The Times West Virginian

West Virginia

October 13, 2012

Greenbrier buys historic course

CHARLESTON — The Greenbrier resort is buying one of the nation’s oldest golf courses after it failed to sell at auction over the summer, the resort’s owner told The Associated Press on Friday.

Greenbrier owner Jim Justice confirmed the purchase of Oakhurst Links. The purchase price wasn’t disclosed.

“To be perfectly honest, I don’t know that it’s going to be a great thing for the Greenbrier,” Justice said. “But I know it’s a great thing to do.”

Oakhurst Links was built in 1884 and is a few miles north of The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs. The 30-acre course, museum and clubhouse are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The clubhouse and museum are filled with photos of visits from golfers such as Sam Snead, Lee Trevino and Tom Watson.

For years, 89-year-old Lewis Keller had struggled to find a buyer.

Last year a Richmond, Va.-based group had planned to take over the course but couldn’t raise the $2.5 million to close the deal.

Financing for a $410,000 winning bid from a July 28 auction fell through and a heartbroken Keller feared a Virginia bank would foreclose on the property and its history would fall apart — until Justice came along.

Justice said he plans to keep the nine-hole course “just like it is.” And that’s perhaps the greatest news of all to Keller.

“Jim Justice has been absolutely wonderful to me,” Keller said. “In my opinion, the history of the game of golf will be preserved and that, to me, is absolutely important.”

Keller said the purchase price was “less than $1 million, but a lot more than the price that was bid at auction.”

The spacious Greenbrier has three 18-hole courses open for public play and has hosted the PGA Tour’s Greenbrier Classic since 2010.

Conventional golf clubs aren’t used at Oakhurst. Players — often dressed as if they had just come out of a time tunnel — rent hickory-shafted clubs and hit gutta-percha balls off tees fashioned from sand and water the way it was done more than 130 years ago.

The Greenbrier dates to 1778 and is a former gathering place for presidents and royalty. It has a 721-room hotel, casino, spa, dozens of amenities and a once-secret underground bunker built for Congress in case of nuclear attack during the Cold War.

Justice bought the Greenbrier out of bankruptcy in 2009 for $20.1 million.

A year later, he said he wasn’t interested in buying Oakhurst.

Justice said Friday he always was hopeful that another buyer would have stepped in. What clinched the deal for him, he said, was getting to know Keller.

“It needed to be done,” Justice said. “Mr. Keller surely touches my heart. He’s a beautiful person. It would have been such a shame. I purposely didn’t go to the auction because first of all I don’t do those things. I don’t participate in those things. It would have broken my heart anyways.”

After the auction sale fell through, Keller and some of his friends arranged a meeting with Justice.

“In his words, there’s no other choice,” Justice said. “He had run out of options.”

It’s the latest acquisition for Justice, whose other purchases in recent years include Virginia’s Wintergreen Resort; 4,500 acres south of Charlottesville, Va., near the historic Virginia estates of Presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe; and a six-story building in downtown Roanoke, Va.

In August 2011, Justice announced he’s teaming up with several prominent physicians and a health care developer to build a $250 million medical facility at The Greenbrier featuring a sports medicine and rehabilitation center, a cosmetic surgery center with a “lifestyle enhancement academy” and a boutique hotel with 20 VIP suites.  

Though he has owned Oakhurst since 1959, it wasn’t until 1994 that Keller reopened the course after it had been dormant for more than 80 years. The National Hickory Championship has been played at Oakhurst since 1998.

Oakhurst was first owned by Russell Montague, who became enamored with golf while studying in Great Britain.

Montague and a small group of colleagues held the first competition at Oakhurst in 1888 in the Scottish match play tradition, predating by a few years the St. Andrews Golf Club of Yonkers, N.Y.

Montague and most of the original members eventually moved away. Play on the course stopped after 1910.

Keller learned about Oakhurst from longtime friend Snead, who spent decades as the head pro at the nearby Greenbrier resort. Keller bought the property to use as a summer retreat and raise horses. He had a vision about restoring the course, but didn’t act for decades until some nudging from a golf writer.

Restoration started in 1991 and was done by hand, with newspaper and magazine clippings and course photos serving as guides.

And now with Oakhurst in the hands of only its third owner, Keller will continue to maintain a presence there.

“He’s an enormous part of the story,” Justice said.

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