The local knowledge and pleasures of Knollwood
By Bill Fields
Driving past the sandy parking lot at Knollwood Fairways filled with SUVs and other 21st century models, I easily envision my father’s second-hand Thunderbird or Don Smitherman’s custodial service van from 45 years ago.
Don was one of the cadre of adults I regularly played with at Knollwood, one of my informal but important teachers of golf and life, and when he passed away in 2014 at 80, it tickled me to read up high in his obituary that “golf was a game he truly enjoyed.”
He sure did, changing out of his brogans into his golf spikes in a flash, eager as the rest of us to get in a quick nine before dark. Don’s swing was taut and reliable, conjuring Doug Sanders, and he was a savvy golfer who rarely wasted a shot. I don’t think I ever rooted harder for a tour pro than the year Don caddied for Frank Beard at Pinehurst No. 2 in the 1974 World Open, when he lost in a four-man playoff.
I’ve been to 48 states and 10 countries as a golf photographer and writer, but none of my travels might have occurred without my formative years around the game at Knollwood Fairways. It’s where I caught the bug, searched for the secret, built calluses and realized that carrying an extendable ball retriever with a rake-like tip was not a good look.
The 140-yard first hole seemed like 1,400 yards when I first played it with my starter set of Johnny Palmer signature clubs from Sears, so ominous loomed the water hazard between tee and tiny green with a 3-iron in hand.
Knollwood’s compact nine holes — a lighted, nine-hole par-3 also existed before it was eliminated for housing — and practice range was the scene for many of my golf revelations.
It was where I made my first par; saw a club pro (Bob Round) hit a tight draw; gasped as a tour pro (Chuck Thorpe) launched one of the early graphite-shafted drivers; watched a boy (who shall remain nameless) mark his ball on the green with a pine needle; and a man (also nameless) smear Vaseline on his clubface to try to thwart a slice.
At Knollwood, I found out what it was like to play for money, marvel as a wedge shot backed up, break 40 for nine holes, hear an idiot in a passing car shout “Fore!” and get hit in the chin with an errant shot (by my father, as his Top-Flite ricocheted off a tree on the fifth hole, fortunately resulting in only a bruise).
Thanks to the largesse of pro shop manager Jesse Nelson, who treated me like a son, I helped out in exchange for free range balls, saving myself $1.25 for every large bucket. One of my duties was serving Stewart Sandwiches in the snack bar, ham-and-cheeses, grilled cheeses, or, if someone was splurging, the salami-ham-cheese “Torpedo” hoagie — all infrared-heated in a small magic oven.
My best recollection of Knollwood is secondhand. Bob, my brother-in-law, was playing with my father. My dad the high school graduate really enjoyed the company of his biochemist/molecular biologist son-in-law. They bonded at Knollwood trying to figure out the science of a difficult sport, convivial cold beers enjoyed when they were done regardless of score.
Despite being a strong swimmer and graceful tennis player, Bob struggled at golf. He swung too fast, and he topped a lot of shots. The par-4 eighth hole, where a pond fronts the tee, was Bob’s nemesis for his semi-annual rounds at Knollwood. I think it started psyching him out before he walked past the first of the kinks on the double-dogleg seventh. One afternoon in the early 1970s, before Bob attempted to hit his tee shot over the water on No. 8, Dad tossed him a ball to use. It was imprinted with the logo of Mayflower Movers, a tall ship.
A jerky swing, thin shot and predictable result later, my father was on the ground he was laughing so hard. Dad told that story until he died, and Bob tells it still. PS
Southern Pines native Bill Fields, who writes about golf and other things, moved north in 1986 but hasn’t lost his accent