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The Elysian Fields of Old Town Club – Is Perry Maxwell’s Last Course Also His Best?


WINSTON-SALEM, NC – So it really can happen. A golf course truly can take your breath away.

It doesn’t happen often – maybe one round in a thousand, one golf course in hundreds, one day in a decade, but that fleeting moment, so elusive yet so moving, can appear. If you love golf enough, if you travel near and far, if you play the game as a game of a lifetime, not just a pastime, eventually you will finally see that perfect union of sky and earth and golf, that moment when the game transcends being just a sporting endeavor and becomes an elixir, an inspiration, the vibration of life itself. You can’t help but feel the heartbeat of golf at Perry Maxwell’s Old Town Club in Winston Salem, his last true great course, but also a mighty crescendo to a symphonic career.

Never forget: it’s NOT just the natural setting that makes a great golf course. If that were the case, the best golf courses would always be the prettiest. The key to unlocking great golf is the design and routing of the holes themselves as they tumble and twist over heaving terrain, land so perfect for golf, it’s as though you’ve been transported 100 years in the past to the windswept U.K. moors.

That’s what Perry Maxwell gave golf in 1939 at Old Town, and that’s what Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw restored in 2011 – an expanse of golf holes so creative, so unique, so majestic, and so downright ingenious that the true magic of the game can’t help but resonate within you. That’s the moment of grace, when a round of golf becomes so much more than just playing 18 holes and hitting a ball around.

That’s how astounding, how visually arresting, and how architecturally faithful to Perry Maxwell’s original design Coore and Crenshaw’s restoration of Old Town Golf Club in Winston-Salem is. Maxwell gave us something you won’t see anywhere else in golf – not even mighty St. Andrews: a “Great Windswept Heath” where six holes join through interconnecting fairways and three more abut it at either end, and Coore and Crenshaw brought that back to life.


I chose the words “ingenious” and “unique” with precision. Old Town, located in the most idyllic of Winston-Salem, North Carolina’s stateliest neighborhoods is not only the august home of long-time NCAA powerhouse Wake Forest University, it’s also only – arguably – Maxwell’s best design, and unquestionably it’s his most interesting. Maxwell indeed gave us something no other golf course can claim, this vast playing ground, truly an Elysian Field, an idea seemingly born from the dawn of golf itself. As such, the course can be spoken of in the same holy whispers by the golf intelligentsia as venerable Garden City, fabled Crystal Downs, and mighty St. Andrews.

As a result, Old Town is going to skyrocket up every major magazine’s rankings list and, moreover, perhaps finally make Perry Maxwell’s name a household term, not just a historical footnote as Alister Mackenzie’s associate.


Old Town can be divided into three parts: the rugged holes 1-3 and 10, which are in the immediate vicinity of the clubhouse, holes 12-16 a charming stretch which meanders serenely along a far end of the property, and Great Windswept Heath.

Make no mistake, each section of the course is equally strong, both as a test of golf and as seamless whole. The first three holes are like the prelude to the symphony, the overture, where themes are introduced and explored. And towards the middle of the back nine are individual arias: soaring high notes, enchanting melodies, and rich harmonies.

But like a reverie materializing from the mists of the Golden Age of Golf design, once one crests the brow of the hill of the par-5 fourth hole, one sees the vast expanse of holes four, seven, eight, nine, 17, and 18, with the par-3 11th green abutting the shared tee box of the criss-crossing ninth and 18th holes, while the fifth and sixth attach along the end furthest from the clubhouse.


Think about that for a minute – six holes intersect with each other and three more attach…with no rough! Instead a creek winds its way through, creating diagonal hazards in several places, a short forced carry in others, but always making the golfer think his way around the course. And never forget – played at its highest level of skill, the greatest hazard in golf course architecture is options, and between the wondrous width of the fairways, the heaving undulations in the terrain and the trademark Maxwell rolls in the greens, fiendishly intricate sweeping internal contours it’s no wonder why Wake Forest – NCAA golf royalty – calls Old Town home.

