When Oak Valley Golf Club opened in 1995, Randall James had an opportunity to play in a foursome with Arnold Palmer.
James passed. He chose to caddie for Palmer instead.
As the incoming director of golf for the club, James knew he’d have plenty of chances to play Oak Valley, plenty of chances to find his way around the course with his own clubs. But the chance to be on the bag for one of golf’s greatest players, the chance to see how Palmer navigated a Palmer-designed course, this was the chance of a lifetime.
So James just walked with a legend.
Palmer was 66 years old at the time.
“And he was 2-under when he played that day,” James says, pausing, “from our very back tees.”
Today, almost 16 years after Oak Valley opened, the course remains a place marked by Palmer’s footprints.
Located in Advance, a golf-rich area near the Davie County-Forsyth County line, Oak Valley is the only Palmer design in the Triad. One of the reasons Palmer agreed to design the course is he wanted to have his name on a place close to his alma mater, Wake Forest University.
The course is designed in typical Palmer style, featuring several holes that present great risk-reward choices, reminding golfers of the way Palmer played throughout his career.
The course has been challenging enough that big events are on the calendar every year – Oak Valley has played host to qualifiers for the U.S. Amateur, U.S. Open, U.S. Publinks and N.C. Amateur; and it will be the site of the N.C. Senior Open next May. But it’s also friendly enough that it’s kept a steady core of members happy for more than 15 years.
“It’s such a fair test of golf,” James says. “It’s not tricked up at all. He (Palmer) had a wonderful canvas to begin with. He did a great job of making a nice, flowing, smooth golf course.”
Oak Valley is in a part of North Carolina where the Piedmont begins to blend into the foothills. So the terrain, while not hilly, does pop up and down and roll a bit. Most of the land was an old dairy farm pasture, and some other holes were cut out of the woods.
“We have some nice flowing elevation changes. Nothing severe, but it’s not flat,” James says.
Like many of the other courses that sprouted in the booming 1990s, Oak Valley opened as the centerpiece of a new, upscale housing development. But James, who has been here since Oak Valley started, says this course doesn’t feel jammed into a neighborhood.
“It’s truly a golf course,” James says. ”You know how in some other places, it looks like everywhere they couldn’t put a house, they put a golf hole? This is different. This is the other way around.”
Although others soon followed, Oak Valley opened as one of the only semiprivate courses in the region, and the only one in the Triad at the time, James says. It started that way, and it’s stayed that way. Oak Valley has never tried to be anything else.
The model works for the club. A membership costs $185 a month for an individual, $200 a month for two people and $215 a month for a family – all prices significantly cheaper than most private courses.
The reduced membership rates are possible because the course is also open to non-members, who pay $38 a round with a cart during the week and $49.50 with a cart on the weekend. (The senior rate is $27 during the week).
Members do have advantages, of course. Aside from tournaments and other perks, a member can reserve tee times up to eight days in advance, and non-members can reserve tee times up to five days in advance.
“So there’s a three-day window there where we’re as private as Augusta National,” James says.
James, who grew up just outside of the Triangle in Zebulon and went to college at East Carolina University, worked at several semiprivate clubs in eastern North Carolina during the early part of his career.
But since he landed here, Oak Valley has been his home.
Not much else has changed since then, either. The course added a few senior tees to accommodate a growing number of retired golfers.
James did say he’s watching closely as other courses make the transition from cool-weather bentgrass to heat-thriving bermudagrass in response to hotter summers. Bermuda Run, for instance, made the switch a couple of years ago, and that’s only about five miles from Oak Valley, which has Crenshaw bentgrass greens and 419 hybrid bermudagrass fairways. James says Oak Valley’s bentgrass greens have fared well during the past two summers.
Oak Valley still looks mostly the same as it did when James caddied for Palmer that day in 1995.
That day, with about 200 people following the group, James watched Palmer play the seventh hole. It’s a par-5, and plays at 550 yards from the back tees. To reach the green in two, a golfer must carry a tee shot at least 240 yards to a small landing area. Then, if that shot stays in the fairway and rolls just right, it still leaves about 250 yards to the green, with a small brook running in front of the putting surface.
Palmer birdied the hole by playing it smart. He laid up short of the brook on his second shot, and then hit a short approach and putt, before turning to James and saying he’d leave going for the green to the younger guys.
Afterward, James remembers asking Palmer if the seventh was Oak Valley’s signature hole.
“No,” Palmer replied to his caddie for the day, “there are about four or five signature holes out here.”