As a member of the North Carolina Golf Panel, I rate North Carolina golf courses. Sounds like fun and easy work, but it takes a lot of thought. There are several golf panels around the United States and the world, and each seems to have a different way of rating courses. Who's to say which way is the best?
In North Carolina, we use the "Top 50" method. Each member of the 130+ member panel submits in December his/her list of top 50 courses in the Tar Heel State. Other than a panelist must have played the courses on his/her list, there is no set criteria. Pinehurst No. 2, site of two United States Open Championships, has always been at the top of the list since the group was formed a few years ago.
One of my criteria includes my desire to return. I usually ask myself, "Would I play the course every day?" In other words, would I return and return and return to play the course just as if it were my home course. (I'm a member of MacGregor Downs Country Club in Cary NC and have invested a lot of money and time in it which I wouldn't have done if I didn't want to play it nearly every day.) Wanting to play and replay a course means to me it's a good layout, calls for different shots from the tees and fairways, is fair without being too easy, is a challenge, is usually in good, playable shape or at least obviously has that characteristic most of the year, and other stuff related to appearance of the grounds and friendliness of the staff.
Old Town Club (Winston-Salem NC), which I was fortunate to play this week, is a course I'd play time and time again. It's a Perry Maxwell design, and this was the third time for me in two years I was fortunate enough to have the privilege of playing it.
Primary reasons I enjoyed it and will return is that the layout allows for long, free-swinging but accurate drivers to be hit from most of the tees, but it is a layout that calls for very accurate approach shots to small greens with unusual shapes and contours. Maxwell obviously moved little or no dirt in drawing and building this wonderful course. From the tips, it's a 6831-yard, par 70 with a course rating of 73.2 and a slope of 132. My friend, Johnny Moore, and I played it from the 6564-yard blue markers and each shot 82, not very good for a couple of five handicappers, but not bad considering the greens, especially since we only play the course about once a year and have a tough time remembering the unique flow of the greens. The more often one plays a course, the easier it is to play and that's primarily due to knowledge of the greens.
We're certain the original greens did not include one strand of bent grass. In all likelihood, Bermuda (or maybe sand) was the original choice which would have made approach shots and putting not as difficult as it is today. Quoting from the book, The Midwest Associate, The Life and Work of Perry Duke Maxwell, "When one takes a tour of the Old Town course many recurring themes appear," wrote author Christopher Clouser. "Proceeding backwards from green to tee you can easily see the strategic value that Maxwell placed on all of his holes at Old Town. The green complexes at Old Town are almost situated on areas of the course that are elevated on little knolls. The greens themselves contain several undulations, bumps, swales and dips."
Johnny likes to say that Maxwell buried his wives under several greens at Old Town, though we're not sure he had more than one wife if any. We didn't have the luxury of touring the course backwards to view the greens first though we tried to remember them from previous rounds there. We knew though that to be above the hole was to be in the wrong position, especially since they were running about 12 on the Stimp Meter. That's as fast or faster than most of the PGA tournament greens. As we drove up to the course that day around 12 noon, we noticed the greens were being cut. Not only were they fast, the usual mowing effort of early morning had been delayed that day just to give the NC Golf Panel the smoothest surfaces possible. I'm not sure how many putts my partner had, but I counted 41 on my scorecard, half of my strokes.
If you do not know Perry Maxwell, you might known a couple of his designs. He was the original course architect for Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth TX and Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa OK, two of the most notable golf courses in the United States. With all due respect to his abilities, Old Town reminded me of a typical Donald Ross design.
At Old Town, he used the lay of the land and a meandering creek to give the course a lot of character and careful shot making. The first hole is a 414-yard par 4 with a creek about 260 out at the bottom of the downward slope that starts at the tee area. Using my 4+ wood, I nearly drove it into the creek. The second shot is up-hill to a two level green.
I used my driver (without reservation) on 12 holes, though on two of the holes I could have used my 4+ again for accuracy. My approach shots needed anything from a six iron to a 56 degree wedge on the par fours. The par fives--526 yards and 590 yards--are not reachable in two at all due to that creek system. The par threes called for my nine iron, seven iron and five iron twice.
At its length, the a par 70 course doesn't seem too tough, but the greens make it so. According to the staff, the average size of the greens is only 5,000 square feet. At MacGregor Downs, I'm used to hitting to greens of 7,500 square feet, one and a half times the size at Old Town.
If one hole is a good indicator for the whole course, I think it's number 10, a 406 yard par four which is laid out straight away from the tee to a green considerably beyond the crest of a hill about halfway there. You cannot see the green from the tee. The drive, though must be hit along the left side of the fairway which slopes considerably to the right. I placed my drive where it should be, just on the edge of the left side of the fairway and only about 110 yards down the hill to the green. The pin was in the middle (front to back) of the green but on the right third of the surface. From my position, the green looked larger than it is, much less than the 5,000 square feet average green there. I remembered something funky about the green but not exactly what that funk is. I hit a nice shot which landed on the green about pin high and rolled about a foot left before it came to rest. Walking onto the green, I knew I was in trouble. Maxwell had buried one of his wives in the middle of the green, Johnny said. My putt had to travel up one side and down the other to get to the hole. I barely touched the ball and for a moment thought it would stop at the top of that wife, but it slowly continued toward the hole, picking up speed on that 12 Stimp Meter green. It waved at the hole as it passed by going at what seemed like a zillion miles an hour and eventually came to rest just off the right edge of the green about 10 feet beyond the hole. I missed coming back and gave kudos to Maxwell for his postage stamp design and the contour which required a much more accurate approach to the right side of the green.
That was just my third hole of the day because, with a shotgun start, we originated the round on number 8 tee. As I approached the tee on number 11, I knew it would be a long day on the greens, as it was. I made some return putts for par and missed a few as well. When all was said and done, I was looking for the invitation to return. If often invited, I'd play Old Town as often as possible.