WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. – Lewis Keller Sr. never passed up a chance to sit with visitors over a glass of lemonade and promote the history of American golf at one of the nation’s original courses.
It’s time for someone else to start making the case.
More than five decades into owning Oakhurst Links in West Virginia, the 89-year-old Keller is heading into retirement. After years of trying to find a buyer, he’s leaving it up to an auction Saturday to determine whether the historic nine-hole layout lives on.
“I’m heartbroken to leave it,” Keller said.
Though he has owned Oakhurst since 1959, it wasn’t until 1994 that Keller reopened the course after it had been dormant for more than 80 years. And Oakhurst wasn’t just a place for guests to see golf in its infancy in America.
They played it.
Golfers could rent hickory-shafted clubs and hit gutta-percha balls off tees fashioned from sand and water. Many have come dressed in fashions from the late 1800s to play and take tours of the clubhouse and museum brimming with photos of visits from golfers such as Sam Snead, Lee Trevino and Tom Watson.
To Keller and others, most golfers have no idea how the sport was first played here, focusing instead on today’s high-tech game contested on expensive, spacious, manicured courses.
PGA pro Daniel Summerhays played Oakhurst before the 2011 Greenbrier Classic at the posh resort 6 miles away. He called it a “really cool” experience and said he earned a new appreciation for players such as Bobby Jones and Harry Vardon.
To Tommy Garten, who is handling the auction, Oakhurst is golf’s Cooperstown.
“It needs to be preserved,” Garten said. “It would be a tragedy if somebody didn’t come in, step up and continue this operation.”
Although the possibility exists that someone might want to convert the property into some type of housing development, Garten believes it’s too small. Still, it pains Keller to ponder the possibility that the course might not reopen.
“I do hope that if it indeed works out, that maybe I can contribute something to the new owner,” Keller said. “I hope that I can.”
Keller is moving out of his home at Oakhurst’s entrance to live in a retirement village in Lynchburg, Va. His wife of 60 years, Rosalie, died in 2010.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Oakhurst was first owned by Russell Montague, who became enamored of golf while studying in Great Britain.
According to Keller, Montague’s doctor advised him in 1878 to move from Boston to a healthier climate. Montague chose White Sulphur Springs, partly because of stories about its so-called healing waters.
Montague and a small group of colleagues built the course in 1884 and held the first golf competition in 1888 in the Scottish match play tradition, predating by a few years the St. Andrews Golf Club of Yonkers, N.Y.
Montague and most of the original members eventually moved away. Play on the course stopped after 1910.
Keller bought the 30-acre property in 1959 after learning about it from longtime friend Snead, whom he had met 20 years earlier when Keller was a high school golfer in Norfolk, Va.
Snead spent decades as The Greenbrier’s head pro. Keller, who’d come down from New York to play golf with Snead, wanted to use Oakhurst as a summer retreat and raise horses. He had a vision about restoring the course, but didn’t act for decades until some nudging from a golf writer.
Golf designer Bob Cupp volunteered with the restoration, which started in 1991. The work was done by hand, with newspaper and magazine clippings and course photos serving as guides. Keller even added dozens of sheep to mow the grass the way it was done long ago.
At 2,235 yards, Oakhurst reopened for play in 1994.
The National Hickory Championship started a 15-year run of calling Oakhurst home in 1998.
Mike Stevens of Tampa, Fla., won the tournament for the third time this year. He hoped it wouldn’t be his last visit to Oakhurst.
“There’s nothing else like it in this country that I know of,” Stevens said. “There are a lot of older golf courses, but most of them over the years have been lengthened and changed. But Oakhurst is one of a kind. For those of us that go there every year, it’s just a wonderful place to go to because the property is so unique and everybody enjoys going there and the course is demanding. But it’s a lot of fun to play. Even though it’s a short golf course, it tests every aspect of your game.”
Just as pleasing was the chance to meet Keller, whose eternal optimism and hospitality are among visitors’ fondest memories.
In recent years, that cheerfulness became strained with the prolonged search for a buyer.
“I know he’s disappointed,” Stevens said. “I can understand his position, too. He’s almost 90 years old. He just can’t keep up with it at this stage. It’s going to be hard to find a person like him.
“That was a labor of love for him to restore that golf course to the way it was and to keep it running for as many years as he did.”