Roanoke Country Club 8

Club Looks to Future While Honoring the Past

At a time when many people in the sport of golf are pessimistic about the future of the game, especially because of falling numbers of the next generation of players, the fortunes of Roanoke Country Club are heading in the opposite direction. And, for a club that can trace its history back as far as 1899, that’s an impressive story.

The reasons are many and varied, but the headlines about RCC are that it has embraced both its past, that features one of the greatest figures in the world of golf course design, A. W. Tillinghast, and also its future that will revolve around adapting to modern-day family needs and encouraging more of those young players of tomorrow.

Among those leading the way at RCC is general manager Jim Paschal who understands the nature of the golf club.

“We’re a destination golf club which is different from all the other private clubs in the area. They are neighborhood clubs with homes within the golf course itself,” he says. “We have acknowledged that we are a 15-minute drive for most of our members these days and so we respect that and have become more family oriented.”

So, while many modern courses benefit from families of golfers living along the fairways able to take their golf cart to the first tee, the RCC member has to jump in a car and drive to the club. Paschal knows even driving a short distance across town shows a different kind of commitment. The club has made recent investments on a splash pool and water jet, as well as a soccer field and a pickleball court while still maintaining improvements to normal golf club areas, especially the course and the clubhouse.

“Of course, we’ll always improve our core assets for the golf members. For instance, our next projects are the sand traps and the cart paths,” Paschal says. “But we appreciate that lifestyles have changed and having young members playing lacrosse here as well as golf is fine.”

The current strategies for membership have had a significant effect on recruitment over the last two years—the average age of the membership has dropped dramatically. In 2015, the average was 63.5 years of age and now it’s 55, while that number is set to fall to as low as 53 in the near future.

“We have a membership total approaching 500 now and that’s our optimum number,” says Paschal, who will retire from his RCC job later this year. “That number gives the place a sense of exclusivity, but at the same time, it’s not so many that members are treading on each other’s toes.”

The future of RCC looks secure as well with the Steve Prater Golf Academy taking care to introduce and nurture more young players, plus the nationally renowned First Tee organization also works at the club to teach youngsters the game and its values.

However, it’s the past that has created a particularly solid foundation at RCC. In 1899, a group of golfers came together to play on a rudimentary course in the south part of town off Franklin Road. Then a year later, the name Roanoke Country Club was registered for the purposes of “golf, tennis, gunning and other games and sports.”

Various parts of Roanoke were the base for early club members and, in 1905, the present site was purchased. Alexander Findlay, an immigrant Scot and pro golfer, designed the first nine holes and improvements continued until, in 1919, the reputable Tillinghast was hired to design a full, 18-hole course that would open the following year. In 1966, the number of holes at RCC  rose to 27, designed by Ellis Maples, a protégé of another great course designer, Donald Ross.

“Tillie,” as Albert Warren Tillinghast was known, would eventually design or remodel 15 U.S. Open and PGA Championship courses as well as the 1935 Ryder Cup links at Ridgewood Country Club in New Jersey. His philosophy for a perfect golf hole is well-illustrated at RCC: “a controlled shot to a closely guarded green is the surest test of any man’s game.”

Since then, RCC has played a central role in top quality golfers emerging from the state of Virginia, starting with the great Sam Snead, a Virginia native, major winners Curtis Strange and Lanny Wadkins and current stars Billy Hurley of the PGA Tour and his LPGA counterpart Brittany Lang who all know the course well.

One of the recent reasons for RCC’s high status within Virginia golf is the Scott Robertson Memorial tournament that involves boys and girls divided into age categories of 14 and under and 15-18.

The tournament was started in memory of RCC member Scott who died of infectious mononucleosis in the summer of 1982. The list of former winners is a who’s who of local and national golf stars and includes Hunter Mahan, Webb Simpson and Paula Creamer. Trees are planted around the course with plaques dedicated to all the winners of the event and it’s fun to find the most famous—and also the less well-known—names as you progress along the fairways.

But RCC is not just a course that professional stars enjoy to play. Stars of stage and screen have graced the links over the years including the latest: rock star Alice Cooper who played a quick nine holes one early morning in April this year before then playing his concert that evening in Salem.

Ross Biddiscombe’s acclaimed books Ryder Cup Revealed: Tales of the Unexpected and Cruel School are available in hardback, paperback or e-book formats on Amazon.