Golftown Journal

All Four One

A magic number creating memories

By Lee Pace

There are the four seasons, the four corners of the globe, four points on a compass, four phases of the moon, the four Gospels, the four elements. There are the Four Horsemen and the Four Tops. The number four in East Asia is considered unlucky; some hospitals and apartment buildings skip the number four as many in America do with the dreaded number 13.

And in golf, there are four players. The foursome.

There is no pat answer on the number’s evolution through the history of golf as the standard size of a group taking to the course. The fact that in the early days clubs and balls were expensive and often shared by two or more players lends credence to the idea that golf developed in Scotland as a game for two players playing alternate shot, aka foursomes. The Rules of Golf of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews in 1858 specifically mentions that golf is played “by two persons, or by four (two a side) playing alternately.”

And so it was that four men in their late 20s arrived by happenstance on the first tee of a small-town Illinois country club in 1978.

Bill Shaw, a fifth-generation newspaperman.

Jock Heaton and Bob Branson, both attorneys.

And Dr. Joe Crisham, an orthodontist.

“The club had a traditional men’s day — you played golf in the afternoon and stayed for drinks and dinner afterward,” Shaw says. “You needed to play in a group, so the four of us hooked up. We clicked for whatever reason.

“The same four guys — for 39 years.”

Dixon is a town of about 16,000 located a hundred miles west of Chicago, and its claim to fame is being the boyhood home of Ronald Reagan, who worked as a lifeguard at a park just north of town and caddied at the golf course (known today as Timber Creek Golf Course). The golfer who hit the first shot in the first Masters, Ralph Stonehouse, was the club pro in the early 1940s.

“After about 20 years, we became the senior group at the club, and we kept going,” Shaw says. “We not only shared our golf together, but life experiences, the good and the bad as our conversations evolved from raising our young families to Social Security and Medicare.”

They played a game of nine point that revolved around the standard low-ball and low-total from two-man sides but featured extra points for birdies, sandies, a “sneaky par” (getting up-and-down) and a “poley” (making a putt longer than the length of the flagstick). Rarely did anyone lose more than $100. But unlike most foursomes, they never settled up at the end of the round. Crisham was appointed the group’s treasurer, set up a checking account and sent out a bill every month for each player’s obligation. A tidy sum of a few thousand bucks accumulated, and the guys decided in the mid-1990s to spend their money on a golf trip. They picked Pinehurst and in 1996 traveled south and played Pine Needles, Pinewild and Pinehurst Plantation (later renamed Mid South Club).

“What small-town Midwestern golfer would not be impressed with what Pinehurst has to offer?” Shaw reflects. “It has a multitude of fine golfing venues, as well as watering holes like the Pine Crest Inn and Dugan’s Pub. The village with its winding streets and old-time charm captivated us from the beginning.”

“Pinehurst, I love it,” Branson adds. “It’s the best place in the world.”

About this time a burgeoning golf enterprise was evolving on land just northeast of the village. The Meyer family had Chicago and Illinois roots and for many years had used “The Farm,” as they called their expanse that at its height numbered 2,500 acres, for family trips to pursue equestrian and golfing pursuits. The family’s third generation, comprised of brothers Terry and Louis Brown and their cousin Heidi Hall-Jones, decided to develop some of their land into a private golf and residential community. The first course at Forest Creek Golf Club opened in 1996, and the family used its connections in Chicago and throughout the Midwest to promote the club and the Sandhills community.

“After our first trip to Pinehurst, a friend heard about our experience and told me about Terry and his new club,” Shaw says. “On a lark, I called Terry and soon after returned to Pinehurst to check things out. He invited me to play golf. I was thrilled with it. It seemed like every hole was a signature hole.”

They played the Tom Fazio-designed course (it would later be deemed the South Course when Fazio completed the North Course in 2005). Then they moved on to the par-3 19th hole — a one-shotter over water that connects the 18th hole to the clubhouse. It’s called “The Hog Hole” as you can go “whole hog” and bet all of the day’s winnings on one par-3.

“Terry didn’t need to send me a bill,” Shaw says. “I wrote a check for a charter membership standing on the green.”

So now Shaw’s foursome had a home base for its annual golf trip. For two decades each autumn the golfers stayed at the Comfort Inn in Southern Pines, played two rounds of golf at Forest Creek, and ventured throughout the community as time and weather allowed. And they watched as Forest Creek matured into a club celebrating its 25-year anniversary in 2021.

“We were in golfing heaven,” Shaw says. “As the years passed, our time together became more precious. The memories piled up.”

Sadly, the group was reduced to three in June 2017, when Jock Heaton succumbed to cancer.

“He is always with us in spirit,” Shaw says. “The second seat in my golf cart is occupied by a lifetime of memories. I invited his son Jon to join us at Forest Creek in the spring of 2019. It was an emotional day, to say the least.”

Shaw still lives in Dixon but visits Forest Creek at least a couple of times a year. Branson is retired and lives in Aiken, S.C., and has joined Shaw on the membership roll at Forest Creek. Crisham lives in Vero Beach, Fla.

“When you reach retirement and a certain age, you can reflect upon what was really special in a lifetime,” Shaw says. “How lucky we were to have golf, to have our foursome, to have Forest Creek, to have Pinehurst. As I’ve gotten older, I have a few more aches and pains. But the azaleas, the birds singing, the scent of the place — all of that’s still there.”   PS

Chapel Hill-based writer Lee Pace has written about the charms of the Sandhills and Carolinas for more than three decades. Write him at leepace7@gmail.com and follow him at @LeePaceTweet.

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