Host venue for the short-lived Durham Open when Byron Nelson won the fourth of his eleven consecutive PGA victories in 1945, Hope Valley Country Club was formed in 1926 and it's home to a Donald Ross layout, where the architect not only set out the routing for the fairways, he also visited the property on a number of occasions during the build to make sure his plans were being followed exactly as specified.
In fairness, the course has been modified a number of times since it was first laid out. Perry Maxwell redesigned several holes in the late 1930s and then both Dan Maples and John La Foy were subsequently called in at different times to alter the layout. New millennium improvements have since been carried out by Brian Silva, when all the tees and greens were rebuilt and bunkers were restored to their original appearance.
Today, the course stretches to a modest 6,692 yards, playing to a par of 70. Feature holes include short par fours at the 7th and 13th, with both the par fives at holes 8 and 15 offering a good chance of picking up a birdie. A round at Hope Valley concludes on a hole where a lot can happen – a long, uphill par three playing to a false-fronted home green that rarely ever yields a closing birdie.
Donald Ross is my favorite course architect, and when traveling, I actively seek out his courses (25+ played to date). Having lived in Durham for the last decade, it may seem surprising that I have only played Hope Valley once. I credit this to two reasons: club exclusivity, and, no very strong push on my behalf to see the course again. While there are many solid holes, it falls in my strong but not standout category.
Hope Valley is rich in its golf history. Designed by Donald Ross, the course has been influenced by other notable architects including Perry Maxwell. The former annual host to the Durham Open, Ben Hogan cites the 11th as one of his favorite holes, and Byron Nelson won at Hope Valley during his lengthy win streak.
Interestingly, Bradford Becken, current President of the Donald Ross society and golfer who has played all 350+ Donald Ross courses in existence today was inspired to pursue that journey by Hope Valley. There are many interviews with him online that I would highly encourage any Donald Ross fan to read – Bradford’s depth of perspective is really unmatched.
In considering my rating, the golf course itself is always most important. Notable holes for me include:
• #1: Many Ross courses are known for the ‘gentle handshake’ opening hole. I personally feel the opening tee shot at Hope Valley is quite challenging – fairly tight with a creek cutting through the fairway, precision is demanded immediately.
• #5: Easily my favorite hole on the property, Ross’s routing expertise shines through as the fairway bumbles down a handsomely undulating piece of terrain to a bunkerless green. Having a right-to-left shot capability is a blessing on this naturally beautiful hole.
• #8: The fairway bunkering on this par five is fabulously done. If the golfer plays the proper tees, they will strategically need to think their way through the first, second, and third shot here.
• #11: Despite changes over the years, this hole still feels like it was discovered rather than built. Both the tee shot and approach are challenging thanks to strong slopes in the land. This type of reliance on what nature has provided is simply not found in many modern designs.
Adding to my enjoyment was the warm hospitality showed to me by staff throughout the entire day on the property.
Despite these positives, a few aspects of the golf course hold back my rating despite being a Ross-lover. First, I personally prefer golf courses that are truly set in nature, and the massive mansions lining these holes were a bit invasive for my taste. Second, the course feels a bit stuffy for what it is and where it is – I received this vibe from some of the members, and from the membership staff when I inquired about pricing and packages. Third, many holes felt like mirror images, especially with so many severely uphill shots. Finally, while not a huge priority for me, the day I played, conditioning was modest. I suspect this was an anomaly, and will not count that against the course.
If you are invited to play Hope Valley, it is absolutely worth seeing at least once. For me, it does not fall under the ‘must plays’ among my Ross or total portfolio.
Things are not as they used to be at Hope Valley. For example the white Los Angeles style house just left of the ninth tee was once owned by two men who delighted in opening their bedroom window to provide passing golfers a full view of the two of them in flagrante delicto.
More germane to the subject at hand is the dumbing down of Donald Ross’s original design. Ross’s field drawings clearly show undulations on every green, all of which have been removed over the years. My favorite is a depression that ran across the entire width of the 14th green from 10 o’clock to 4 o’clock. The only other Ross course where I’ve seen this feature is at Sandy Burr in Massachusetts. Alas, #14 now looks like most of the other greens at Hope Valley, running down to the front of the green in a single uninspiring plane.
Nor is there much strategy involved before one gets to the green. The 11th hole once featured two creeks and is said to have been a Ben Hogan favorite when the Durham Open was a regular stop on the PGA tour. Both creeks have been covered over, removing the strategic challenge. There are a few tee shots where the golfer needs to think how much risk to take on for more reward (e.g. # 12 and #16) but for the most part one side of the fairway is as good as another.
The club hired Kris Spence and he produced a plan that would restore many of the challenges Ross included. It remains to be seen when, or even if, this work will be undertaken. The course could certainly use it.