From Fields to Fairways: Golf on the Reynolda Estate

By Phil Archer, Deputy Director

The gently rolling landscape of Piedmont North Carolina is ideally suited for the growing of tobacco and the playing of golf, pursuits that were often intertwined in the early decades of the last century. Golf-mania struck hard in Winston-Salem and at the Reynolda Estate in particular.

Katharine and R.J. Reynolds built a nine-hole course on a section of their country estate – the first course in Winston-Salem. They were advised by the Berckmans firm of Augusta National Golf Club fame. The Berckmans’ designer Alfred Cuthbert first considered the topography of the first farm, which would later become the Graylyn Estate, but R.J. joked that he “didn’t want to put a good farmer [i.e. Katharine] out of business,” so additional farms were purchased across Bethania Road (now Reynolda Road). Winston-Salem engineer J.N. Ambler mapped out a six-hole course in his 1910 plan for “Golf Links, Road, and Water-Works for Mrs. R.J. Reynolds’ Farm.”

The first six holes were nicknamed The Gate, The Marsh, Pilot View (just imagine: before the trees of Reynolda rose, you could look over farm fields all the way to Pilot Mountain!), Over Hills, Cedar Corner, and Rock Spring, named for the artesian spring that was reported to provide 30,000 gallons of clean, cold water to humans and beasts throughout the carrying Reynolda Links score cards. In September 1911, Peter Henderson & Co. of New York City supplied seeds for “putting green grasses”, which may have failed to take hold since the course’s greens were sand. The following August Katharine instructed her landscaping department that “The grass must all be in by September in the best ground, and in the other ground by February 1913. Do not have a weed standing in any of this entire ground.” This was more than five years before Reynolda House would be completed, but the Reynoldses played regularly on visits to the developing estate. The sons of Reynolda farm workers caddied for spending money.  Katharine trekked from Winston-Salem with a small walking club and played golf, before being chauffeured back to the mansion on West Fifth Street. 

The Reynolds’ elder daughter Mary Reynolds Babcock and her husband Charles H. Babcock acquired the Reynolda estate in 1934. The Babcocks were committed to preserving as much of the estate as possible, while reducing the scale of farming operations. In 1939 they converted many fields of wheat, oats, and corn into an eighteen-hole course and clubhouse, thus creating Old Town Club as a social and recreational alternative to Forsyth Country Club, which had been established by Mary’s uncle Will Reynolds and other business leaders in 1913. The club was named for the nearby “old town” of Bethania, settled by Moravians in 1759. The Babcocks hired course designer Perry Maxwell, who was responsible for redesigning Augusta National Golf Club two years earlier. One golf critic admired Old Town’s broad fairways and generously-sized greens. “In fact, there is no such thing as ‘out of bounds’ on the Old Town Club course.” The club included a skeet shooting range and several tennis courts that made obsolete the courts at Reynolda – one above Lake Katharine and another across Reynolda Road near a large athletic field.

Architect Harold Macklin was engaged by the Babcocks to design the clubhouse. According to Heather Fearnbach’s just-published survey Winston-Salem’s Architectural Heritage (2015), Macklin designed both the clubhouse and the first classroom building for Summit School on the Reynolda estate. Summit School’s founder, Louise Futrell, had requested from the Museum of Modern Art the loan of a traveling exhibit about Modernist school design. It was seen by Macklin at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, and may have influenced his spare design for Summit’s new 4.5 acre campus at Reynolda. His design for the red-brick Old Town clubhouse was more traditional.

Members paid $1 in annual fees until Mary Reynolds Babcock’s death in 1953. Ralph P. Hanes was the club’s first president. Early members included Thurmond Chatham, Luther Ferrell, Alex S. Hanes, James G. Hanes, Clint Miller, Charles E. Norfleet, and Richard G. Stockton. In 1956 the Mary Reynolds Babcock estate deeded the 158-acre golf course in trust for Wake Forest College, with the Club retaining the clubhouse and a few surrounding acres. (The College was relocated onto hundreds of acres donated by the Babcocks between 1951 and 1956.) In 2006 the Club purchased the golf course from Wake Forest University, though the University’s three-time national champion golf team continues to host matches on the course. After all, this was the course that developed the undergraduate talents of majors champions like Arnold Palmer and Curtis Strange.

This is part of a larger story of golf and the Reynolds family. Forsyth Country Club was founded in 1913, under the leadership of its first president William Neal Reynolds (younger brother of R.J. Reynolds). In the 1920s the course was redesigned by Donald Ross, champion golfer and designer of Pinehurst No. 2. “Mr. Will” Reynolds played a central role in the creation of the Roaring Gap Club in Allegheny County in 1926, with another course designed by Donald Ross. Will Reynolds’ 1,100-acre estate Tanglewood was donated to Forsyth County in 1951, and now includes two courses including a course (designed by Robert Trent Jones, Sr.) that hosted the 1974 PGA championship. Lee Trevino defeated Jack Nicklaus by a single stroke. Planning for the championship led to the 1971 integration of the park, which for two decades had been restricted to white citizens of Forsyth County.

In 1940, R.J. and Katharine’s son R.J. “Dick” Reynolds Jr. donated land and funds to create Reynolds Park golf course in the southeastern section of downtown Winston-Salem. This was the first course that was open to all citizens of the city.

Lastly, the association of golf with the Reynolds name reached national consciousness in the 1980s when RJR Nabisco, Inc. sponsored the Ladies Professional Golf Association’s Nabisco Dinah Shore and Planters tournaments, and the Professional Golfers’ Association’s Nabisco Championship, Vantage Championship, and Vantage Cup. But these national competitions are worlds away from The Reynolda Links, where I imagine R.J. Reynolds and his eight-year-old son Dick standing by to allow Katharine’s foursome to play through, while a flock of sheep turns mildly to ruminate over a less populous slope of the meadow.