Arriving at this expanse – “Elysian Fields” in the old, romantic sense of the term, meaning “heavenly” – Garden City comes to mind. When you arrive at Garden City’s third green one can see holes four through eight and 13-16, a vast expanse with gorgeous broad vistas across the property. You get the same exhilarating feeling arriving at the Great Windswept Heath holes of Old Town. And with all of these holes being connected together, there is nothing like it in golf.

“Four connects with seven, which connects with 17, which connects with eight, which joins 9, which criss-crosses with 18,” explains Club Chairman and USGA Committeeman Dunlop White. He then emphasizes – correctly – that these connections between the fairways form the backbone of the course’s indelible character: what golf critics call the “statement of place,” the factor that identifies that golf course and that golf course alone, setting it apart from everything else.

“The routing is the strongest attribute – of many – of the golf course,” he explains.

“Every serious student of golf course architecture must study Old Town for its routing, angles of play, and greens,” add Wake Forest alum and eminent golf architect Bill Coore, who along with his partner Ben Crenshaw performed the restoration work at Old Town. He’s right – otherwise their education in the craft is incomplete.


Old Town is also like Garden City in another way, a more romantic and metaphoric one: it’s transportive. When you emerge into that vast playing field and see the long views across the property, broad expansive vistas, it’s as though you’ve left the rest of the world behind. At GCGC you have a setting that could be anywhere in the U.K. countryside, yet you’re smack-dab in the middle of a city of Long Island. There are a couple of stately homes that give it a “charming neighborhood” feel, but other than that, you have no idea you’re in an urban setting. Similarly, Old Town is in Winston-Salem, but once you arrive at the fourth fairway, you suddenly feel like you’re roaming the rugged moors of England. It’s that feeling of escape from the rest of the world that is a great part of Old Town’s palpable magic: an elixir to revitalize the golfer, a place to find solace amidst the traffic of the world.

Moreover, the terrain isn’t just a pretty face. It’s phenomenal for golf: extraordinary width, but with wild fairway undulations ensuring the ball frequently will be above or below your feet so you have to compensate for the hook or fade lie. You have to think on every shot.

“The course gets harder the more you play it, because you constantly find new ways to lose strokes,” explained member Brad Helms, offering significant praise. Like other great golf courses, you can play Old Town every day and never get bored. But with the exceptional width of the fairways and with well over 1,000 trees removed to open up the fairways, it never plays the same not only from day to day, but from round to round.

“When this golf course is fast and firm all those fairway undulations and contours come alive,” said White. And with the fairways so wide, (yet playable, since there’s no rough), you’re almost always in play, but you’re never out of danger.

Old Town also resembles another Golden Age masterpiece, one Maxwell co-designed: Crystal Downs in Michigan. Several holes on the front feature similar bunker patterns, (such as the “Three Sisters” bunker complex seen at number five on both courses), or way holes play into the teeth of the most severe slopes of the terrain, (the entire front nine of both courses), or the large bunkering cut into uphill slopes, and even the pastoral “walk through the woods” feel that each course gives you as you play the middle holes of the inward nine.

Both golf travel and design expert Ran Morrissett (of GolfClubAtlas.com and the New Confidential Guide to Golf Courses), and Chris Clouser, the nation’s leading authority on Maxwell and author of the indispensible book on Maxwell’s life, “The Midwest Associate,” agree. In his article about Old Town on GolfClubAtlas, Morrissett found numerous similarities throughout the course, (you can read Morrissetts article here: www.golfclubatlas.com/old-town-club/).

“Maxwell’s time with Mackenzie at Crystal Downs continues to rear its head again” throughout the entire course Morrissett wrote. Clouser, in a recent radio interview, felt the same:

“There’s no question Maxwell had Crystal Downs in mind, as well as Augusta National and St. Andrews. The use of the terrain recalls the way he used the property in routing the holes at Crystal Downs, the huge double green at eight and 17 is definitely derived from St. Andrews, and with Maxwell coming to Old Town straight from redesigning several greens at Augusta National and under recommendation from Clifford Roberts, there is no question that the hilly nature of the holes and the contours of the greens that Old Town is an mixture of concepts from the greatest golf courses of the age,” Clouser stated.


