In 1918, five years after Forsyth Country Club was formed, A. W. Tillinghast designed a 9-hole layout for the membership. Shortly after, Donald Ross was engaged to extend the course into an 18-hole track.
Changes have inevitably been made to the course down the years, Willard Byrd and Dan Maples left their mark in the 1980s, and in the new millennium Greensboro-based Kris Spence (a Ross restoration expert) reinstated the faded classic.
According to Spence Golf, Inc: “Over the years, however, small and large changes were made to the course, and much of Ross’s genius had been lost. Recognizing that FCC owned a truly spectacular piece of real estate with significant elevation changes right in the heart of Winston-Salem, and that the course routing was still intact from possibly the greatest golf course architect ever, the next step was obvious! In 2007, Ross restoration specialist KSGD was hired to restore and update the course and bring back the classic elements of Ross courses that make them so highly regarded.”
In 2018, the club recalled Spence to consult and assist Superintendent Matt Jones and his team on a re-grassing project, whereby greens were converted to Champion ultradwarf Bermuda.
With hundreds of courses to Donald Ross’s credit, it is inevitable that historians attempt to stereotype his architectural style, particularly around the greens. One need not look further than Forsyth Country Club in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, to realize that Ross not only incorporated variety into his stellar routings, but also his world-class putting surfaces. Built on the bones of an original nine hole Tillinghast design, it is no surprise that golfers are in for a very unique, special experience at Forsyth.
Situated on a rollicking piece of property, Forsyth is similar to many other top-notch Ross courses with corridors incorporating the topography naturally and strategically. The routing hugs the ground, highlighting virtually every natural feature of note, from bumbling brooks to gentle cants in the fairways. Presented under some of the firmest conditions in the entire Piedmont region, the rolling land must be deliberately considered on every shot from tee-to-green. This charm is a rarity on so many American courses, making Forsyth even more of a treat to experience day-in and day-out.
Thought-provoking from the opening tee shot, any number of holes at Forsyth are worthy of study:
• #1: Options abound as the round commences. The player may use the natural right-to-left hill in the fairway to safely avoid two fairway bunkers on the left, gaining yardage. However, laying up to the wider portion of the landing zone has its advantages on this short two-shotter. The green complex is divided into two portions by a steep, diagonal ridge. Hit this wall on the fly, and holding the green will be nearly impossible.
• #2: Not long by modern standards, new pin placements may entirely alter the way one approaches the 2nd hole. With the pin on the left, keeping the ball on the right half of the fairway – while avoiding bunkers and fighting the slope – is an absolute necessity. This is best achieved with an aggressive drive. With the pin on the right, a layup shot should suffice.
• #3: This par three might as well be an island green. Pitching out from either bunker or from the collection area beyond the putting surface will leave a chip that is nearly impossible to hold.
• #4: The reachable par four 4th is truly exhilarating thanks to the course’s firm conditions. The green is wide and unguarded in the front. Playing straight downhill, one could not imagine a more inviting opportunity to pull the driver. However, as the artist Ross so frequently accomplished, this hole seamlessly hides the peril for even a slightly errant shot. Miss long or left and watch your ball drop sharply into a hazard; miss right and enjoy a delicate pitch towards that same penalty area. Adding to the difficulty is the narrowing green complex molded in the spirit of a Biarritz. While the traditional Biarritz green presents as a long par three, the essence of the template is still captured here since most players will be using a driver or fairway metal to run the shot up. This hole falls in the top echelon of Ross creations in that it is so simple, yet so effective, it appears to be “discovered rather than designed.”
• #5: Although reaching the green in two is improbable at Forsyth’s first par five, the best angle for any approach shot is from the right half of the fairway. Again, the player is asked to combat the natural cant of the land and to avoid a deep cross bunker.
• #6: Unlike many architects, Ross designed courses with the amateur in mind. It was his desire to challenge all aspects of any player’s game while still leaving the golfer excited to return. The 6th hole at Forsyth captures this philosophy exceptionally. With a creek bisecting the landing zone, one must hit either a career best drive to clear the hazard, or lay up significantly with an iron or fairway metal. The more common conservative shot leaves one with another long iron into this difficult green complex. Keeping the average player in mind, Ross offers a wide entryway with the option to run the ball up. In this sense, Ross demonstrates his ability to balance an otherwise brute of a hole with some respite.
