WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS - They came from across America and the northern border on Friday to this little corner of Greenbrier County that time forgot.
Golfers from 16 states and Canada descended on Oakhurst Links golf course for the first two rounds of the 14th annual National Hickory Championship, seizing an opportunity to step back in time and experience the game much the same way as when it was played in the mid-to-late 1800s and early 1900s. Oakhurst, which was established in 1884, is considered the oldest established course in the United States.
"It's just what I've been pulling off library shelves for years,'' said Scotland native Robin McMillan, a former Golf Magazine editor who traveled from his adopted home of New York City to compete in the tournament for the first time.
Sixty-eight competitors, the most in the Hickory Championship history, negotiated the nine-hole, 2,235-yard course dressed in turn-of-the-century hats, long-sleeved shirts (some with ties), knickers and stockings for men and long dresses, bonnets and umbrellas for women, using a mix of authentic and replica hickory clubs and Gutta-Percha balls.
Players, who must carry their clubs without the aid of a bag and walk the course, shape their own tees out of a wet mound of sand before embarking on a magical tour of thick rough and uneven fairways and greens. Golfers in past years had to keep a watchful eye for sheep that were used to graze the fairways, but the animals have since been discontinued.
Spectators watched Friday from rocking chairs on the front porch of the clubhouse, which sits on a picturesque knob overlooking the course, as a late summer morning breeze blew through the Greenbrier Valley. Longtime owner Lewis Keller, 88, who bought the course in the late 1950s at the urging of Sam Snead, greeted and regaled friends in his charming Virginia accent under shade trees.
"I lived five minutes from where the first golf balls were ever struck in the modern history of golf and I've seen photos at [The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of] St. Andrews, this is what it looks like,'' said McMillan, who was excitedly awaiting his first shots on the course.
McMillan said he had to cancel his trip last year, but couldn't put it off any longer.
"I decided I was definitely going to come,'' he said. "I believe I'm the first Scot to play in the tournament. It's kind of an honor.''
Peter Herrington, who is originally from England, and his wife Debbie have been making the trip from St. Louis for several years. Peter is participating in the tournament for the fifth time while Debbie is marking her second go-around.
"This is a jewel,'' said Peter Herrington. "A lot of the fellows who play, golfers we're not but we make up for it with the camaraderie and we meet a lot of special people when we come. The golf course is a challenge. It's fun to play with the old clubs.
"And of course you're playing on the oldest course in the States, which means an awful lot. It should mean an awful lot to many more people. Strangely enough there isn't the interest in this type of golf in England. This is very uniquely American. It's just typical of you guys to make the most of something, which is special and unique. This is just a magnet.''
Terry Thompson, who grew up in White Sulphur Springs and now lives in Lewisburg, was playing in her 10th tournament and has been hooked from the start. Thompson, who was one of only five women competing, will be recognized with an award this weekend.
"I've tried to drag a few others in,'' she smiled. "It's a golfing experience. I used to live across the street so I would come over here at night with my dog at 4 or 5 o'clock and Keller and I used to play five holes around [the property closest to the clubhouse]. It was great fun and I keep coming back.