Top 100 Golf
By Lee Pace
Photo by Peter Taylor
Donald Ross, perhaps golf’s most beloved designer, created some three dozen courses across North Carolina during the first half of the 20th century, from Highlands Country Club in a far western nook of the state to Cape Fear Country Club in Wilmington. Ross died in 1948, but today, Greensboro-based architect and restoration specialist Kris Spence is reviving his designs for a new generation of golfers.
Spence has developed a niche over nearly two decades by linking the old masters to the modern game, whether adding yardage to accommodate today’s long ball, rebuilding greens with popular hybrid Bermuda grasses or returning Ross’ original bunkers and greens to their former state.
“Kris is an artist,” says Joe Dillon, a former club champion at Forsyth Country Club in Winston-Salem, which Spence restored in 2006. “I watched him sketch out holes on a piece of paper or even a napkin. Then you see it rise out of the ground and it’s amazing.”
Growing up in Missouri, Spence, 55, took an early interest in course architecture — as a kid, he roughed out a putting green in his family’s backyard — but most of his early play was on modern courses on relatively flat pieces of land. A golf scholarship took him to Arkansas State University, but he transferred to Lake City Community College, now Florida Gateway College, to study golf course operations. After graduating in 1985, he took a job as the green superintendent at Forest Oaks Country Club in Greensboro. He had heard a lot about Pinehurst No. 2, the course Ross carved out from the sandy loam of the Sandhills that is considered one of the top dozen in the U.S.
So he made a point to drive to Pinehurst and see it himself.
“The greens were the old 328 Bermuda (grass) — they were as firm as any I’d ever seen,” says Spence, who was a scratch player, capable of shooting par or better whenever he played. “They impacted the way I played the game. You couldn’t fly the ball at the flag — that caught my attention. And it became clear as you played the course that there was one angle of approach that gave you an advantage. That one round of golf set me off in a totally new direction.”
Spence read books on classic designers and studied plans from Ross and other architects such as Seth Raynor, A.W. Tillinghast and William Flynn. He visited Ross courses in North Carolina, including Sedgefield Country Club in Greensboro and Alamance Country Club in Burlington. In 1990, he landed a job as green superintendent at Greensboro Country Club, where the original Irving Park course was designed by Ross, starting in 1924.
The club began talking in the mid-1990s about updating its playing surfaces and restoring the original bunkers, green shapes and playing strategy that had been lost over the years. Spence volunteered to handle the project in-house.
“At that time, ‘restoration’ was not a big buzzword, so the club was a little apprehensive, and I’m ready to go full bore,” Spence recalls. “The course had been remodeled in the ’60s, and it had mounds and a very modernistic approach. I found the original plans and some old aerial (photographs). It was one of the best-bunkered golf courses, but all of that was gone.”
Spence completed the work in 1997, and that led to a $2.5 million project at The Omni Grove Park Inn in Asheville, another vintage course that Ross had remodeled in 1926. Spence researched the history of the course and drew up a master plan for a restoration, again seeking to re-create as much Ross detail as possible while making adjustments for the distance of the modern golf ball and increased green speeds. Golfweek named the project its “Best Restoration” in 2002. After completing that job, Spence left the club and hung his own shingle in the golf architecture and construction business.
“People are telling me I’m good at it, I think I’m good at it, and I think I could be successful,” he says. “I’m not the first person to do it. Donald Ross and Ellis Maples and Flynn and Tillinghast and a lot of guys entered the business the exact same way, by taking that path, through being a green keeper and a construction guy.”
Over the last decade and a half, Spence has developed a specialty for restoring and renovating many of the courses designed by Ross and other classic architects in the Carolinas and beyond.
Rob Fowler, who directed the committee that hired Spence to lead Forsyth Country Club’s 2006 restoration, said the club respected the designer’s experience as a superintendent.
“He understood we have to live with the golf course after he leaves,” says Fowler, whose family owns the Modern Automotive dealership chain. “I also think Kris understands better than most what makes a Ross course so playable for all levels of golfers. One of our goals was to make this course more fun for the average player.”
A decade later, the Country Club of North Carolina embarked on a $4.5 million renovation of its Dogwood Course, a 1963 Ellis Maples/Willard Byrd design consistently ranked in the top five in the state. Spence supervised the reconstruction of every green, tee, bunker and fairway during the 2015-16 renovation.
“From the beginning, Kris brought a style that spoke to integrity and straightforwardness,” said Robert “Ziggy” Zalzneck, club president. “Some architects we talked to tried to tell us what we wanted. Kris listened first. He tried to talk us out of some things, but he listened. … And he knew Ellis Maples’ work and style and had a track record with it. He was the right man for this job.”
Spence, whose firm has 20 employees, uses many tools in his design process. He looks at original plans when available. He uses Google Earth to find aerial imagery of courses at various time periods. For the Dogwood project, he showed club officials how trees bordering putting surfaces had crept onto greens perimeters over the years, hindering healthy grass growth. He’s made three trips to the British Isles to study the styles of the Old World links courses, where the ground game is more prevalent than the American staple of playing golf through the air.
Most of all, he walks the property, looking with his eyes and feeling with his feet.
“I get in tune with the piece of property,” he says. “I look at the folds of the land, I look at where the water’s going, I look at the high spots. Most of the time, the routing is still intact. I’ve always found when I do restorations — whether it’s Tillinghast or Raynor or Ross or Maples — I stay in tune with that land.”
Despite a steady flow of jobs asking him to knock the rust off the classic architects’ work, what’s eluded him is landing an assignment to build a new course from scratch. Since 2009, more courses have closed than new ones have opened, according to the National Golf Foundation.
Spence had signed contracts in the early 2000s to design two courses in North Carolina and one in Virginia, but the financing never came through. He later met with a developer in Florida to discuss plans for a new course but thought the land too mediocre and eventually passed. He’s also completed extensive remodeling projects at Lake Toxaway Country Club and Mooresville Golf Club, which was a $5 million improvement.
“Those jobs were certainly the equivalent of a from-scratch design in the realm of construction and design,” he says, but the industry doesn’t view them as original design.
Until that opportunity presents itself, Spence is content to focus on remodeling and restoration. He’s currently working on Providence Country Club in Charlotte, a Dan Maples-designed course from the mid-1980s, and restoring Sara Bay Country Club in Sarasota, Fla., a Ross course that opened in 1926.
Spence estimates he’s touched about 60 courses to one degree or another.
“There is always something new to learn in this business. Donald Ross in particular, he was always evolving and adapting to each piece of ground, and it just teaches you something every time.”