There isn’t much that Randall James hasn’t seen or experienced in golf since he picked up the game when he was a kid, spending countless hours roaming the fairways at Zebulon Country Club, just east of Raleigh.
James, who recently turned 50, has been the Director of Golf at Oak Valley in Advance since the club opened in 1995. Sure, he has seen plenty of ups and downs in his career, much like the elevation changes on several of Oak Valley’s holes.
But for James, golf has given him plenty of unique opportunities.
Played the ultra-exclusive Pine Valley? Check.
Played at Pinehurst No. 2 for eight bucks? Check
Caddied for Arnold Palmer? Check.
Given a lesson to Daisy Duke? Check.
“She was a really nice girl,” James said, referring to Catherine Bach, the actress who played Daisy Duke on the hit 80s television show “The Dukes of Hazzard.”
“I was working at a club in Greenville at the time, and she happened to be in town that summer for a summer theater program at East Carolina,” James said. “I’m not even sure how I got selected to give her the lesson, but some of the female members talked her into taking one. She had just gotten engaged and had this huge rock on her finger, and she didn’t want to take it off. So when she got a glove, she cut out a hole where the diamond was and you could still see the stone plain as day during the lesson. Everyone there knew who she was. I’m pretty sure it was right after the show had ended, or it was close to being over.”
The experience with Palmer provided him with another lasting memory.
Since Oak Valley was designed by Palmer, he made an appearance shortly after the club opened to play a nine-hole exhibition.
James was afforded an opportunity to play in a foursome with Palmer, but opted to caddie for him instead.
James recalled watching Palmer, who was 66 years old at the time; navigate his way through the nine holes and how he managed his game on a course that he designed.
“He was 2-under for the day during his nine holes, and he played it from the tips,” James said. “I mean, you’re just in awe the whole time that you get to do something like that. It was pretty neat. He was incredible and gracious the whole time. He made time for everyone who was here.”
The connection to Palmer isn’t just limited to Oak Valley.
James’ father, Ralph, played golf at Wake Forest and came in the year after Palmer left.
“They actually divided Mr. Palmer’s scholarship in two after he left, and my dad was one of the players who got half of it,” James recalled. “He used to always joke about how he was half the player Palmer was. But we had three ACC Championship trophies in our house.”
His admiration for Palmer was also one of the main reasons he came to Oak Valley.
“The fact the he designed this place is what attracted me here, and really, why it attracted a lot of people to join here,” James said. “It’s an awesome design. It’s a great and fair test of golf. Mr. Palmer had a great canvas to work with, and everything certainly came together.”
The course is challenging enough that is hosted a slew of prestigious events, including qualifiers for the U.S. Open, U.S. Amateur, U.S. Publinks, and N.C. Amateur.
James fondly recalled a day in August several years ago during qualifying for the Publinks that stood out.
“It was ridiculously hot that day, and all the players had to play 36 holes in one day,” James said. “Well, Tim Clark, who I believe was a senior at N.C. State at the time, went out and shot 63 on his SECOND 18 holes that day. You remember things like that, and now it’s great to see he’s gone on to a good career on the PGA Tour.”
James grew up in a house on the sixth hole at Zebulon Country Club and figured his way around the golf course at a very early age.
“I was a club rat,” he recalled. “During the summers especially, I’d get up at 7 or 8 in the morning, walk out to the course and come home at 6:30 having walked 54 holes every day. Then, I’d get up the next day and do it again. Once school started, after the bus dropped me off at home, I’d go straight out to the course until dark. I got quite an education growing up on the course like that. You sure can learn a lot, and not just about golf.”
And what he has learned about being at Oak Valley, he wouldn’t trade for anything.
“My family loves it here. I love it here. We’ve got a unique membership that is just awesome,” he said.
“Our membership in this development is as good as anywhere I’ve ever seen, and I’ve worked at a lot of clubs. Since we’re semi-private, we are able to get plenty of play from the public. That is not only great for us, but it keeps the cost of membership down. That’s why it’s one of the most affordable memberships in this area.”
James realizes the success at Oak Valley isn’t about anything he has done individually. He has relied on plenty of great staff members to make the operation a success.
“I’ve got starters here who have been here as long as I have,” James said. “Our superintendent, Nick Raby, does an outstanding job day in and day out. He worked for Ken Fishback, who worked here for 15 or 16 years and was the original super when we opened, so we’ve had the continuity. I can’t say enough great things about our mechanic. One of the pros on staff, Andy Cardwell, has been here 10 years. Jay Hill, who is back with us now after bouncing around at a few different places, has a great reputation in this area. Anne Marie (Goslak) does her teaching out here, and she is exceptional. They are all a part of this because they are that good. The guys who get out and set up the course every morning are way more important than me. They are the ones who actually get out and can have a direct impact on the golfers’ experience every day. I have never had a day when I didn’t look forward to coming in to work. Part of that is the people you work with, and part of that are the people who come out here to play. I’m just surrounded by good people.”