A private Donald Ross golf course beside Pinehurst built for a handful of Skull & Bones guys?
Beyond a particular grove of longleaf pines near Pinehurst was an estate that spent the better part of a century shrouded in mystery. Known to but a few, vague tales of an "idyllic Southern Arcadia" occasionally made the rounds. Nobody seemed to know very much at all about the place - not even the lofty patricians of Pinehurst. The most one would hear was that there was a "playground for the America's elite" rumoured to have their own private Donald Ross golf course.
All in all the whole affair was rather extraordinary: a polo field, a private railroad depot, dairy, extensive equestrian and hunting facilities, etc...
it was called Overhills.
The handful of Overhills members were from the airy realm of the very highest branches of America's aristocracy - a large percentage of those members were, in fact, Skull and Bones fellows from Yale. Three buildings ringed the first tee. Beside the large but understated clubhouse were the vacation homes of a Rockefeller and Averell Harriman. To get a sense of who Mr. Harriman was consider this photograph:
Harriman was the fellow that various presidents to dispatched to sit nose to nose with Stalin, Khruschev, Churchill and many others. His task? Stop the very real possibility of World War III.
The squire of the estate was Percy Rockefeller - a member of Skull and Bones. He "was labeled in 1910 as one of the coming rulers in banking, steel, railroads, oil, and sugar. After a career aggressively involved in a wide range of capitalist enterprises, Rockefeller died at a young 57, following an operation for ulcers of the stomach". (His son Avery succeeded him as benevolent dictator after Percy's passing.) He and Harriman had a proper falling out due to the fact that Percy was a fox hunter while Averell preferred to hunt birds. After the fox hounds interfered with Averells bird hunting a couple of times matters came to a head with Percy not being willing to curtail his hunting rituals. Averell sold his house and left for good. He left the hunting dogs behind as well.
Donald Ross hardly needs an introduction here. He designed over 350 courses - several of them among the crown jewels of golf architecture. He designed the first four courses at Pinehurst as well as many others upon which major championships are still played. Ross was born in Scotland and was the protege, at St. Andrews, of the man who practically invented the game as we know it: Old Tom Morris. A better pedigree for golf course architecture you will not find.
So, this means the members of Overhills essentially got the best designer in America to build their course for them. Not all of his courses are true gems. However, even the least heralded in his collection are competent and very playable. He simply did not design bad courses. So, the question is how good of a course was this Overhills?
Overhhills should probably be rated just below his world class level courses. There terrain is among the best he ever worked on. The property was over 11,000 acres and he got to choose the most suitable land. It is the same sandy loam you find in Pinehurst as well. There are many truly great holes and no bad ones. At over 6,500 yards in 1913 it was a very strong course, as well. One of the holes was 585 yards long! Again, Ross was a master craftsman and this terrain featured terrific roll. It was a great course.
The back 9 of the course was abandoned during WWII. In the 1950's Percy Rockefeller's son Avery decided to resurrect this part of the course. A few changes were made. The long 11th hole was divided into two holes and the original short par-3 14th was abandoned.
You can take a detailed tour of the course here.
Although the golf was highly valued, the fox and bird hunting was actually more important to the very small group of members. The estate featured a very large kennel and stables area which housed the hunting animals.
There was also a full scale polo field adjacent to the 15th hole of the golf course. In addition, there was a skeet shooting area. Prior to the purchase by the Rockefellers the land was used primarily for hunting parties. It was owned for a time by R.J. Reynolds and was then called Buckthorne Lodge.
In those days it was not uncommon for an artist to be found among a magnates entourage. Overhills, in fact, had two artists. One was almost part of the family. Ethel Peterson often travelled with them often. She spent many years on the charmed estate and a lot of the whimsical paintings she did for the children's section of Croatan Lodge are still in fact there!
Here is a passage from "Gray's Sporting Journal":
Croatan Lodge today:
As you would expect, the Rockefeller estate featured several fine buildings. Croatan Lodge was one of the finest. This large residence was closer to a small hotel in size and function. It still stands today and appears to be restorable.
The Clubhouse with the Harriman House to the right. The first tee of the golf course was in front of the former and the ninth green the latter. The clubhouse was torn down in the 1940's but the Harriman House still stands today.
When the Army bought the large tract of land in the late 1990's they considered several options for its use. One proposal was to use it as a Camp David - South. A presidential retreat. Ultimately they decided the best use for the land was for training. They claimed that this land was necessary for training.
In fact, it is not necessary for training and that is not the wisest use of the land. This is an irreplacable piece of American Heritage. The best use of the property would be to restore the course and use it as a place for disabled veterans to recuperate from injuries suffered while in service. The Overhills tract is approximately 11,000 acres. This is a small part of the larger base which is over 200 square miles. The golf course itself is approximately 150 acres - a miniscule part of the military base.
You can read an official document regarding the use of the property here.