Old Golf Course Once a Hub of Activity
- By John Antonik
- July 13, 2013 11:30 PM
Where Milan Puskar Stadium currently resides there was once a country club that became the hub of recreational activity for Morgantown residents for more than five decades.
Beginning in 1917, when Col. Joseph H. McDermott purchased a 75-acre piece of property north of the city to build a golf course which would eventually become known as the Morgantown Golf and Country Club, the facility hosted countless college and amateur golf tournaments as well as dances, wedding receptions, civic meetings, socials, pool parties and other community events during its 52-year existence.
McDermott did most of the work for the first six years the course was open until a board was organized in 1923, and the club was again reorganized in 1928 under the directorship of WVU’s Harry Stansbury.
After World War II, a group of local businessmen, including such familiar names as Van Voorhis, Greer, McCartney, Gump, Christopher, Johnson, Layman, Wells and Corbin, purchased the course and ran it successfully through the 1950s and early 1960s until West Virginia University began eyeing the property to accommodate its rapidly expanding Evansdale campus.
Then in 1969, WVU bought it and country club operations ceased on October 1 of that year. Most of the members moved to The Pines, which opened in 1970, and The Pines also became the primary home venue for the West Virginia University golf team until it disbanded in 1982.
Prior to that, Mountaineer golfers played the hilly, open, and relatively short Morgantown Golf and Country Club course that had a couple of unique holes on the back nine near where Law School Hill is now located.
Perhaps the most interesting was the short par-four 15th, which was so steep on its approach to the green that a mechanized rope pulley system was installed to help golfers and their caddies navigate the precipitous terrain.
“You drove out into a valley and then it went 60 degrees uphill to the green for about 100 yards,” recalled Bill Dunlap, a member of West Virginia’s golf team from 1957-61. “You’d walk over to the left side of the fairway and there was like a ski rope and you just held the rope and it pulled you up the hill.”
Judge Bob King, who currently presides over the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, also frequently played the course when he was a member of the WVU golf team. He described the 15th this way, “You drove to the bottom of the hill where Tent City is now near the stadium,” he said. “There is an apartment complex down there now and that’s where the tee was and you hit it up there to the bottom of the hill, then you had a blind shot to the top of the hill where the 15th green was.”
Following the 15th was a short par five that was accessible in two if your tee shot was positioned right. Adolph Popp, who played some Senior PGA Tour events and was a longtime golf pro in Melbourne, Fla., knew the course like the back of his hand growing up in Morgantown and later performing for the Mountaineers in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
“The 16th you had to get it on top of the plateau and if you didn’t it rolled sideways down the hill 30 or 40 yards,” Popp recalled. “Then from there, it was a blind shot over the hill. If you could hit it on top of the hill then you could see the green and you could hit it on there. They played it as a par five, but it was basically just a good par four really.”
After that was another interesting hole - the par three 17th, which was basically a parachute drop down the hill.
“You hit a wedge and just watched it fall,” laughed Dunlap.
A player couldn’t scuff it off the tee and roll the ball down to the green, and, if you sailed it too far the ball went out of bounds in people’s private property beyond the green.
“That short 17th hole always came into our favor because a lot of people hadn’t played it before,” PGA professional and ex-Mountaineer golfer Tony Morosco once recalled.
For the most part, though, the golf course was easy to play as long as you were able to get around it.
“I would not consider it a hard course at all, but it did have some interesting holes,” said Popp, recalling he once played under par (par was 71 before later being reduced to 70) for 90 straight days one summer when he was still in college. “It was the best they could do with the land that they had to work with, unless you came in and took the hill off like they did when they put the (stadium) in. But at that time it would have cost a fortune and I guess they didn’t have the money to do that.”
The course, which was 5,546 yards in length and featured three par fives and four par threes, started out where the WVU Law School is and went to the No. 1 green toward downtown. No. 2 went back in the other direction towards the hospital before the course snaked its way over to Willowdale Road.
The No. 3 tee was located where the football practice field is now, followed by a short, 478-yard par five that Kirk Nolte once double-eagled in 1960 during his freshman year at WVU. And where the stadium now sits was a short par three.
The back nine began near Willodale Road and continued down Willowdale toward Route 705 before making its way back to Tent City where the dreaded walk up the 15th began.
“It wasn’t long; there were two or three holes that were pretty good, but it was more target golf,” noted King.
For many years, the college course record was 66, shared by Berk Davis, Mike Krak and Claude Hillis, but Jim Hess later topped it in 1963. Popp said he shot 60 several times there, and many of the club’s better members such as Bill Dyer and former WVU players George Petitte and Gary Loring frequently shot in the low 60s as well.
In fact, the course was probably much better known for its members and some of the famous golfers who played exhibitions there, including Sam Snead, Walter Hagan, Joe Kirkwood, Patty Berg and Louise Suggs, than for its difficulty.
“I once caddied for Sam Snead there in 1948,” recalled Petitte, a four-year member of the Mountaineer golf team from 1953-56. “He gave me a $5 tip and I had to split it with some of the other caddies.”
Sitting regally at the top of the hill was a grand clubhouse that oversaw the entire golf course and hosted many community events in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. Next to it was the swimming pool near where the locker rooms were located. Again, this would be right about where the WVU Law School sits today.
“You could literally sit in various places (near the clubhouse) and see the whole course,” remembered Sam Urso, a three-year golf letterman for West Virginia from 1959-61.
Urso said West Virginia golf coach and state sports legend Ira Errett Rodgers would either sit in the clubhouse and follow matches from there or he would plop down in a lawn chair and observe the action behind the second green.
“By then he was so big that he couldn’t easily get out of his chair,” said Urso. “He just wedged himself into that chair.”
Albert Spencer was the course professional for most of the country club’s existence, starting in 1926 before later giving way to his son Reggie while he took to tending the greens and greeting its many members, among those being Dr. R.C. Spangler.
Spangler was a retired University biology professor and was an avid golfer who each summer on his birthday played the number of holes that corresponded to his age. One summer, in 1961, Spangler played 77 holes, starting at 8 a.m. and continuing until well past 6 p.m. , interrupting his round only briefly to get a quick bite to eat in the clubhouse. Spangler needed 368 strokes to accomplish his feat, averaging about an 85 for each 18 holes played.
“What was amazing is that he used just two clubs – he had an adjustable iron and a putter,” recalled Dunlap. “And of course we walked in those days.”
Dunlap said Spangler was a cheerful guy who enjoyed hanging around the young golfers on the WVU team. “He was a good supporter of the golf team and a grand, old gentleman,” said Dunlap.
“He used to tell us scary stories and when he was done and I had to go home, I would run all the way down to 8th Street where I lived,” laughed Pettite.
After the country club was closed and the clubhouse was demolished, it became a nine-hole course as the new WVU medical center began expanding to the north and the new law school was constructed where the clubhouse once sat.
Then finally, in 1979, when construction began on new Mountaineer Field, the nine-hole course was shut down permanently.
This is the second in a series of stories on the history of golf at West Virginia University running throughout the remainder of the summer.
Morgantown Golf and Country Club
West Virginia University golf