SPARTANBURG — After the interior decorator finished the Country Club of Spartanburg’s clubhouse, long-time member Pat Crowley inspected the work and swallowed hard.
Where is the history? he thought. Where is the history?
Crowley knew few golf facilities in the state can match Spartanburg’s lore and he believed to ignore the magic that has unfolded on a course that dates to 1908 would be a sin.
Although some of yesterday has been lost, the club offers this:
• Four of the 59 members in the South Carolina Golf Hall of Fame have called this their home club.
• The LPGA staged 14 tournaments here between 1953-66 and the winners include Louise Suggs, Babe Zaharias, Betsy Rawls and Mickey Wright.
• The Bobby Chapman Junior Invitational that began in 1995 draws the cream of young golfers from across the country. Five of the 16 champions participated in last month’s U.S. Open.
• At least 24 youngsters who grew up in the club played golf on the collegiate level, and their pictures are framed in their college colors.
• Cary Middlecoff, who counted one Masters and two U.S. Opens among his pro victories, once held the course record, playing the layout while stationed nearby during World War II.
Throw in the strong but undocumented Donald Ross influence on the layout that now stretches to 6,648 yards, and the legacy is one to treasure.
Crowley saw the possibility of that history slipping and decided to act. He received the blessing from the club’s Golf and House committees to proceed with his project.
The results tell Spartanburg’s story.
“It’s a labor of love at his time and expense, and he has done a wonderful job,” said Tom McAllister, the long-time pro and now director of golf. “It’s hard to find things, but he has spent hours and hours looking at old newspapers and microfilm.”
Portraits, plaques, pictures and other memorabilia adorn the walls and provide a thread from then to now. The junior champions have their corner, the club’s collegians have their space and the LPGA theirs.
“When Pat finds something, he jumps all over it,” McAllister said. “The members love it.”
At the beginning
Through the years, members have included giants from the textile industry who also had memberships at Augusta National, Pine Valley and Oakmont. The rolls included the four who have been inducted in the state golf shrine for their impact on the game.
Patsy Johnson won championships on the course and had influence in serving on the Women’s South Carolina Golf Association’s junior girls committee for many years. Joe Davis, the club’s head pro for 30 years and consultant thereafter, left an assistant’s job at Augusta National in 1948 and provided a guiding light until his death. Betsy Rawls won 53 pro tournaments, including four U.S. Women’s Opens, and P.J. Boatwright, the 1951 State and Carolinas amateur champion, served the USGA for 40 years.
“I played many a round there and I loved the place,” Rawls said from her retirement home in Wilmington, Del. “The people in Spartanburg were the nicest and friendliest I met in all my traveling and all the other pros said the same thing during the tournaments we played there.”
The LPGA tournament took on several names, usually a combination of Betsy Rawls and Peach Blossom, and the champion would generally finish no more than two or three under par.
“The course is a good test,” said Rawls, who won back-to-back titles in 1956 and ’57. “It’s hilly with very distinctive holes that tested every kind of shot. Looking at the list of champions, you see the names of the best players. The best players had to play well to win there.”
With the club established in 1908, the course opened with nine holes in 1910 and Spartanburg would like to claim the famed Donald Ross for the architect — “but he never wrote about doing the course and we can’t document that he built it,” McAllister said.
Crowley’s research included a conversation with Patsy Johnson, who remembered talking to Peggy Kirk Bell during one of the early LPGA events.
“(Bell) took one look at the golf course and told Patsy, ‘There is no doubt that Donald Ross did the first nine holes,’ ” Crowley said.
Alas, finding the proof is elusive, but Crowley’s search will not stop.
According to the club book, the club was founded at the home of A.W. Twitchell, started with sand greens, the original clubhouse burned in 1929 and the first golf professional was an Englishman named Mr. Newman.
“A lot of initials and no first names,” McAllister said. “It’s unfortunate that no one kept up with the history through the years. (Crowley) has asked our members for anything that would help and he’s working at it, but there are some things we don’t know.”
John LaFoy renovated the course in 1985 and Kris Spence, who specializes in renovation of Ross courses, restored the layout in 2008.
“We wanted to maintain the Ross characteristics,” McAllister said.
McAllister is married to Joe Davis’ daughter, and he learned some of the lore from his father-in-law.
“(Davis) came from Augusta National and urged Spartanburg members to buy tickets to the Masters,” McAllister said. “In those days, Masters tickets were plentiful, and this club probably had more members with Masters tickets than any other.”
Stories abound at the club and it is easy to imagine the cream of the LPGA teeing off on the long downhill No. 1, or to visualize Davis working with Rawls on the practice tee, or to think about Boatwright at the height of his prowess winning another club championship.
The list of tournaments indicates the obvious; the club is generous with its facilities for events, and high on the priorities is junior golf. Prior to the Bobby Chapman that continually grows in prestige, Spartanburg staged the Frank Edwards junior tourney for seven years.
“Many of the players we see on the PGA Tour now played in the Bobby Chapman, and some of them keep in touch” Crowley said. “The kids don’t forget. Lucas (Glover) will come back to visit during the tournament. He sat at the turn and talked to the kids the year after winning the (U.S.) Open.”
Count Bubba Watson among today’s pros who received a taste of the Country Club of Spartanburg. His father drove him to the tournament in a mobile home, Crowley said.
“We had an old practice range, about 230 yards to a net,” Crowley said. “Bubba was hitting irons into the net and I told his father, ‘He hits a nice 5 iron.’ His dad said, ‘That ain’t a 5 iron, that’s a 2 iron.’ And he told Bubba, ‘You won’t need your driver on this course.’ ”
The South Carolina Golf Association named the Country Club of Spartanburg its “club of the year” in April, and the organization will bring the State Amateur to Spartanburg for the fourth time in 2012.
Another chapter will be added to Spartanburg’s legacy, and this time history will not be lost.