The story of Old Town actually begins at nearby Forsyth Country Club, an old Donald Ross course which became too popular, and thus crowded. So Charles Babcock and his wife and Mary Reynolds Babcock, a scion of the Reynolds tobacco family, decided to build a golf course on part of a 1,000 acre parcel that ultimately also would include Wake Forest University and the Reynolds Estate.

As it happened, Clifford Roberts worked for Babcock at his investment firm, Reynolds & Company, (later called Dean Witter Reynolds), so when the subject of an architect for the new course came up, Roberts eagerly recommended Maxwell, who was just finishing redesigning several of the greens at Augusta National. Maxwell ultimately went on to build not only Old Town but also the Reynolds Park Golf Course for the city of Winston-Salem. Morrissett, one of the game’s greatest historians as well as architecture experts then poignantly observes, “These two courses completed near the onset of World War II [1939 for Old Town] essentially brought to a close the Golden Age of golf course design.”

Maxwell got his pick of the 1,000 acres and settled on 165 acres of the most hilly, heaving, wildly undulating terrain on the property, frequently designing right into the teeth of the most fearsome natural features, as all great Golden Age architects did. Clouser notes that, “greens are almost all situated on little knolls, greenside bunkering is tight to the greens, approach shots are extremely difficult, and fairway bunkers always seem to be right where you want to put your tee ball, just daring you, tempting you to try to carry them. Water was frequently used as both a parallel and diagonal hazard. This led to the creation of so many unique holes not only in Maxwell’s career, but in all of golf.”

The course is typical of Maxwell’s sequencing: two par-5s, four par-3s for a par-70. The par-3s get longer as the round progresses, and the par-5s are definitely three-shot holes. But since the yeardage is a stern 7,037, there are several half-par holes, both harder and easier than the yardage and par indicate. Since it’s a par-70, it plays much longer than the yardage on the card, perhaps as much as 400 yards longer. Because Maxwell designed the course so that it returns to the clubhouse at the third hole as well as the ninth and 18th, the club allows play in several configurations, depending on the time of day.

“We have three, six, 9 12 and 18 hole loops here,” explained White, rightfully proud of the club’s creativity and flexibility, again underscoring the convivial atmosphere of Old Town. (Also, there are no tee times; members just work things out among themselves. Best of all no one looks twice at anyone who stops for a long lunch at the turn.)

Then there’s the double green at 8/17, certainly a tribute to St. Andrews.

“Perry’s two favorite courses were National Golf Links of America and St. Andrews. Maxwell was designing two separate greens, but Clifford Roberts suggested the double green, saying, ‘if nothing else it would make for great bar room discussions,’ and Perry agreed,” explained White. Over the years it shrunk and became separated by maintenance practices, but the restoration has brought it back to its former Golden Age splendor.



Indeed, much of the course languished in the decades that followed Maxwell’s arrival and work. It was the same problem arose that so many other Golden Age clubs faced: over time trees grew, mowing patterns changed, greens shrank, bunkers disappeared, and the course lost so much of that indelible character Maxwell designed.

“Old Town’s glorious playing attributes provided by Maxwell’s routing never left but some design features faded with time to the point where one couldn’t readily discern that he was playing a Maxwell course. That was the author’s overriding feeling on a rainy autumn day during a 1986 visit. The circular, shallow bunkers bore no resemblance to nature or Maxwell’s Midwestern values. The greens had shrunk, robbing the course of a number of its best hole locations. And of course, tree plantings obliterated the sweeping views and narrowed the scale and grandeur of a bold Maxwell design,” wrote Ran Morrissett in his GolfClubAtlas.com profile of Old Town.

“What to do? That was the very question facing Dunlop White,” Morrissett continued. “White knew what needed to happen – it’s the same story at most Golden Age designs. Trees need to be removed, playing corridors reestablished, greens pushed back out to their edges and bunkers restored.”

The before and after photos Morrissett provides are astounding. It’s perhaps one of the most remarkable transformations in golf architecture history. You would have a difficult time recognizing it as the same golf course.

