18 Classic Courses in South Carolina

18 Classic Courses: Forest Lake holds special piece of history

Fleck was at course before he beat Hogan in OpenFleck was at Forest Lake before he beat Hogan in Open

bspear@thestate.comJuly 30, 2011 

Steve Johnson tees off at the #13 tee at the Forest Lake Club Golf Course.

C. ALUKA BERRY — caberry@thestate.com Buy Photo

Consider the great upsets in major golf championships and Jack Fleck’s stunning triumph against Ben Hogan in the 1955 U.S. Open will find a place on every list.

But who remembers that the seeds of that amazing conquest at the Olympic Club in San Francisco had been planted at Columbia’s Forest Lake Club?

Fleck is not the only golfer who left Forest Lake armed with the knowledge provided by master teacher Melvin Hemphill, the club’s longtime pro, and succeeded on golf’s biggest stage. Henry Picard dropped in for a lesson prior to his winning the Masters; Tommy Aaron did the same.

Indeed, Hemphill became synonymous with the club off Trenholm Road and remains a vital part of its legacy nearly 31 years after his death. The list of players who visited during his tenure between 1931-77 reads like a Hall of Fame roster. Byron Nelson played here. So did Gene Sarazen and Patty Berg and Babe Zaharias.

They came to a course carved out of the pines in 1923 by a crew headed by George Sharpe and his son David. The workers received the handsome sum of 20 cents an hour, Forest Lake historian Georgia Hart reports in a book on the club.

The architect’s identity had been forgotten until member David Clark became curious, checked with the United States Golf Association’s historian and discovered that Maurice McCarthy Sr. did the design.

“He worked for A.G. Spaulding Co. in New York, and his job was to go around and help build and promote golf clubs in order to sell his (sporting goods) company’s products to the players,” Clark said.

In Forest Lake, McCarthy laid out a course that started with sand greens, looks tight with fairways guarded by stately trees, evolved through the years and has stood the test of time. Although a mere 6,450 yards from the back tees, its par of 72 seldom takes a beating.

“We’ve had a low score of 71 for the Senior Open qualifying and one score in the 60s in the Trescott tournament,” pro John Winterhalter said. “The course is solid and can hold its own.”

A finish to remember

Many purists grumble at the idea of a par-3 finishing hole, insisting that player need more of a challenge with a tournament or a match at stake. Forest Lake provides the exception to the rule.

Maybe the pros would turn Forest Lake’s 18th, which plays anywhere from 92 to 172 yards over water and generally into the wind, into a patsy. But for members, the idyllic scene — flowers and trees on the right, the clubhouse in the background — is anything but comforting. They have to hit the shot.

“Many a round has been ruined there,” Winterhalter said. He laughed and recalled the member-member best-ball tournament in which two of the club’s better players fell out of contention with a triple-bogey 6 at the final hole.

The original design routed the 18th around the water for a dogleg par-4, but architect Dick Wilson suggested the change. Georgia Hart, the historian who at age 91 still plays three times a week, remembers controversy over removing an ancient pine. But that change, coupled with placing the 17th green on the lake’s edge, provides a spectacular finish.

“Seventeen is a Saturday Evening Post picture,” longtime superintendent John Gay said.

“Forest Lake is a beautiful golf course,” said Hart, one of five associated with Forest Lake who have been inducted into the South Carolina Golf Hall of Fame. “That has always been important.”

Gay and his crew take care of that, and the superintendent’s choice of flowers and shrubs add splashes of color no matter what the season.

But the beauty can be a beast; club lore tells that Byron Nelson claimed golfers had to walk single file down the narrow fairway corridors. The trees do create an almost claustrophobic look, which Winterhalter noted is part of the charm.

Asking about the toughest hole generates healthy debate. Former club and city champion Bobby Foster started with No. 6 and 11, both par-3s, and Winterhalter said, “You have to throw No. 12 (a par-4) in there, too.” Finally, they settled on the 6th, which can play from 180 yards (forward tees) to 215 yards (championship tees).

“False front, crowned greens that allows balls to roll off, bunkers on both sides after a long tee shot,” Foster said. “It gets your attention.”

The ever-evolving course recently had tees expanded on the second and eighth holes, and a more shade-tolerant turf has been installed. But the eighth, a par-3, needed no change, said Kat Salley, 82, a hall-of-famer who won the club’s women’s championship in five different decades.

“I made a hole-in-one on No. 8, and my husband made a hole-in-one there the next day,” she said. “He said, ‘If my wife made one, I better make one, too.’ Paul Harvey used that on his radio show.”

The announcer could have talked about Hart and her first adventure on a new tee on No. 18. Her foursome arrived as workers completed the job and they asked if she would like to be the first player to test it.

“I thought, ‘Suppose I hit it into the water?’ ” she remembered. “I was really nervous, but I hit it close for a tap-in birdie, and I was so tickled.”

Members can talk about that achievement, or the Salleys husband-wife holes-in-one, or Billy Stork’s matching Salley’s feat by winning the club’s men’s championship in five different decades. Eventually the conversation returns to Melvin Hemphill and what he meant to the club and the community.

A legacy left

“A marvelous instructor,” Kat Salley said. “He played left-handed and it was like looking in a mirror with him facing (the pupil). He had a quick eye to pick up any flaw, and he just gave you a swing thought. He was fabulous.”

Jack Fleck would agree.

Fleck had played in a tournament at Fort Jackson and sought Hemphill’s help. In an 1970 interview, Hemphill recounted how Fleck had play well until faltering on the back nine in the final round and left without talking to the instructor. But Fleck improved and later returned for lessons prior to the 1955 U.S. Open. He rallied to tie Hogan after 72 holes and won the playoff a day later.

“My dad was thrilled beyond belief” with Fleck’s victory,” Kathryn Tilghman, Hemphill’s daughter, said. “(Fleck) called him from San Francisco right after the tournament.”

The pro’s focus went beyond the big names in the golf world. He concentrated on juniors and club members.

“I’m the only one he couldn’t teach,” Kathryn Tilghman said with a laugh. “I had one lesson in our backyard with a Wiffle ball. I was hopeless.”

However, Tilghman’s daughter and Melvin Hemphill’s granddaughter, Kelly, carries on the golf tradition as an anchor on the Golf Channel.

Melvin Hemphill’s greatest achievement, Georgia Hart said, was the development of his sister Kathryn, who became one of the top women players in the 1930s. She won regional and national tournaments and earned a berth in the U.S. Curtis Cup.

“He was so dedicated,” she said. “If you had a bad round, he would say, ‘Let’s go over to the practice tee and see what’s going on.’ ”

Golf World magazine wanted to see what was going on and recognized Hemphill in a 1971 article entitled “An Old Pro Teaches With Some New Ideas.”

In its way, that title is appropriate for Forest Lake. The old course goes back 88 years and the club still uses its first championship trophy, but the layout has withstood the assault of technology and passes the test of time with flying colors.

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