America's oldest course put up for sale

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia's Oakhurst Links is up for sale -- the birthplace of American golf, where sheep roam the fairways and modern technology takes a back seat to hickory-shafted clubs.

Owner Lewis Keller said that after 50 years, it's time for someone else to oversee the White Sulphur Springs course that held its first competition in 1884.

The asking price for the nine-hole course and its museum -- $4.5 million.

Keller hopes a new owner can be found to maintain Oakhurst Links in its current playable state.

"I think I've been custodian long enough," Keller, 86, told The Associated Press on Friday. "I think a new one would step up and it would be very nice."

Oakhurst Links is on the National Register of Historic Places. It has been closed to public play this year, although a tournament was held earlier this summer.

Florida broker and golf pro Robert Kelley, a longtime friend of the Keller family, was enlisted to spearhead the sale. Kelley is working locally with Sara Schroeder, a Charlottesville, Va., agent with West Virginia ties.

Schroeder confirmed the listing price and said the property has been on the market only a few months. Kelley said he has been in talks with "golf industry leaders" in an effort to ensure that Oakhurst ends up in capable hands, but he declined to discuss specifics.

"We've got to preserve the history and tell the story for future generations," Kelley said.

It's the history that makes Oakhurst Links worth the trip.

Visitors are required to use replica hickory clubs, hit gutta-percha balls molded from the sap of the sapodilla tree, and form tees from a mound of wet sand. Electric carts are unavailable -- golfers walk among the dozens of sheep just as participants did a century ago.

Keller first learned about Oakhurst Links in the early 1950s from friend and golf pro Sam Snead, who lived just across the Virginia border. It was first owned by Russell Montague, who became addicted to golf while studying in Great Britain.

As Keller tells it, Montague's doctor advised him in 1878 to move from Boston to a healthier climate. Montague chose White Sulphur Springs, partly because of stories about its so-called healing waters.

Montague and a small group of colleagues built the course and held the first golf competition about 1884 in the Scottish match-play tradition, predating by a few years the St. Andrews Golf Club of Yonkers, N.Y.

But Montague and most of the original members eventually moved away. Play on the course stopped after 1910. Montague's son, Cary, would return to the estate to live. But the course faded until Keller, a New York native, bought the property in 1959 to use as a summer retreat and raise horses.

Keller would knock a golf ball around the pastures with his sons and occasionally find reminders of yesteryear: A gutta-percha ball, and a cup still embedded in what was once the No. 8 green.

Keller had a vision about restoring the course but didn't act until he got some coaxing from golf writer Dick Taylor. Golf designer Bob Cupp heard about the course and stepped forward to volunteer with the restoration.

Work started in 1991 and was done by hand, with newspaper and magazine clippings and course photos serving as guides. The 2,235-yard course reopened in October 1994. The longest hole is 356 yards and the shortest is 106.

The course's museum is full of snapshots of visits from golfers such as Snead, Lee Trevino and Tom Watson, who is now the golf pro emeritus at the nearby Greenbrier resort. Keller is hosting an event with Watson at Oakhurst in mid-September.

Keller said the course's preservation is key to the sale.

"We personally feel it's very important to our state, our town and everyone in golf," Keller said.