The term ‘players’ club’ can strike fear into the hearts of average golfers. One imagines registering at the clubhouse and immediately being presented with a one-iron and a demand to stripe it 250 yards, proving your golfing credentials before stepping foot on the first tee.
Old Chatham is described by some as a players’ club. But thankfully that doesn’t mean a one-iron initiation, or even that average golfers aren’t wholeheartedly embraced. Rather it indicates a focus on golf alone. You won’t find tennis courts, swimming pool or a croquet lawn here.
The club was founded at the turn of the millennium by a group of well-connected and passionate golfers in the fast-growing Research Triangle area of North Carolina; home to the cities of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill, as well as three universities: North Carolina State, Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill.
As the region has thrived, so too has the club. Routed through 400 acres of pine forest, the course at Old Chatham provides a retreat from the burgeoning metropolis.
“There are no homes. You don’t see a single building other than the clubhouse,” says director of golf course management Brian Powell. “You’re out in the middle of a forest and it gives you this big feel, a wonderful sense of awesomeness.”
The course was laid out by Rees Jones and his associate Greg Muirhead in 2001 and has since built a reputation as one of the best in the state. It hosted the US Senior Amateur in 2019 and will welcome the USGA for a second time in 2026, for the US Girls Junior Championship.
“It’s a pure golf club,” says Jones. “A special place.”
Rees and Greg have remained close to the club since it opened, and in twenty years have been consulted on all changes, most significantly the recontouring of greens a few years ago.
As its prized asset, the club has always been extremely cautious about alterations to the course. “When we do things here, we make sure they are well thought out and protective of what we already think is a phenomenal golf design,” says Powell. “Our first rule is ‘thou shalt do no harm’.”
But after 20 years of evolution in turf science, the club made the decision to move to modern zoysia varieties for tees and fairways. As well as its water efficiency and shade tolerance, “most of the good players feel like this is a better surface in terms of how the ball rests,” says Muirhead. “They are able to really pinch it off the fairway.”
The turf transition required the course being out of play for 16 weeks, so it made sense to consider whether more could be done within that window of time.
“It was designed with significant bunkers because it was such a large, open course,” says Powell. “One of the things we hoped to accomplish was to find a way to shrink some of these features, particularly the bunkers, so that we could reduce maintenance. We also wanted to add some complexity, in a very thoughtful way; changes that could challenge lower handicap golfers but not beat up someone that may be in the twilight of their life.”
The biggest change comes at the sixteenth.
“The back nine builds to a crescendo. It is so strong, but when you got to the sixteenth it felt like it wasn’t a hole that the golfer was going to have to focus on as much. It was a safe hole that gave them a mental break,” says Powell.
“The finishing sequence has always been really good,” says Muirhead. “But we wanted sixteen to really stand out as a more thought-provoking, shot-option hole.”
The design team came up with a new concept for the hole that would demand a more strategic approach. By introducing two new forward teeing areas, a new lake and a bail-out area to the right of the green, and rethinking the bunkering, the new design provides golfers with multiple options. Now there is a choice of laying-up, driving over a cluster of bunkers to leave a pitch, or going for the green, on days when tee placement brings it within reach.
The bail-out area is crucial for that final option, as it turns what would have been an all-or-nothing shot into one where the player knows there is leeway for a miss. “Shrinking the bunker and making a chipping area means that if you miss a little bit right you can still pitch it and make birdie,” says Jones. “It’s a long one-shot hole but you have to give golfers the possibility of succeeding,” he adds. “And if they don’t succeed it’s not a complete penalty.”
Powell says: “My club president was a bit sceptical when the hole was being built. He was concerned that it might be too challenging. But on the first day he played it, two of his group hit the green and had a putt for eagle, and the other two finished in the water. They had so much fun – even the guys that hit it in the water!”
Design changes elsewhere were intentionally not as dramatic. While the club was keen to reduce the overall bunker area, it didn’t want to lose the course’s expansiveness. “I had a little bit of trepidation about how the bunker changes would turn out given the large scale of the golf course,” says Powell. “But one of the most pleasant surprises to me and our members was that they shrank our overall bunker square footage by 18 per cent, but have done it so surgically, and with such great precision, that it looks like it was built that way from day one.
Duininck Golf handled construction work, with “a focus on ensuring our work fits seamlessly with the broader landscape and looks like it’s been here for decades,” says their project manager Paul Deis.
Bunkers throughout the course were rebuilt, including the installation of Capillary Concrete liners, and on several holes placements were adjusted to improve strategy and visual definition.
On the par-five opening hole, for example, a bunker in the second landing area has been reorientated to become a cross bunker, with alterations to the fairway lines in that area providing more options for the layup. Similarly, on the par-five sixth, bunkers have been reshaped and some tree removal has allowed for the expansion of fairway to create a risk-reward second shot opportunity that gives a much-improved angle of approach to the green.
“Players were bailing out into the right rough because there was danger on the left so Rees and Greg added a small bunker on the right which looks very foreboding and has totally changed the nature of that second shot,” says Powell. “You now have to really think your way through it. It’s not a no-brainer like it used to be.”
Powell also highlights the fourth hole. The original design had called for the hole to play as a dog-leg, but limitations during the original construction meant it played more like a long, straight hole. “The new framing of the fairway bunker has changed to emphasise how the hole turns, as was originally envisioned. It’s a small change that has made a big difference.”
Muirhead says: “With relatively minor architectural tweaks, we have created a more interesting and thought-provoking experience.”
For the evolution of its course, Old Chatham has placed their trust in the hands of the designers who first conceived it. “We talk a lot in our industry about Donald Ross working at Pinehurst for years, and MacKenzie going back to his courses to make changes,” says Powell. “For 22 years Rees and Greg have had their hands on the development of this golf course. Our plan was always to tweak it and add some complexity.”
But what about those average golfers? Can they still negotiate their way round? “The higher handicappers aren’t noticing any real difference in the difficulty,” says Muirhead. “It’s evoking the shot options that we hoped it would, but for the higher handicapper they can lay up and maybe have an extra club into the green. It’s a win-win.”
“Old Chatham wants its course to be challenging but fair,” adds Jones. “They’ve always been very conscious of the balance.”
This article first appeared in the January 2023 issue of Golf Course Architecture. For a printed subscription or free digital edition, please visit our subscriptions page.