18 Classic Courses in S.C.

Furman home to champions

On-campus facility proved a wise decision for school

bspear@thestate.comJuly 17, 2011 

Arnold Palmer Exhibition brochure at the bottom of this story

GREENVILLE - Why Furman University officials would decide to build an on-campus golf course 56 years ago is an unanswered question. In the mid-1950s, golf hardly made a blip on the college athletics scene.

Couldn’t the money be spent better else- where?

Turns out, the Furman folks hit the jackpot.

The Wall of Fame in the pro shop that honors 17 golfers who advanced into the pro ranks’ major leagues only begins to tell the story that has unfolded on the 170 emerald acres that sprawls along U.S.25 alternate.

A national championship team played here. Two Hall of Famers played here and another coached here. Twenty-six Southern Conference championship teams played here, and the number would be larger had women’s sports been recognized earlier. Likewise, the list of All-Americans would be more than 18 and the conference players of the year would be more than 16.

Obviously, the tradition is a rich one — even if some of today’s collegians do not fully appreciate the legacy.

“Tradition means a lot, but it’s not that important to some of the young ones,” Jen Hanna, one of those former All-Americans and players of the year and now Furman’s women’s coach, said. “To them, it’s not what has happened but what is going to happen.”

Game improvement generally happens, thanks to what is important — the golf course. There is the first-class practice facility and there is geography; everything is close at hand.

“The course made me want to play at Furman,” Ashli Bunch, Southern Conference player of the year in 1997 and current LPGA pro, said. “Besides that, it’s right there. You don’t have to drive 30 minutes to practice, and the time saved meant more study time, which is important with Furman’s academic standards.”

Whether officials sought that result in deciding to build a golf course in 1955 is not as important as the results, and the results are impressive.

No place like home

Architect Richard Webel joined Walter Cosby, superintendent of grounds and greens at the famed Greenbrier Hotel and Golf Resort, in designing the course and the most recent upgrade, handled by Kris Spence in 2008, brought the greens to USGA standards, bolstered the bunkering and improved the irrigation.

“The new green complexes make this a much tougher golf course,” director of golf Kyle Stam said. “It’s a really good test for the golfers. Kris Spence specializes in Donald Ross’ style of architecture and he made sure the greens fall into the character of the golf course.”

Spence replaced bent grass on the greens with Champion Bermuda, and the firmer putting surfaces increase the challenge.

The changes, Hanna said, make a difference to the Furman golf teams.

“We can replicate almost any shot we will face on any course we play,” she said. “Our players are prepared for conditions they will see in other tournaments.”

The routing helps, too. The sixth, ninth, 13th and 18th holes all “come back” to the clubhouse. “That’s beneficial from a time standpoint,” Hanna said. “We can play three or four different combination of holes without playing nine or 18.”

Bunch called the pre-renovated Furman course “more difficult than others we played and practicing there certainly made a difference to our team. We didn’t have to worry about conditions we would face on other courses.”

The par-72 layout measures almost 7,000 yards from the championship tees and future PGA player Brad Faxon set the pre-restoration course record with a 62 in 1982. Rich Massey matched him five years later. Current Furman player J.B. Murphy set the post-restoration standard with a 64 in 2010.

Stam calls the 469-yard, par-4 13th hole the most challenging and says the par-3 8th, which measures 161 yards, can leave golfers perplexed.

“The 13th is a dogleg left, and you’ve got to hit two really good shots in there to make par,” the pro said. “The 8th has that turtle-back green surrounded by bunkers and often shots that are just a little bit off funnel into the bunkers.”

Said Sherri Turner, a member of the 1976 women’s national championship team: “The conditions are much better now and that obviously makes a difference to the players in their development. The layout has always been good, but it was not always in good condition. When I was there, the driving range was not all that good and there was often dirt and leaves instead of grass.”

Some of those former players helped make sure today’s athletes have top-grade facilities. The REK Center, which opened in 1997, serves as a clubhouse and practice area for the men’s and women’s teams and a $75,000 gift from Beth Daniel, Betsy King and Dottie Pepper launched the work. A gift from an anonymous donor helped complete the project that includes everything from meeting areas to bunkers to putting greens to a covered, heated tee.

“That’s a big plus for our teams,” Hanna said.

Unfortunately, NCAA rules forbid former players from helping with recruiting.

A rich legacy

Furman’s ’76 national championship team consisted of Daniel and King, two future members of the Golf Hall of Fame after sterling LPGA careers, plus Turner, Cindy Ferro, Leigh Coulter and Holly Hunt.

“We’re very proud of what we accomplished, and it’s interesting how the team came together,” said Turner, who enjoyed a solid pro career. “Beth and Betsy were there and they came to school for academics. I had played some against Beth, and she suggested that the coach (Gary “Doc” Meredith) recruit me. I was the first female athlete recruited at Furman, and we won the championship my freshman year.”

The Paladins played most of their competition close to home, driving to away matches.

“We went to the national tournament in Michigan and beat Tulsa, the national powerhouse led by Nancy Lopez, by one stroke,” Turner said. “It was pretty special when the school had us back and honored us at the homecoming football game one year.”

The Furman pro-am brings some of the former stars back for fund-raising events, and the course stages high-profile college events for both men and women each year. Stars such as Patty Berg and Gary Player have played exhibitions there, but the one etched in the memory of everyone in attendance unfolded in 1967.

The King — Arnold Palmer — came to town.

Remember, in those days, television did not bring the world into living rooms 24 hours a day and having a star of Palmer’s magnitude in town commanded attention.

“An amazing day,” Columbia public relations executive John Durst, then a Furman senior, remembered. “Furman was the center of the golf universe. It was awesome.”

Durst still has the program that featured Palmer on the cover, a series of pictures that illustrated Palmer’s “million-dollar swing” and the centerfold contained a blank scorecard. Durst followed the foursome of Palmer and three area players, Heyward Sullivan, Harry Heath and George Pruitt, and kept score.

His unofficial scorecard shows that Palmer birdied the first two holes, made the turn in (2-under-par) 34, shot 37 on the back nine and finish 1-under 71. The others shot 76 or lower.

“Palmer had won four Masters and seven majors and was someone everybody wanted to see,” Durst said. “There was a lot of excitement on campus and he was extremely gracious, as expected. It was really special.”

“Special” is an appropriate word to describe what Furman University Golf Club became. Its legacy is very rich, indeed.

When Arnie came to Furman

For fullscreen and other options, use the tools at the bottom of this document.

The State is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service