Southern Hospitality: C.C. of Birmingham Back for USGA Encore
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The third time is always the charm, right? Not so at the Country Club of Birmingham. While the U.S. Amateur Four-Ball in May will be the third USGA championship the Alabama club has hosted since 2013, charm has long been part of its DNA, thanks to a membership that embraces amateur golf. Just ask Mike McCoy.
Prior to the final match here in the 2013 U.S. Mid-Amateur, McCoy approached the practice area to warm up at 6 a.m. When he looked out onto the floodlit expanse, he saw his name and that of his opponent, Bill Williamson, spelled out in golf balls on the grass. McCoy, who went on to win the championship that day, hasn’t forgotten the gesture.
“The way the members turned out in terms of volunteers and the welcome they provided, they just couldn’t do enough for you,” recalled McCoy. “It’s nothing but a first-class affair. You’re going to walk away feeling like you have been someplace very special.”
Bill McCarthy, USGA championship director for the U.S. Amateur Four-Ball, knows exactly what McCoy means. “What we look for in a host site is number one, great golf, and number two, great operations,” he said. “A big bonus is when you have a great group of people. I have not worked with a club that’s been more enthusiastic and more ‘all-in’ during my 26 years at the USGA than the Country Club of Birmingham.”
Founded in 1898, the club moved to its current location about 4 miles southeast of downtown Birmingham in 1925. The West Course, the first of its two Donald Ross designs, was unveiled that year. The East Course followed in 1926. Both courses will be used for the U.S. Amateur Four-Ball, with match play exclusively on the West Course.
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Robert Trent Jones Sr. renovated the West in the late 1950s while Pete Dye stamped his imprint during multiple visits from the mid-1980s through 2009. (Three World Golf Hall of Fame architects: that’s pedigree.). The now 7,226-yard, par-71 West Course also hosted the final USGA Men’s State Team Championship in 2016.
Championship co-chairman Barney Lanier, a club member since 1976 who played in three U.S. Amateurs, knows the two courses as well as anyone. “The East would be the course most played by the members. It’s shorter, with small greens,” he said. “The West is our championship course – longer, quite challenging and more hilly. The routing is identical to the original by Ross except for the 15th and 16th holes, which Jones flipped from a par 4 and par 5 to a 5 and 4. Sixteen of the green sites are identical to what Ross designed. The bunkering certainly has a Dye flavor with some pot bunkers. You would certainly recognize his swales and hills around the greens, which are the defense of the golf course.”
“You have to buckle up your chin strap from hole 13 on in,” added Eric Eshleman, director of golf. “You better make your birdies from holes 1 through 12 because even in a best-ball format, birdies will be rare after that. Holes 13 through 18 are a true big-boy golf course. In particular, 15 can be played as a 615-yard par 5 and 16 a 485-yard par 4. You definitely want a lead going into 13 because making up strokes after that is going to be tough.”
All that said, underestimating the 6,644-yard, par-70 East Course would be a mistake, according to Jim Gorrie, co-chairman for the championship. “The East has a way of sneaking up on people because it looks fairly straightforward, where the West looks more intimidating,” he said. “But if you’re not thinking your way around, you can shoot a big number out there as well.”
Eshleman, just the fifth head professional in the club’s 124-year history, concurs. “The East’s collection of par 3s is more challenging than the par 3s on the West due to the smaller greens,” he said. “The stroke average there in the 2013 U.S. Mid-Amateur was 75.3. It really holds its own.”
The same can be said of the club itself. Hosting three USGA championships in just nine years places it in rare company.
“Usually clubs feel they’re making a big sacrifice by holding one of these championships, but our membership feels just the opposite,” said Gorrie. “We have had hundreds of people who wanted to volunteer. There are so many stories that came out of the relationships formed between the players and our members from each championship.”
That will continue this year thanks to the club’s “Adopt-A-Team” program. Member families can draft a two-player side with a donation that will be used to defray championship expenses and the cost of special member events. “Whether it’s just making a dinner reservation for the team or doing everything together that week and making friends for life, it’s a lot of fun,” said Gorrie.
Beyond the USGA championships, the club has hosted 10 Alabama State Amateurs and eight Southern Amateur Championships, as well as numerous USGA qualifiers. Some competitors in the U.S. Amateur Four-Ball field got a sneak peek at the West Course during the club’s annual mid-amateur tournament last November.
“The club has always placed a high priority on supporting amateur golf and junior golf,” said Eshleman. “We had 244 players in our junior club championship last year; we probably have the country’s largest junior golf program at a private club. We keep junior golf as one of our North Stars here.”
The massive, 120,000-square-foot clubhouse, which last year unveiled a Hubert Green Trophy Room – the 1977 U.S. Open winner’s childhood home overlooks the West Course – serves as a centerpiece of the property. According to Eshleman, Donald Ross believed the clubhouse was an instrumental part of the golf course. “He didn’t like an in-out routing where you only see the clubhouse twice,” Eshleman said. “He really wanted his clubhouse in the middle of the property, so the holes would cloverleaf around it. You always have a nice view of our clubhouse.”
While the views are indeed memorable, it will likely be the warm reception that players recall.
“We’re known for our Southern hospitality,” said Eshleman. “We love the USGA, and the USGA seems to love us having 36 incredible holes on one property. It’s a win-win on all fronts.”
Tom Mackin is an Arizona-based freelance writer whose work has appeared on USGA websites and Golf Journal.