Old Chatham: A Walk In The Park

At Old Chatham Golf Club, Rees Jones delivers a classic salute to the Golden Age of Golf Design

By Jim Hughes, read full article here.

The mystique of Old Chatham Golf Club begins at the stone and iron gates set back off a lightly traveled secondary road in northeastern Chatham County. There is no identifying sign on the gates or the road. For all you know, they could be guarding the country estate of a reclusive millionaire or the off-campus sanctuary of a super-secret fraternity from nearby Chapel Hill. The truth is much less mysterious. Behind these gates lies the golf course Golf Digest calls the best in the Metro area.

Old Chatham is intended for golfers who prefer the game in its purest form. The featured attraction is a classic Rees Jones creation that seems to have sprung full-grown from the golden age of golf design. Its 18 holes are spread over 400 acres of rolling woodlands and bordered on three sides by federally owned watershed. Framed by mature stands of oak and pine and maple and sweet gum, it’s the one course in the Triangle where golf is truly like a walk in the park.

Old Chatham is also distinguished by what it doesn’t have. It is the antithesis of the typical real estate course that dominates contemporary golf design. There are no houses, no tennis courts, no swimming pool and no distractions of any kind—and there never will be. The clubhouse—now in the planning phase—will be an unpretentious Tudor of about 7500 square feet, with a small kitchen and dining area. It is not intended to host large events or formal dances. If you’re looking for any of that, they’ll tell you politely this is not the right club for you.

“It’s a completely different mindset,” said Jim Hyler, executive officer of Raleigh-based First Citizens Bank and current president of Old Chatham Golf Club. “Old Chatham was conceived by people who love golf for those with a similar passion and modeled after the charm and character of the elite old-line clubs in other parts of the country.”
He added: “Ten years ago, when the idea for a traditional golf club first surfaced, we felt the Triangle was ready for a private golf club exclusively dedicated to the game of golf, with the ultimate in privacy and seclusion. It turns out there are a lot of people who want that in the Triangle.”

Vintage Jones

Old Chatham is vintage Rees Jones. It’s a big broad-shouldered course with wide corridors and generous landing areas. It’s long (7250 yards from the tips) but fair and eminently playable. The challenge comes from the gnarly Bermuda rough, the subtleties of the bent-grass greens—and the 65 bunkers that pocket the fairways and guard the greens, deep and foreboding and classically styled.

Jones’ strength as a designer has always been an ability to shape his courses to the natural terrain, rather than the other way around. Old Chatham shows off these talents to full advantage. It flows in an order that seems natural, and inevitable. It sits so gently on the land that you’re surprised to learn it’s only been open since September 2001. You really do get the feeling that it’s been there for quite a bit longer.

Old Chatham also reflects another of Jones’ design tenets. Tricks and gimmicks are just not in his bag. With Jones, what you see is what you get. Take the 11th hole, for example. It’s a brute from the back tees, stretching 630 yards to a well-bunkered green. But, like Bob Dylan said, it has no secrets to conceal. The hole is all right there in front of you, revealing the route best taken and the obstacles to avoid. You may get beat, but you won’t be fooled.

The Catalyst

The idea behind Old Chatham originated independently among two groups in Raleigh and Chapel Hill in the mid-1990s. The Raleigh group was led by Cliff Benson, Frank Daniels Jr., Smedes York, Greg Poole, A. Hobgood and James Maynard; the Chapel Hill group by Paul Rizzo, Bob Eubanks, Tommy Hudson and Rex Teaney, among others. With his ties to both the Raleigh and Chapel Hill business communities, and his record of building successful golf courses in North Carolina and Virginia, Stuart Frantz was the catalyst in bringing the two groups together. In mid-1998, they joined forces and were actively looking for sites.

About this time Frantz hooked up with Kirk Bradley, who with his uncle, Truby Proctor, developed the acclaimed Governors Club outside Chapel Hill. Bradley showed the group a 200-acre site that Proctor had assembled in the early 1990s with plans to establish a hunting preserve. The tract had been sitting idle since Proctor’s death in 1997, and the group decided it suited their plans perfectly. They assembled another 200 acres of surrounding property and, after interviews with the country’s best designers, decided that Rees Jones was the right choice to build the course.

From the beginning, Old Chatham has been recognized as a modern classic. It ranks among the top 10 courses in the state by Golf Digest and was voted among the nation’s top new private courses in 2001 by Golf magazine. It played host to a US Amateur Sectional Qualifier last year and earned virtually unanimous praise from the 132 competitors as a fair, demanding and superbly conditioned golf course.

With Hyler now serving on the USGA Executive Committee, Old Chatham could soon be in line for other big USGA events — the ultimate confirmation of the concept on which the club was built.