• #7: With a steep false front, three distinct tiers, and nasty fescue long, this par three, like the 3rd, might also be an ‘island’ as any miss leaves unrecoverable challenges.
• #8: Members have the option of taking the 8th on as a par four or par five. As a three shotter, more interesting land contours are in play. This is especially true off the tee. A less aggressive drive can utilize a knob in the fairway right to funnel balls to the center. Brave players attempting to cut off yardage must contend with tight grass cascading shots into perilous cross bunkers. Blind from the fairway, this rectangular, diagonally angled green can be reached in two with a sweeping hook that fights the undulation of the putting surface.
• #9: Ross did not only crown green complexes. The very tough fairway at the 9th is frightening from the tee as it appears to slope in two directions, neither of which will instill confidence on this long, uphill approach. Once again, if not presented under firm playing surfaces, the hole would not be nearly as interesting.
• #10: Arguably the star of the inward nine, the volcano green at the par four 10th is terrifying. Wiser players might consider laying up to their preferred wedge distance from the tee, but even this prospect is complicated by cross bunkers peppering the ideal landing zone and deceptively obscuring sightlines. With so little dirt moved, Ross transforms a hole that is short by modern standards into a true monster.
• #11: The longest one shotter on the course offers a slight break for errant shots right, though Ross hides this recovery area behind a bunker.
• #12: The dogleg right 12th follows a steep ridge in the land, and properly shaped tee shots can catch a major speed slot. Play too conservatively and pay the price with shots blocked out from this tough green.
• #13: With deep fescue grass right and a pond left, players must be accurate with the tee shot at the 13th hole or aggressively take on two flanking bunkers that pinch a driver landing area. With a charming plateau on its back right portion, this green offers numerous interesting pin locations.
• #14: Four bunkers guard the left corner of the shallow green complex at the par three 14th hole. Naturally, one’s eyes might look right for an easy bailout. Unsurprisingly, Ross thought two steps ahead by burying a large elephant in the back right portion of the green, adding serious difficulty to any recovery shot.
• #15: The star of the show at the 15th is an exceptionally distinct green complex that is beguiling regardless of the club in hand. Triangular in shape, this putting surface features two distinct left/right tiers with a sharp, hollow spine running down the middle. Ending up on either incorrect terrace can easily lead to putting disaster.
• #16: With out-of-bounds down the entire right portion of 16th hole, the player is drawn to the endless corridor left. Ross guards this bailout with signature chocolate drops, forcing the golfer to take on a cross bunker.
• #17: Driving is not so easy on this short par four, as the landing zone is strategically banked into an upslope. While there is a collection area left, missing this multi-tiered green complex on any side will lead to a very awkward up-and-down.
• #18: The thrill ride ends similar to its beginning, reminding the player that at Forsyth, the spirit of strategic options is thriving. The best angle into this slanted putting surface is only achieved by challenging a desert of five bunkers, demanding every last bit of the golfer’s energy.
It is impossible to overstate the difference that Forsyth’s superintendent and grounds crew are making for the property. The firm conditions under which the course is presented elevate the architectural brilliance. Furthermore, under the leadership of newly announced head pro Chase Adams, Forsyth’s staff go out of their way to make every player feel like a veteran member. The practice facilities are top notch, and the property offers modern amenities with a timeless vibe.
Over the last five years, Winston-Salem has garnered significant and deserved national attention for the Coore & Crenshaw restoration of the Old Town Club. It is shocking that Forsyth does not also receive some of the spotlight. Fascinatingly, both courses are built on comparable rolling topography, and one might wonder if Maxwell and Ross had switched sites, would the same results have been produced? Similarly, it is the very firm and fast conditions – particularly of the rumpled fairways – that yield such charm and strategic interest on both properties.
There are few more architecturally compelling 36-hole days in any major metro-area of North Carolina than Forsyth Country Club and the Old Town Club. Lump in nearby Roaring Gap for a 54-hole weekend and consider yourself luckier than a lottery winner. Each of these three courses demonstrates the power of thoughtful, classic-design restorations. While it may not sit in the spotlight today, Forsyth is well worth a stop on any trip to the Triad.