acres in northeast Chatham County were found and purchased from four or five separate owners. Off the beaten path but only minutes from RTP. The challenge was how to transform this forested land into a championship golf course. The members agreed that they wanted a parkland style (grass tee to green) that challenged its members but was also fair. The trend in the ’90s seemed to be developing courses that had two characteristics: 1) the course was built around future home sites and 2) a competition to see who could design the most difficult course for players. Neither trend would be implemented at Old Chatham (OC).

The members committee had crucial decisions to make regarding the selection of the architect who could fashion their vision and the director of golf who would partner with the architect and be the steward of the course into the future. After interviews and discussion the nod went to one of golf ’s most respected architects—Rees Jones, son of legendary Robert Trent Jones. Shortly after that decision, the superintendent and director position went to second-generation golf professional Brian Powell from Atlanta.

Rees Jones is known in golf circles as the “Open Doctor” because of the design and redesign work he has accomplished on so many of golf ’s greatest venues. His tournament courses include Atlanta’s East Lake, Bethpage Black, Baltusrol, Congressional, Hazeltine, Medinah (site of this year’s Ryder Cup) and Torrey Pines. Closer to home, he has worked on Duke University Golf Club and the Country Club of North Carolina.

Rees would have the luxury of designing and implementing the course according the topography of the land without home sites. This means that natural features are incorporated and the holes run along the natural ridge lines and swales. Mr. Jones also designed this beautiful course layout so that members could enjoy the view of multiple holes at one time while on the course. Old Chatham Golf Club opened for play in 2001 after nearly two years of construction.

I spent some time recently with Brian Powell who was kind enough to share some of the challenges the course has encountered since its opening. 2002 was a tough year due to the drought in the summer and the ice storms of the winter that felled 1,000 trees on the property. Additional droughts in 2005 and 2007 were some of the worst in the Piedmont since records have been kept. However, Brian and his team have always been up to the tasks nature has handed them, Old Chatham is as beautiful as ever.

The best golf courses change with time. As clubs, balls and grasses have been perfected, older courses have been lengthened. Even newer courses like OC continue to improve. “Even the best can get better,” says Director of Operations John Marino. The course is currently undergoing renovations to several holes under Mr. Jones’ direction. Changes include new bunkers, new Champion Ultradwarf Bermudagrass on the greens for increased sustainability and alterations to the areas not in play. According to Brian, “Rees is invested in his designs and he will follow up with us even years after design or redesign to see if the design or changes are working.” They are planting native species of grass such as red switchgrass and pink muhly in common areas. This supports course sustainability and provides valuable habitat for local avian species such as quail. As we were viewing the new grasses we were surprised by the shrieks of a large hawk inhabiting a nearby tree. The course grounds are a designated Audubon Sanctuary. A good golf course should also allow players to enjoy nature.

A prominent female doctor and avid golfer told me, “After moving to Durham for my residency in 2002, I was invited to play with a member and I loved it!” A former college and tour player, she has been a member since 2009 and says she appreciates the family atmosphere at Old Chatham and how they have involved the members with info on the renovations. She is also pleased with the programs and clinics for women.

The secret of Old Chatham is out. For additional information about the Triangle’s unique golf only private club, contact Jodi Tata at jodi.tata@oldchathamgolf.org or 919.361.1400.

Reprinted with permission from the August 2012 edition of Boom! Magazine.