The club had tried to have restoration work done in 1995, but in this author’s and design expert’s opinion what was done by Bob Cupp looked more like him trying to impose his design thoughts on the course rather than restoring what was there already. His work – round bunkers, lots of rough, narrow playing corridors, and small greens: all the mistakes of the Doldrums Era of Golf Course Architecture where architects just erased what they found before and recreated the course in line with their own design concepts, a practice that we now, gratefully, see as so misguided – Cupp’s work at Old Town highlights the difference between people who truly get Golden Age links golf versus those who don’t even try to bother understanding it at all. The before and after pictures reveal with adamantine certainty that Cupp’s work was totally contrary to the masterpiece that Maxwell had created.

But as Morrissett said, what was done could be undone, and in 2011 Coore and Crenshaw arrived and engaged in their comprehensive and painstaking restoration, what some are calling the best of their career.

Coore and Crenshaw brought back all the strategies that time, trees, and intervening hands erased. Their work included:

A) Restoring the size, shape and look of the bunkers. Before Coore and Crenshaw arrived, the bunkers encompassed a mere 32,000 sq. ft. of sand, while the restored versions encompass 110,000 sq. ft of sand. That’s more than three times the square footage. They also brought back the rugged look of the bunkers. Instead of the simple circles that were there when C&C arrived, the bunkers now have the quintessential Mackenzie-influenced jagged edges Maxwell learned under his tutelage, with native broom sedge outlining them. They also increased the number of bunkers from 59 to 77 and, in the case of greenside bunkering, pulled the bunker edges and green edges together, tying them into a cohesive whole. Finally, instead of manufactured white sand, (that would have clashed terribly with the natural setting), the club obtained sand from the local Yadkin River, a rich tawny in color and far more natural looking;

B) The greens were also expended back to their original size. The double-green at 8/17 alone was expanded from 8,200 sq. ft. to 16,700 sq. ft. – more than double in size. They also expanded 11 more greens for an additional of 16,600 sq. ft. of putting surface, so that the greens now resemble their original footprints, a 21% increase in size;

C) 22 new tee boxes were constructed, yet only 175 yards were added – now length for length’s sake – and the course now is 7,037 yards from the tips. Since it is a par-70, it plays much longer;

D) Over 1,000 trees were removed, opening up wide vista across the property and providing width: and that means playing angles and options. Indeed, the fairways from 35 acres to 65 acres. In doing so, over 30 acres of rough was eliminating – a staggering, yet welcome amount. No one likes spending five hours looking for golf balls and chopping out of thick, high grass; and

E) The creation of the joint tee box for holes nine and 18, where the playing angles are myriad depending on where the markers are placed.
For Coore, the Old Town restoration represented a homecoming. Coore spent his childhood just 24 miles away in Thomasville, N.C. Though he spent only one year on the Wake Forest Golf team, Coore developed a keen sense of knowledge and understanding of the Maxwell design while regularly playing the course all four years as a student.
“Old Town was my college course, and along with Pinehurst No. 2 it became the foundation of my understanding of GCA. In particular, I learned how to lay out the holes so that they fit with the land,” Coore explained. “It’s a small and hilly site, but Maxwell took the greatest advantage of the landscape. The contours affect not only putting but your approach shots; you have to be in the right spot in the fairway to get close to the pin.”



While the soul of the golf course lies in the terrific fairway undulations and green contours, there are so many aspects of the course that are downright gripping, it’s impossible to point to any one hole as a microcosm of the course. Member Brad Helms prefers the short, but idyllic par-4 14th, a hole that seems the consensus favorite of many people interviewed. It’s the shortest par-4 on course, but dangerous with water lurking all along the left side. On the tee it looks like there’s nowhere to hit the ball, but that’s an optical illusion. Once you get into the fairway, it’s actually pretty wide. Ridges and humps in green ensure that the adventure continues upon reaching the putting surface, and 2-putts are never guaranteed.

“There are so many options off the tee – driver, iron, hybrid, or fairway wood, but no matter what, you have to be careful because placement for the approach is so much more important than length,” he stated. “It’s one of the best par-4s I’ve ever seen anywhere.”

