Sam Snead, who grew up near The Homestead in Hot Springs, Virginia, was working in the pro shop in 1934 making hickory-shafted clubs when a woman came in one day wanting a lesson. The manager informed her that there were no pros around.
“Well, what about that young man over there?” she asked, pointing to Snead.
Snead gave her the lesson, and afterward the woman told the Homestead’s owner it was the best one she ever had. Two days later, the 22-year-old Snead was offered the head pro’s job at the Cascades course, which he had helped to build. His daily pay: a bottle of milk and a sandwich, along with whatever he made from lessons. Problem was, there weren’t many to give. Most of the guests preferred the other course since it was located right next to the hotel. But Snead got to practice as much as he wanted and became pretty good, needless to say, going on to win a record 82 PGA Tour titles.
“If you can play the Cascades,” he once said, “you can play anywhere.”
Designed by William Flynn of Merion fame and opened in 1924, the par-70 layout is a strategic and aesthetic gem. Mountain courses don’t come any more beautiful—or challenging. During the individual tournament of the 2004 NCAA Division I Men’s Golf Championship, only seven of the country’s best college golfers finished under par on the 6,679-yard course (the club has hosted eight national championships).
What the course lacks in length it makes up for in angles, uneven lies, and confounding greens with slopes that often oppose the general fall of the land. “Sam liked to say, ‘When you finish playing the Cascades, you’re going to clean every club in your bag,’” says Don Ryder, the Homestead’s longtime director of golf. “It requires a lot of thinking and shot making.”
That’s particularly true on the front nine, with the holes built much more into the hillsides. Golfers must constantly factor in the lie, the ball’s flight, and the terrain. With their hard left-to-right slopes, the 432-yard 2nd and 417-yard 7th call for draws off the tee to keep the ball in the fairways, particularly when the course is playing firm and fast in summer and fall.
Though the old-school greens don’t contain the big undulations found in many modern courses, putting can be tricky. What deserves more weight, the hillside or the green’s counter bank? The visual deception is especially prominent on the downhill 210-yard 4th, the first of five par 3s. The green rises up in back leading players to believe the putting surface runs back to front when in fact it’s just the opposite.
Whereas the ground dictates lines of play on the front, the flatter back nine relies more on man-made features, like cross bunkers on the 476-yard 12th and 527-yard 16th that
architectural historians Wayne Morrison and Tom Paul refurbished as part of a 2006 restoration of the course. Streams that add a lot of charm and strategy are also much more in play, starting on the 12th where one runs down the entire left side and continues alongside the 440-yard 13th, as well. Another brook separates the 16th from the 513-yard 17th.
With two par 3s sandwiching two par 5s, the finishing stretch is one of the most unusual and fun anywhere with a lot of risk-reward. Flynn’s routing was influenced no doubt by the location of a previously existing mansion, which is now the clubhouse, and barn.
Given the other obstacles in the form of rocks and boulders on site, a more timid architect might have shied away from the job; in fact, a few did, including A.W. Tillinghast. But the meticulous Flynn, who left behind a treasure trove of plans and notes, just blasted away, using 20 tons of dynamite to build the course. He and his wife loved visiting the Homestead with its magnificent redbrick hotel, and he returned time and again to tweak the design until his death in 1944. In the end, it’s hard to tell where his hand ends and nature’s begins.
“It took a huge amount of engineering,” says Morrison. “It only looks natural because he made it look natural. I think that’s one reason why Flynn isn’t as appreciated as much as some of the others because he took pains to hide his efforts. That’s why he called himself ‘the nature faker.’”