On a gray winter’s day, I went looking for ghosts.
The ghosts of golf courses that once existed in and around Charlotte, North Carolina, where I struck my first shot more than 50 years ago and where I still chase the unconquerable game.
My ghost hunting was prompted by the news that one of the most popular and successful daily-fee courses in the Charlotte area – the Golf Club at Ballantyne – had closed permanently effective Jan. 1.
It’s situated in a vibrant section of one of the fastest growing cities in the country. But the land on which the course sits – amid an encroaching office park within a larger neighborhood – will be better served by apartments, a shopping area and what developers like to a call a “town center” with an amphitheater and, yes, public art, according to the group that purchased the entire community a couple of years ago.
The Golf Club at Ballantyne (which had been home to top 100 teacher Dana Rader’s golf school for many years) joins a surprisingly long list of golf ghosts around Charlotte, which, despite the demise of various layouts, is a golf-rich city.
By my count, 10 courses that I grew up with like cousins are gone. That doesn’t necessarily make Charlotte unique – Myrtle Beach needs all its fingers and toes and more to count its former golf courses – but it rekindled a wave of nostalgia.
It’s no secret that the number of golf courses has declined in recent years. According to the National Golf Foundation, the number of golf courses in the U.S. has declined by eight percent since 2006, demonstrating the game is not immune to the laws of supply and demand.
The purpose of my ghost hunting was not to lament what has been lost but to remember what was there, knowing that most of the people who now live and work where golf courses once sat probably have no idea of the land’s history.
Each day, thousands of cars traverse the interchange where Interstate 85 and I-485 (the too-small loop road that encircles Charlotte) create a spider web of concrete near the airport. Chances are almost no one fighting traffic there realizes that one corner of Pawtuckett Golf Course once sat where an off-ramp now dumps traffic onto 485.
It was a demanding course where the city championship was played for years.
… a sprawling apartment complex sits on the land. I wonder if anyone knows why the apartments are called The Links?
What was once a Tom Doak design – Charlotte Golf Links – is now the site of a sprawling shopping complex with an immense grocery store that features a beer and wine bar in the middle. Prior to the pandemic, the grocery store bar featured live music on Friday and Saturday evenings and it was hard to get a seat. The bar is still open but the music is on hold. You can, however, shop for your groceries with a crisp pilsner or a nice chardonnay in your cart should you so desire.
Some of the senior citizens who live in a high-end retirement community may remember Sharon Golf Course where their home now sits. It was a nine-hole track that stayed busy and, if you are of a certain generation of Charlotteans, it’s where you learned to play golf.
Regent Park, laid on land that was part of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s PTL empire years ago, had the chance to be special but money dried up, a familiar tale.
A place called Crystal Springs spanned the North and South Carolina state line, which may have been its biggest selling point. Another place, Paradise Valley, disappeared under apartments. But there was a short course created there, a nod of sorts to the past.
Two places I played often – Hillcrest and Eastwood – were plowed under years ago, set as they were in busy areas of a city that was growing like a teenager.
Driving through the housing complex that sits where Hillcrest’s nine holes used to be, I stopped to look at a small creek that runs through the property. That creek wound through the course, touching almost every hole – including a three-hole run where it snaked through the landing area on two par-4s and a short par-5, forcing players to decide how bold they wanted to be off the tee.
I was just short of that creek on the par-4 fifth when I hit my second shot to within two feet of the hole, setting up my first birdie – back in the days when we played Spalding Dots and Faultless balls. It’s probably my imagination but I think the spot where I hit that memorable second shot is still there, a grassy area for the neighborhood.
Eastwood was an 18-hole course that was legendary through the Carolinas and beyond because that’s where Leon Crump – the late, great gambler – did much of his work. My father once wrote that Eastwood was “the biggest open-air casino in the world” and he may have been right.
It was a threadbare golf course but what it lacked in luxury it more than made up for in color. The carts had Vaseline stains on their side. For a time, they stored a Harley Davidson in the ladies’ locker room, most likely to avoid the prying eyes of the repo man.
The 10th green was tucked against the back wall of a service station. But now a sprawling apartment complex sits on the land. I wonder if anyone knows why the apartments are called The Links?
A place called Larkhaven surrendered to bulldozers a couple of years ago. Built by a guy who wanted a golf course and had his own bulldozer, it was a fine place to play if you didn’t mind slow greens and a couple of curious design touches that Fazio and Doak never adopted.
Driving through what is now Larkhaven Hills, I still see holes where others see homesites. It looks like a fine place to live, even if the houses are too close together for my liking. A few even have a look at what was once the first green, though it’s just an overgrown low area now.
Bruce Springsteen has a song on his new CD titled Ghosts and in it he sings that they “come in my dreams and I rejoice.”
Maybe that’s what sent me driving around looking for my old ghosts.
Standing behind the 18th green at Ballantyne, a flagless pole still stuck in the cup, it was quiet except for the January wind. In the ground nearby was a wooden stake with pink tape fluttering in the wind.
A sign of what’s coming.
For some of us, however, the memories will remain.
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