by CHARLES UPCHURCH
photographs by LISSA GOTWALS
I have one golf story. I’m in New Hampshire with my uncle who has invited me to play the local club. It’s noon and the first tee is right beside a patio full of people. A tad unsettling, given my handicap. I tee up, draw back, swing through and, hearing a faint tink, watch the ball disappear downrange, 280 yards – dead center. I spend the rest of the afternoon sending small animals running for cover, but for that one moment – that one perfect shot – life was beautiful, and golf was a marvelous game.
Those are the little triumphs that keep you coming back. For all the frustration and self-loathing produced by our inability to “hit a very small ball into an even smaller hole with weapons singularly ill-designed for the purpose,” as Churchill said, hope inevitably springs eternal. It’s golf, and you never know what’s going to happen.
To wit: I showed up at the 27-hole Raleigh Golf Association recently to inquire about the history of the city’s oldest public course, which has held steadfast on Tryon Road since 1929. It’s a walker-friendly, no-frills place where you can show up without a tee time and play 18 holes for $22. What I found was more than purist golf. It was a microcosm of Raleigh history.
Built by a group led by the businessman and philanthropist A.E. Finley (whose name adorns Carter-Finley Stadium), the course was originally designed by architect George W. Cobb in 1928 to bring golf to the public. Back then, Carolina Country Club, built 10 years earlier, was the town’s only golf course.
Today, RGA, which is short but fast at 6,088 yards for a par of 70, is busy with junior golfers – it serves as the home course for Cardinal Gibbons High School – as well as families and seniors, folks who appreciate the low prices, spontaneity, and simplicity of golf for golf’s sake. There are better golf courses in Raleigh than RGA. But few with a richer legacy.
It didn’t take long for RGA to become a vital part of the local landscape. “That’s Sam Snead and Gene Sarazen in 1937 playing with Mr. Long,” says RGA pro Ronnie Casper, 61, pointing at a photograph on the wall. Harold Long was the club’s first pro, and Casper speaks as if he knew him – which he did.
In 84 years of operation, the club has had only three pros. Casper is the latest. He has worked at RGA for 42 years, and as head pro for 34 of them. He was 5 when he first swung a club here, wearing a gun and holster that earned him the everlasting nickname “Cowboy.”
An aged antique trophy nearby has another tale to tell. “That’s the original News & Observer trophy from the Raleigh City Championship, going back to 1938,” says Robert Guzzo, assistant pro since 2002. Known as “Guz,” he spent the better part of his boyhood playing golf and working part-time at the course. Today he also serves as head golf coach for Cardinal Gibbons, which he helped lead to the 2008 North Carolina 2A championship.
“A gentleman named Clarence Alexander just returned it to us,” Guzzo says of the trophy. “He won it five times – one of the best amateur golfers in North Carolina history. Played Arnold Palmer right here in ’53.”
Guzzo digs up Alexander’s phone number for me. The next day, I head out to visit him at his home near Zebulon.
Clarence Alexander is tall, sharply dressed, and handsome at 86. Like Guzzo and Casper, he grew up at RGA, where his father was the course superintendent. Alexander was among the legion of young caddies here in the ’30s and early ’40s, working 18 holes for 50 cents and a dime tip.
When he left to serve in the Navy in 1943, after graduating from the former Hugh Morson High School in downtown Raleigh, he had never been out of Wake County. He was headed for Hawaii, but a near-fatal bout with rheumatic fever sent him home.
When he got back on his feet, “I was playing golf four or five times a week,” he recalls. “After a few years, I looked around and thought, ‘I need to get a job.’” And he did, while managing to string together a remarkable 22 tournament wins over 13 years, beginning with the 1950 Raleigh City Championship, a feat he would repeat in ’53, ’54, ’58 and ’60. In 1955 he won the North Carolina Amateur Championship, and in the same year, set the RGA course record with a sizzling seven-under 63.
One weekend in 1953, Alexander was invited to join three Wake Forest players in a foursome for 18 holes. It was a set up, pitting Alexander against 23-year-old Arnold Palmer, one of the top college players in the country, and the bets were on. “I never gambled,” said Alexander. “So I had no idea.”
Alexander mixed in birdies and bogies through 18 and Palmer, displaying his trademark power, kept pace with a steady procession of pars. Both shot 70, but because Palmer had given Alexander two strokes, the round and the side money went to the 27-year-old local. “I was told that Palmer bet $50, and had to borrow from the golf coach to pay up.” Five years later, as Alexander was winning a third City Championship, Palmer was winning his first Masters at Augusta National.
Alexander eventually became the pro at Ayden Golf and Country Club, where he served for 17 years before retiring. I asked him what it was about golf that had entranced him for so long. “There’s something about hitting that perfect shot, when the club strikes the ball exactly right,” he said, “and you don’t even feel it.”
Oh, but you do. And to feel it yet again, you may want to tee it up at RGA, where memories abide, all are welcome, and the names of champions, etched on a silver cup, have found their way home.