Tom Clark is a past president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects and a partner of Ault, Clark & Associates, Ltd., based in Marshall, Virginia. Over the course of his thirty-seven-year career, he has completed nearly 100 new courses as project architect and more than 250 remodeling projects. Projects have taken Tom throughout the United States and abroad to countries including Korea, Ireland, South Africa, Canada, and Mexico, and some of his highly ranked courses include the Tournament Players Club at Avenel in Potomac, Maryland; The Woods Course at Kingsmill Resort in Williamsburg, Virginia; Stonehaven at Gladesprings Resort in Daniels, West Virginia; and renovation work at Canada’s Hamilton Country Club. His company has also been involved with courses on which PGA Tour, Nationwide Tour, Hooters Tour, and Futures Tour events have been staged.
Cooper Communities hired a new director of marketing in 1985. At the time I had designed and built ten very successful courses for the Cooper family. They were expanding their horizons out of Arkansas and had been granted the opportunity to develop over five thousand acres around Tellico Reservoir outside of Knoxville, Tennessee.
Toqua was to be the first of three courses, but the new marketing director thought that involving a big name professional golfer, preferably a senior player, would attract a more affluent real estate buyer to this somewhat isolated area. Knowing that such golf greats as Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus had already started their own architectural shops, I recommended Sam Snead, who was still playing on the senior circuit and was arguably one of the greatest players and personalities of all time.
On a beautiful October morning I went to visit Sam with a friend of mine who happened to live in Bath County, Virginia. Since Sam lived directly below the Cascades Course at the Homestead Resort, we planned to take the opportunity to play a little golf after the meeting.
Sam and I talked for about half an hour on his porch, and then he suggested we retire to his trophy room for a cool drink and to share some nostalgic moments. I assumed that his trophy room would be full of awards from his illustrious golfing career, but instead, the room was packed with the heads and feet of many of the big game animals he had bagged.
We spent the next three hours swapping stories of our hunting and fishing exploits. Never once did the words “golf” or “architecture” cross our lips. Sam did offer to play golf with us afterwards for “just a few bucks,” but my friend was so intimidated, I declined.
Opening day at a new golf course is always a special affair. Media members, local officials, investors, and the local residents are invited to participate and meet the architect. Opening day at Toqua was a sultry July scorcher. The temperatures soared to nearly 100 degrees. On that day, Snead, the “consulting architect,” made his first-ever visit to the course. He delighted the crowd with his exhibition on the practice tee and told some raunchy stories on the microphone.
I was thrilled to learn that I would be paired with Sam for a ceremonial opening round – the two of us would simultaneously strike the first tee shots on the first hole! I was less thrilled when I heard Sam’s voice belting over the loudspeakers. Sam still had the microphone used in the exhibition. His amplified voice was unmistakable:
“Tommy, which way does this hole go?”
Snead’s manager quickly pulled me aside.
“Sam is virtually blind in one eye and has trouble seeing distances,” he said. “He has no depth perception. You’ll have to give him yardages.”
Since the course was brand new and had no yardages marked, giving Snead yardages would pose quite a problem.
Snead and I hit our simultaneous, ceremonial opening drives, and my drive stopped just a yard short of his. After that drive, Sam switched to a rock-hard, distance model Top-Flite golf ball he’d had in his back pocket. He wasn’t about to be out-driven by a whippersnapper like me in front of a crowd.
Sam and I, followed by his large gallery, arrived at the fifth hole. We’d caught up with the group in front of us, which included my partner Brian Ault, so we watched their tee shots. Brian’s six-iron shot on this slightly uphill par-three hole found the bottom of the hole for an ace! Since Sam’s arrival had brought the entire gallery, a huge roar went up. The media members present asked Snead to comment on Brian’s hole-in-one.
Sam answered, “What hole-in-one?” His attention had been focused on a cute blond woman he’d invited to sit next to him in his golf cart and ask any questions she dared!
Our opening day round was played under a four-man scramble format. I was amazed when looking at Snead’s vintage Wilson Staff irons. The sweet spot was completely worn and slightly concave surface. How many perfect shots had he struck with those irons?
Snead’s laser accuracy with his irons, aided by my best guesses at the yardages and his unforgettable sidesaddle putting stroke, put us ten under par after nine holes. After a brief break for a beverage we proceeded to the tenth tee.
“You boys better pick it up,” Snead admonished us. “I don’t intend to lose this thing.”
We finished the event at a record twenty-one under par, eight strokes ahead of our closest competitors, having carded four eagles, thirteen birdies and the one, lonely bogie.
The day ended with an outdoor barbecue dinner and a few more off-color jokes from Sam. Cooper Communities got their high-profile media event with a golf star…and I got an unforgettable memory with the legendary Sam Snead.