Morrissett agreed, calling it, “Your best friend’s beautiful little sister.”

If that’s the case, the big brother with the bulging muscles, narrowed eyes, and fearsome scowl must be the mighty par-5 17th, a 600 yard behemoth where one must avoid the creek winding serpentinely along the right side as well as the center-line bunker in the fairway. The fairway is so wide it has an upper tier and a lower tier. The double green, which is nothing short of gargantuan, has some of the fiercest contours on the course.

“You have to place the second shot perfectly and at the right angle into the day’s hole location on the double green,” said Helms.

Member Matthew Bryant prefers the pastoral beauty of the par-3 11th.

“With the creek winding along the right side, it’s such a pretty hole, but it’s challenging too,” he offered.

Your author’s favorites include the first with its canted fairway and severely false fronted green, (but watch out for the creek bisecting the fairway which is blind from certain tee boxes and will catch a well struck driver), the brilliant par-5 fourth that emerges into the gorgeous Great Windswept Heath, and the fifth, with its Three Sisters bunker complex that so strongly recalls the fifth at Mackenzie and Maxwell’s Crystal Downs. Everything is there from the reverse- cambered fairway to the false front green.


Other outstanding holes include seven with its diagonal bunker complex and tiny green, eight where a good drive over the massive hill will trickle down to the edge of the creek setting up a simple pitch to the double green, and the criss-cross tee box at nine and 18, and addition of Coore and Crenshaw’s that underlines the St. Andrews connection even more firmly. Even the short par-3s at two and six show that you don’t need length to challenge golfers – you need curvy greens and cunning angles.


Recently a friend of mine went to play the University of Michigan golf course and came back shouting, “Mackenzie! Mackenzie! Mackenzie!” But another friend asked him, “Shouldn’t you be shouting ‘Maxwell! Maxwell! Maxwell?”

Another writer – a seasoned, well-decorated one, but one who’s architecture and travel knowledge is smewhat lacking dismissed Maxwell offhand by saying, “You know those Maxwell rolls? They really ought to be called Mackenzie rolls!”

“He is so wrong,” fumed Chris Clouser. “Maybe Mackenzie was a huge influence on Maxwell’s bunkering and routings, but Maxwell brought the rolls with him to the relationship.” Clouser also credits Mackenzie with teaching Maxwell about the Doctrine of Deception, where players have to carefully pick their line with no frame of reference – they get enough rope to hang himself. You start to see it at Oklahoma City Golf & Country Club and it became one of Maxwell’s strongest talents for the rest of his career.

It goes to show that Maxwell and Mackenzie are all but inextricably linked. Sure each did some courses without the other, but although Maxwell was always, as Clouser ironically notes in his book title, “The Midwest Associate,” history may have sold him short in the eyes of all but the ardent golfer and students of golf design. Moreover, Maxwell’s fame is diminished because every great course of his is private, and with the exception of Old Town, none are on the eastern seaboard or west coast.
Maxwell proved that you don’t need an ocean, a cliff side, a river, a waterfall, a chasm, a desert, or any other eye candy to build a truly great golf course and perhaps nowhere did he prove that more than at Old Town. It’s far better than more heralded Pinehurst No. 2 – a stronger routing, better terrain, more interesting angles, wider fairways, a greater variety of hazards, and the greens are equally good. In the state of North Carolina only Tobacco Road is as much a golf adventure. Old Town shows the difference between a golf course that belongs in the top 50 in the country as opposed to one that thinks it does because of its natural setting, conditioning, or amenities.

Maxwell saved his best for last, (well, all but last), and Coore and Crenshaw reset the bar for restorations. As Ran Morrissett wrote, “This is the template for the most successful transformations that this country has seen, including here at Old Town, California Golf Club of San Francisco, Sleepy Hollow, Los Angeles Country Club and St George’s on Long Island.”

As Coore said, if you want to study routing and angles, this is where you do it. And finally, Maxwell will get the recognition he so richly deserves.

PHOTO CREDIT to Dunlop White III and Ran Morrissett for the before pic of 8/17.