By STUART HALL
The two weathered silos standing sentinel by the eighth green of Keith Hills Golf Club’s White Course are as much a conversational design element as they are confounding.
The silos, remnants of an old dairy farm that were used to store grain, have no top closure, so players have been known to loft an errant approach into one of them.
“The biggest kick we get is people will call in (while playing the hole) and ask if they get relief from the silos and we have to tell them ‘No, it’s an integral part of the golf course and you have to take an unplayable,’” says Martha Sutton, Keith Hills’ director of golf. “It has happened a few times.”
The silos also serve as a visual reminder of the Buies Creek farmland from which golf course architect Dan Maples created what is today known as the White Course, a nine-hole tract that complements the original 18-hole design of his father, Ellis Maples.
In 2014, Keith Hills, owned and operated by Campbell University, will celebrate the 40th anniversary of the elder Maples’ design. In the years since the course’s opening, the Triangle area has seen numerous courses opened, shuttered and bulldozed or renovated.
That only a few nips and tucks have been made to the rural course through the years is a testament to its graceful aging. That the course still thrives despite being a solid 45-minute drive from the center of the Triangle is further proof of the club’s quality and value.
“We are a hidden treasure of the Southeast,” Sutton said.
Keith Hills is equidistance from Raleigh and Fayetteville, a winding road drive from the Triangle or a dozen-mile rerouting for those driving along the I-95 corridor.
Keith Hills, which benefits from having the university’s PGA Golf Management Program to draw on, is also tournament tested. In addition to being the home course for the university golf teams, Keith Hills has hosted a number of prep, collegiate, amateur and professional tournaments, including the 2007 U.S. Women’s Open Sectional Qualifier.
Ellis Maples, a native of nearby Pinehurst, designed Keith Hills near the end of his illustrious golf course architecture career. The same year the course opened, his son, Dan, joined his design firm. Dan would create Keith Hills’ 32-acre, l-shaped practice facility in 1995 and return several years later to further add his imprint.
“I think it’s incredible to have the father and son design the courses that we have here,” said Sutton, who played for Campbell and has worked at Keith Hills since 1996. “The two of them have so much history and having them both design courses here is unique, and something a lot of other courses don’t have.”
According to Dan Maples Design, the father and son collaborated 17 times, including at Grandfather Mountain in Linville and the Country Club of North Carolina’s Dogwood Course, both considered among the state’s premier courses.
While no major renovations have been performed on Keith Hills’ courses, the club has undergone several iterations.
Dan Maples opened the first nine holes of the River Course in 2001 and a second nine a year later, giving Keith Hills 36 holes – Ellis Maples’ 18 was named the Creek Course. In 2009, Keith Hills closed nine holes of the River Course and renamed the remaining three nines after Campbell University’s colors — Orange (original front), Black (original back) and White (newest).
In 2012, Keith Hills began a three-stage greens project, switching them from worn Bentgrass to MiniVerde Bermudagrass. The Orange Course was the first nine completed “and we get more compliments on how good the greens are,” Sutton said. “The difference is night and day.” The Black Course greens were completed Labor Day weekend, and the club is awaiting approval on a plan to do the White Course greens in 2014.
Even though the newest nine holes were added nearly 30 years after Keith Hills’ opening, the routing blends nicely with the original 18. The Orange and Black courses have a traditional appeal, holes lined with wide oaks and tall pines, and the White Course follows suit until about the sixth hole.
“(The courses) flow together very nicely,” Sutton said. “The White Course is a bit more wide open and there are a few holes coming in that have a links-style feel about them. There are not as many trees and you see more mounds used in the design.”
That stretch would include the silo hole.
“All of the courses, though, are pretty straightforward,” Sutton said. “We really don’t have any hidden shots. If we have any risk-reward shots, I would say it’s when people try to go over the corners on a few of the par-4s.”
The original Orange and Black courses do not discriminate, either. For right-handed golfers, a draw comes in handy on the Orange Course; a fade is preferred on the Black Course.
The White Course? “It has a little bit of both,” Sutton said.
From the tips, the Orange, Black and White play 3,326, 3,299 and 3,309 yards, respectively. Sutton said some of the teeing grounds on the Black are being tweaked, so that will alter the distance.
In addition to the 407-yard eighth hole on the White Course, the daunting 177-yard, par-3 seventh hole with its green buffered by the adjacent pond is considered its most picturesque.
Of Ellis Maples’ handiwork, the uphill, par-4 sixth on the Black Course may be the most demanding, even after some softening. “We’ve made it more inviting to approach shots,” Sutton said. “Originally, the green was smaller and sloped back down the hill. Now we’ve made it flatter, with a two-tier green. It’s not as severe.”
The Orange Course offers a stern and rewarding collection of holes. The 559-yard, par-5 second plays uphill and while the 420-yard, par-4 ninth requires a well-placed tee shot, it’s a second-shot hole that requires a long- to mid-iron approach over water and strategically placed bunkers. The straight 297-yard, par-4 fourth hole entices a golfer to drive the green if capable.
“I’m partial, but I think we have something really special here,” Sutton said.
Just ask those who find the inside of the silos.