Hampton's The Woodlands turns 100

By David Teel
Published on

HAMPTON, Va. -- Suffice to say, Sam Snead could have celebrated his 50th birthday on any golf course of his choosing. Such are the perks of winning at storied layouts such as Augusta National, St. Andrews, Oakmont, Riviera and Pinehurst No. 2. Why, Snead could have even returned to his roots at The Homestead in Hot Springs, where he began caddying as a child.

But on May 27, 1962, this Virginia icon marked a benchmark birthday by playing an exhibition at Hampton Country Club. His foursome on that Sunday afternoon included 1961 U.S. Open champion Gene Littler and top-flight Peninsula players Wayne Jackson and Ronnie Gerringer.

"There was a tremendous crowd," Jackson said. "Every fairway was lined with people, and all the tees and all the greens."

Thursday morning, with far less fanfare but similar pride, that same property, now called The Woodlands Golf Course, will commemorate its centennial with an invitational scramble tournament for 116 players. Golf manager Patty Lewis, her staff, course historian A.G. Womble, the course's advisory committee and the Hampton Rotary are among those who made the event happen.

Jackson wouldn't miss it. Nor would former PGA Tour player Skeeter Heath.

"I owe that old girl a lot," Heath said of The Woodlands.

As do countless others, from accomplished players who learned the game there to legions of high-handicappers who discovered a weekly, or even daily, haven in what is now a cozy, par-69 course.

You won't see a stately clubhouse or sample gourmet cuisine at The Woodlands. But you will find a friendly, public course with considerable history.

The venue opened in 1916 as the Old Point Comfort Golf and Country Club and within 20 years was redesigned by the acclaimed Donald Ross, whose work includes Pinehurst No. 2 in North Carolina, Inverness in Ohio, East Lake in Georgia and Oak Hill in New York. The Chamberlin Hotel once operated and owned the course, transporting guests to and fro' via trolley.

Heath called it an ideal layout for learning the game's nuances such as course management and shaping shots.

"It taught you how to play golf," he said, "which all Donald Ross courses do. And they're still playing majors at Pinehurst."

Indeed, No. 2 hosted the U.S. Open and U.S. Women's Open in 2014. East Lake has staged the Tour Championship since 2005, while Oak Hill has been home to six major championships, including the second of Curtis Strange's back-to-back U.S. Opens, in 1989, and most recently the 2013 PGA.

Strange grew up in Norfolk and Virginia Beach, Heath in Hampton, and as kids during the early 1960s they rotated golf weekends. Heath would bunk one weekend at the Stranges', and the boys would play Bow Creek in Virginia Beach, where Curtis' dad, Tom, was the pro. The next weekend they'd move to the Peninsula and play Hampton Country Club.

Heath stumbled across the course at age 7, tagging along with Gerringer, his older cousin. Club pro Red Speigle noticed the kid and put him to work.

"Mr. Speigle said, 'You can come down here, but if you do, you're going to shag balls for me,'" said Heath, who works in management at Williamsburg Golf Club.

Heath played his first rounds at the course and won the individual state high school championship in 1970 while at Bethel. He was an All-American at East Tennessee State before qualifying for the PGA Tour.

Heath's introduction to Hampton Country Club came in the same year that Gerringer and Jackson, then the club's best players, faced off against Snead and Littler in the exhibition, arranged by Speigle, a close friend of Snead's.

"I got over it pretty quickly," said Jackson, a Hampton High graduate, "but I was a little nervous on the first tee."

Of course he was. He was a 27-year-old amateur in a foursome with the reigning U.S. Open champion (Littler) and the PGA Tour's all-time victories leader (Snead won 82 Tour events).

Retired and living in Gloucester, Jackson, 81, vividly recalls the day. All four players birdied the first hole, but the galleries were so tight that each plunked spectators during the round -- Jackson said one of his shots hit, but did not injure, Cynthia Andrews, whose husband, Hunter, later served 32 years in the Virginia Senate.

"Sam was grumbling a little bit the whole way around because we were 1-up going to 17," Jackson said of the best-ball, match-play format. "Gene Littler chipped it in from off the green to get even, and then Sam birdied 18 to beat us 1-up."

On their own balls, Snead shot 6-under-par 66, Jackson 67, Gerringer 70 and Littler 71.

Jackson's mother introduced him to the game and Hampton Country Club when he was a teenager, and he later played on Hampton High's golf team. Playing 36-54 holes a day during the summer, Jackson estimates he's logged thousands of rounds at what is now The Woodlands.

Speigle, who died in 2002 at age 86, "took me under his wing and was my only teacher," Jackson said. "He was not only a terrific teacher, he was a terrific friend. ... You had players from all walks of life. You had the plumbers and the electricians and the shipyard workers and the automobile dealers and the doctors and the lawyers. ... Mr. Speigel created a healthy atmosphere and competition. We just had a wonderful group of players. ... We had 30, 40 people that could shoot in the 70s. It was quite a mix, and it was an education for me."

Jackson won dozens of local amateur events, including a handful at his original course. He also claimed the 1956 and '65 Virginia State Golf Association Amateur Championships, a prestigious tournament also won by Heath, Strange, Vinny Giles and brothers Lanny and Bobby Watkins.

But the most accomplished player groomed primarily Old Point/Hampton came decades earlier.

Lew Worsham played golf for Hampton High School in the mid-1930s before winning the 1947 U.S. Open in an 18-hole playoff over Snead and leading the PGA Tour in earnings six years later. He retired in Poquoson and died in 1990 at age 73.

The Woodlands has changed considerably from its country-club past. Interstate 64's arrival removed hundreds of yards, prompted a redesign and shaved par by three strokes. Private ownership ended in the early 1970s and, following a multi-year closure, the city took over management in the mid-'70s.

Patty Lewis -- her husband, Darcy, is a former superintendent at the course -- has heard the history from customers and seen it through old photographs and yellowed newspaper clips stashed in her office filing cabinet.

There was the errant shot that struck a state trooper's car on I-64 and quickly converted the seventh hole from a par-4 to par-3. There were the musical acts that before or after their local shows hit the links: Charley Pride, Motley Crue and Shania Twain's band.

Thursday's event -- Mayor George Wallace, Councilman Billy Hobbs and former mayors Jimmy Eason and Joe Spencer are expected to participate -- is more of a customer-appreciation day than competition, a nod to The Woodlands' most loyal patrons. Many of them are seniors, including Conky Sorrell, who will hit the ceremonial first tee shot.

Officials also will honor Thurman Felker, a course staple for most of his 86 years. A former assistant pro at The Woodlands with seven holes-in-one to his credit, Felker spent many a day retrieving golf balls from the course's water hazards, and Tuesday he drowned at the course.

"We're all such a close-knit group over here," Lewis said. "It's all very devastating to us."

Those bonds are a large part of what make The Woodlands special at the grand old age of 100.

As Lewis said, "We're proud of this little course."

This article was written by David Teel from Daily Press (Newport News, Va.) and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.