More than 200 high school boys will flock to Pinehurst this weekend to compete in the annual Donald Ross Junior Championship.
The event gets underway Saturday with practice rounds. Tournament play kicks off Sunday and the final round takes place Monday.
In the story below, past players share fond memories of the championship.
By Lee Pace
They came from all points on the compass — from Philadelphia in the north by train, from Richmond by car down U.S. Hwy. 1, from Florence to the south by bus.
Sandwiched between Christmas and New Year’s Day every year since 1948 is the Donald Ross Junior Championship, a competition created to honor the memory of the famed architect of four of the original courses at Pinehurst. The tournament gives youngsters a chance to compete at the American mecca of golf.
“We understood what an honor it was to play at Pinehurst.” -Walter Lawson, played in the 1952 championship
“It was a fun trip, a golf pro and a bunch of 13-year-old kids hauling it along those two-lane roads,” says Lanny Wadkins, remembering his travels from Richmond. “It was some trip. We stayed at The Holly Inn, and I’m not sure it’s ever been the same since. Those are my earliest memories of Pinehurst. It was quite a place for a kid.”
David Eger came from Charlotte regularly as a teen and won the 1969 Ross Championship at the age of 17, and years later competed on No. 2 as a tour pro and then won the 1991 and 2000 North and South Amateurs after regaining his amateur status.
“I’ve always loved this place since I was a kid coming from Charlotte,” Eger says. “If you grow up in the Carolinas and play golf, Pinehurst is it.”
Jay Sigel would play college golf at Wake Forest, forge one of the top amateur resumes through the 1970s and ‘80s and then launch a blockbuster career on the Champions Tour in the 1990s.
Pinehurst was one of the places where he learned to take his “game on the road.” He was 15 in 1958 and rode the train from his home in Philadelphia two days after Christmas and landed in a tie for first place in the Ross Memorial.
“I made seven or eight birdies but only shot even-par,” Sigel says. “Four of us tied, and it got dark at four o’clock. There wasn’t any time for a playoff. So they cut cards. I picked the wrong card.”
And look at the faces on the boys from this 1952 photo of a group just having arrived from Florence for the Ross Championship. They are excited, maybe a little nervous. Many have never been so far from their home. Some carry only four or five clubs in tiny canvas bags. A couple have played only one round of golf before. Another is accomplished and confident enough that his name is embroidered on his bag.
“The Ross Memorial was a very prestigious tournament,” says Walter Lawson, second from the right among the two tall boys in the back row. “We were told about the Tufts family, about Donald Ross, that Pinehurst was the heart of American golf. You’d be surprised how much we knew about Pinehurst. We understood what an honor it was to play at Pinehurst.”
The tall gentleman on the back row, his head popping up between the words “DEE” and “COACH” on the bus, was the instigator and engineer of the annual excursion from Florence Country Club. His name was Grant Bennett, and to golfers in Florence in the mid-20th century, he was a father figure, mentor, babysitter and golf guru. His wife, Rozellen, is standing to Bennett’s left.
“Grant was a pied piper,” says John Orr, who was 12 years old at the time and standing third from the right on the front row. “We played golf seven days a week. When I started playing, my family was not a member. But he said, ‘Son, come on and play. I want junior golfers out here.’
“I saw more of him growing up than I did my parents. Grant put raising kids above making a living. He sacrificed his own family for everyone else’s family. He and Rozellen just loved the kids. Not only did he build golfers, he molded character.”
Jack Lewis, Randy Glover, Gordon “Buddy” Baker, Billy Womack and Kathy Hite were among the many talented young golfers to come out of Florence during the Bennett era. Bennett knew that the only way to groom competitive golfers was to have them compete, so the Pinehurst event was not only a fun outing for the juniors but a goal to practice toward and a chance to see how they could play out of town.
“I’ve always loved this place since I was a kid coming from Charlotte. If you grow up in the Carolinas and play golf, Pinehurst is it.” -David Eger, 1969 champion
“One of the requirements Grant set down was that no one could go to Pinehurst if they hadn’t played a full 18-hole round,” says Larry Orr, John’s brother standing sixth from the left on the front row. “So I played my first 18-hole round shortly before the tournament so I could go. I don’t remember the score, but I’m not sure that I broke 200.”
That Pinehurst photographer John Hemmer was ready with his camera when the bus from Florence arrived at the club was no coincidence.
“Grant arranged that,” John Orr says. “He was a P.R. man, too.”
Hemmer also took a photograph of one of the tallest boys in the group, the 6-foot-3 Lawson, walking alongside one of the smallest, the 8-year-old Larry Orr. He distributed it through Pinehurst’s publicity network with the caption, “The Long and Short Of It.”
“I heard from people as far away as Chicago after the photo hit the wires,” Lawson says.
Bennett died in 2005 and was a member of South Carolina Athletic Hall of Fame and South Carolina Golf Hall of Fame. The Orr brothers both still live in Florence, as does Lawson. Baker lives in Pinehurst and is a member of the Country Club of North Carolina.
“I try to go up to Pinehurst twice a year,” says John Orr, a regular entrant in the North and South Senior Amateur. “It’s a place to die for.”
Lee Pace is a regular contributor to the Pinehurst Blog. He latest book, “The Golden Age of Pinehurst—The Rebirth of No. 2,” is available in all retail shops at Pinehurst.