18 classic courses in S.C.: Yeamans Hall remains a tribute to the past

From the entrance to the course, club maintains its 1920s feel

 bgillespie@thestate.comJune 5, 2011 

— For many who have played golf at Yeamans Hall Club, giving directions to the 86-year-old course is part of an insiders’ joke.

“Just drive up North Rhett Street” in this quiet community north of Charleston, veterans tell outsiders, “and turn right … into the 19th century.”

Indeed. From its brick-pillared gatehouse entrance to the washboard sand-and-gravel road leading to the 1920s clubhouse that seems determined to wreck a car’s front-end alignment, everything at Yeamans Hall seems plucked from a museum — and given the membership’s efforts to preserve its original state, it should seem that way.

South Carolina golf in general and Charleston golf in particular has a long history, tracing its roots to before the Revolutionary War; many historians believe the game in America began at Charleston’s long-ago Harleston Green. There are older clubs in the state — Aiken’s Palmetto Golf Club dates to 1892; Yeamans Hall was founded in New York on April 20, 1925 — but few clubs venerate their traditions more and have done more to preserve those traditions than the private club located on 800 oak- and pine-lined acres abutting Goose Creek.

Claude Brusse, Yeamans Hall’s head professional for the past 18 years, knows most of the history; it sort of comes with the job. Rather than lecturing, though, Brusse (pronounced “Bruce”) produces a copy of a 108-page book, “The Cottages and Architects of Yeamans Hall.”

“It’s all in there,” the 51-year-old says. And it is.

Charlton deSaussure Jr., a lawyer with Haynsworth Sinkler Boyd, has lived in one of Yeamans Hall’s 35 cottages, built in the 1920s and 1930s, since moving home from Columbia in 1984. In 2010, he wrote the book on the club and its classic Seth Raynor course, using half-century-old remembrances as starting points.

“A wonderful lady, Mrs. Baldwin Ashley, wrote a history/narrative of the cottages, 20 pages on a legal pad,” deSaussure, 57, said. “It was updated in the 1990s.”

In October 2004, another member, Pembroke France Noble, wrote a six-page recollection of the 1950s, when wealthy New Yorkers rode trains south to Charleston to “winter” at the club, enjoying 4 p.m. tea, lawn bowling and, of course, golf.

“I can remember seeing black women with kerchiefs and long skirts using long thin bamboo poles to level the sand traps first thing in the morning,” Noble wrote.

DeSaussure, his father a member in the 1960s, always hoped someone would do “a more exhaustive project.” A year ago, he became that someone. “It was really fun, going into the New York Times archives,” where he found club ties to F. Scott Fitzgerald and other giants of the Roaring ’20s.

But while Yeamans Hall (named for Sir John Yeamans, granted title to the property in 1671 by King Charles II) is, in many ways, about a time and a lifestyle long past, its course continues to enjoy a reputation among golf’s cognoscenti. Golfweek ranks it among the top 100 in the U.S. in the “classic” category (built before 1960), but modern pros appreciate it as well.

“I absolutely love it; it’s one of the top 15 in the world,” said Matt Bettencourt, a PGA Tour winner who lives near Greenville. “I love old, traditional courses, and Seth Raynor is one of my favorite architects. It’s just a fantastic place.”

That sentiment is echoed by 2009 U.S. Open champion Lucas Glover and tour veteran Brad Faxon. Former Tour player Steve Melnyk, later a TV commentator and course designer, once walked into the pro shop and told Brusse, “Ben Crenshaw told me I have to see Yeamans Hall.”

One of Brusse’s favorite photos, also in deSaussure’s book, is of Brusse with Arnold Palmer in 1995, after “The King” played Yeamans Hall and birdied the final two holes to shoot 1-under-par 69.

“He showed me a Tommy Armour putter. I grew up using a putter like that,” Brusse said, grinning. “(Palmer) said, ‘Oh, I won the 1959 Masters with that putter.’”

Another Masters (1938) and PGA Championship (1939) winner, the late Henry Picard, was Yeamans Hall’s head pro and teacher for three seasons in the mid-1950s.

A list of the course’s celebrity fans is even more star-studded. Bob Hope once played as a guest of Yeamans resident Gen. William C. Westmoreland, who commanded U.S. forces in Vietnam. A photo in deSaussure’s book shows a visiting John F. Kennedy as a U.S. Navy lieutenant in 1942.

Walking from the pro shop on a recent morning, Brusse ran into comedian Bill Murray, a sometimes Charleston resident, and Riverdogs minor league baseball team owner Mike Veeck. The two were playing that day; both raved about the course.

Completed in 1928, that course is part of the resume of Raynor, who began Yeamans Hall and the nearby Country Club of Charleston in 1925; he died in 1926 at age 51. A civil engineer in New York, he was hired to help build Shinnecock Hills and himself designed

The Dunes at Monterrey Peninsula (Calif.), considered one of golf’s most beautiful creations.

As course design giant Charles Blair McDonald did, Raynor copied time-honored hole and greens designs from courses in Scotland, England and Ireland. Each Yeamans Hall hole is named, often for the hole that inspired it, such as the par-3 sixth (Redan, or “fortress,” for the 15th hole at Scotland’s North Berwick Golf Club); the par-4 seventh (Road, named for St. Andrews’ No. 17 Road Hole) and the par-4 16th (Biarritz, for the third hole at France’s Biarritz Golf Club).

Though at 6,808 yards the course is not long and fairways are up to 60 yards wide, the square-shaped greens are a formidable defense. Their characteristics are unlike any seen in modern architecture, with ridges, valleys and even horseshoe-shaped depressions. At the par-4 first hole, the green’s front-left and back-right sections are at least three feet higher than the middle, effectively dividing one huge green into three smaller ones. Land a ball on the wrong section, and par is elusive.

Even classic courses are not frozen in time, though. From World War II until the early 1990s, Yeamans Hall saw its greens shrink, and their undulating surfaces become rounded due to improper moving, top-dressing (adding sand) and lack of finances. Then in 1995, club members invited architect Tom Doak, known for his restorations of Raynor and other older courses, to offer a plan for Yeamans Hall.

Jim Yonce, the course’s superintendent since 1983, had found Raynor’s original plans in the clubhouse attic, and Doak toured the course with members. Afterward, he showed a video of Raynor holes elsewhere, comparing them to Yeamans Hall’s. Said deSaussure, “(Doak) turned skeptical members into a group that wanted the work done.”

Completed in 1998, the restoration expanded the greens (resurfaced with champions Bermuda) from a total of 80,000 square feet to 144,000 and restored their unique configurations. Today, Yeamans Hall is recognized as one of golf’s treasures, having hosted the 1997 U.S. Women’s Senior Amateur, 1990 Carolinas Mid-Amateur and 1993 Carolinas-Virginias Match Play and, more recently, an annual college tournament, the (College of Charleston) Cougar Classic.

On such occasions, Yeamans Hall has shown it still can frustrate and fascinate modern players. But that’s as close to “modern” as the club wants to get. Even Doak concurs: Some things should never change.

Says deSaussure: “Tom said, ‘Never pave the roads’” — the ones dating from, and leading to, the past.

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