Appeared in 2011 LINKS Premier Clubs
JOHN RAESE AND BOB GWYNNE are in the earth business. As executives at Greer Industries, West Virginia’s largest limestone producer, they understand that shifting land takes time, and they approached the transformation of Pikewood National Golf Club from a dense forest to one of the best new courses in the country with plenty of patience.
Shaping Pikewood National didn’t span the millions of years it took to form the sedimentary rock upon which the course sits. But construction did proceed slowly, for more than 10 years until the 7,588-yard course opened in 2008.
Instead of hiring an architect, Raese and Gwynne designed the layout, which sits on 720 acres occupying a plateau at an elevation of 2,300 feet. The development of Pikewood was a side project from their primary responsibilities at Greer Industries, of which Raese is CEO and Gwynne is executive vice president.
It was the first design effort for the duo, the latest amateur architects to create masterpieces, joining the likes of Jerry Rich (Rich Harvest Links) and Henry Fownes (Oakmont Country Club).
“We did the best we could,” says Gwynne. “We wanted to feature the natural terrain and the rock formations on the property. After all, we are in the rock business. We wanted to make the most natural course we could.”
Although neither had designed a course previously, Raese and Gwynne drew on their considerable golf backgrounds and love of Golden Age architecture for their vision. Raese is a member of Laurel Valley Golf Club, Gwynne belongs to Oakmont, and both have played the best courses in the world. In fact, both represent the type of pure, serious golfer who would most appreciate Pikewood’s lay-of-the-land design.
The duo tried many routings, their efforts stymied by the dense forest, which made the movement of the land—its subtle elevation changes and slopes—difficult to see. A seasoned architect might have relied solely on topography maps, but Raese and Gwynne waited for snow.
Like children anticipating a school cancellation, the pair eagerly looked forward to wintry forecasts. “When there’s snow on the ground,” explains Gwynne, “you can really see the contours of the land.”
Raese and Gwynne designed nine holes at a time, completing the back nine in 2004 and letting it mature before embarking on the front nine. Whereas the back side sits entirely on the plateau, the front dips 100 feet into a valley. The difficulty was connecting the holes while maintaining a walking-only layout.
Fortunately, the upside of the less tractable nine was the creation of the layout’s most visually arresting holes, a stretch that begins on the tee of the par-4 2nd hole, where Director of Golf Bob Friend, a former PGA Tour member, gestures toward the mountains beyond the skyline green, perched 515 yards away at the plateau’s edge. The unseasonably warm October day is made more brilliant by the fall foliage, which adds bursts of color to the gently rising and falling peaks that extend to the horizon like waves on a choppy sea.
Friend points to a water tower on a distant peak. “It’s 37 miles from here,” he says. Few holes in the world can match that kind of breadth. Oriented in the same direction, the 253-yard 3rd hole has the same view, while the 492-yard 4th descends from the elevated tee to the fairway, in the valley.
The 164-yard 5th features a green at the base of a sandstone wall with a natural waterfall. The designers found this hole when they heard the falling water, and they dammed the creek to create the pond that guards the putting surface.
The course finishes its climb back to the mesa with the 561-yard 8th, which forms a right-arcing boomerang along its edge. The view and setting so define the hole that it takes a while—if at all—to notice it has just one bunker.
In fact, there are 23 bunkers on the whole course, part of the designers’ plan to keep the layout as unspoiled as possible. Instead, they cleverly routed holes to bring natural features like rock outcroppings and dramatic topography into play.
Soon after the course opened, a critic mentioned that only amateur architects would have the audacity to build a hole like the 8th. Instead of taking offense, the club embraced the notion and renamed the hole, now known as “Audacity.”
Other holes pay tribute to people who have influenced the club and show Pikewood’s respect for the game’s history and traditions: The 3rd is “Finster” for Dow Finsterwald, the club’s pro emeritus, and the 4th is “Pott Hole” for Johnny Pott, both of whom provided valuable feedback during the club’s development. The 18th is called “Dyke” in honor of Raese’s father, to whom the club is dedicated.
Other names show the club’s well-honed sense of humor. The 171-yard 14th is “Cypress Pint” and the 420-yard 16th is “Dino,” for Dean Martin, who personified the club’s character—he was a passionate golfer who had plenty of fun.
Similarly, the modest clubhouse—consisting of a pro shop, lunch counter and locker rooms—evinces the club’s casual atmosphere. The clubhouse has expanded gradually over time, but it never will be a grandiose structure. Instead, the club plans a pavilion where large groups can hold events.
In addition to classic black-and-white photos of golf greats like Sam Snead, Ben Hogan and Lloyd Mangrum, popular-culture references adorn the clubhouse: a tribute to Martin, a poster of Kramer from Seinfeld, and menu items like the “Royale with cheese,” an homage to Pulp Fiction.
Just outside the clubhouse is the driving range, which leads to the short-game area (allowing for shots of up to 100 yards), which in turn flows into the putting green that abuts the first tee. The well-planned facilities and well-prepared staff promote a seamless flow to a day at Pikewood National, from a lesson provided by Golf Professional Chris McGinnis to the warm-up session to the round that is a nature walk to the post-round meals prepared by Hospitality Manager Roslyn Clark, who also oversees the club’s three guest cottages.
As she cooks, Clark chats amiably with Friend and a foursome from Pittsburgh—an hour and a half away—sitting at the counter. Full of quips and laughs, the scene exemplifies the easygoing, friendly spirit that is as much a hallmark of Pikewood as the course.
“When you design a golf course and build a club,” says Gwynne, “the end result is through the contribution of many people. Thanks to them, we have created a warm, friendly environment where you can see friends, play golf and enjoy yourself. It’s the ultimate golf experience.”