President Franklin Delano Roosevelt did more for the game of golf than any other American president.
He became an avid golfer at age 8, when his father, James Roosevelt, built a small, six-hole golf course on the family estate at Hyde Park, New York. James Roosevelt had discovered the game in France in 1890.
In his teens, Franklin shot in the low 80s, with equipment that was primitive by today’s standards. He was the first president to help design a golf course, which he did with Pinehurst’s famed course architect, Donald Ross, in 1926.
A nine-hole course was then built in Warm Springs, Georgia. The original 18-hole plans are at the Tufts Archives, which holds architectural drawings of most Ross courses.
I’ve just been informed by Lee Brinkley Bryan, director of residential services at Roosevelt Warm Springs, that the Roosevelt Memorial Golf Course there, which has been closed, is threatened with permanent closure unless financial backing is found to keep it operating.
The grounds department has kept it mowed, but restoration is needed to the greens, bridges and other course areas. The clubhouse also needs more than a face-lift.
Many of Ross’ more than 350 designed courses have closed in the past decade. It would be tragic to the history of golf if this important course were also allowed to disappear.
For decades, this Warm Springs golf course provided golf not only for resort visitors, but also for thousands of people with varied disabilities. Golfers missing arms and legs have played the course, riding in specially designed carts that allowed them to go onto the greens when putting. It is hoped that an organization dedicated to rehabilitation might step in to provide the financing needed to save the course from destruction.
Although many presidents have played the sport, few were low-handicap golfers like Roosevelt. Roosevelt experienced Warm Springs’ healing waters in 1924 as he sought relief from polio.
He soon made plans to revitalize the resort and establish a therapeutic program for people with disabilities like himself. He selected Ross to design his course because he was familiar with his courses, and admired his unique ability to make the most out of the land he was offered.
Roosevelt believed that a high quality golf course would help him create a vacation resort and therapy center, which would grow side-by-side into a unified community. He knew that a fine golf course would attract his wealthy friends to the area.
He set up the course so that he could drive his specially adapted Ford automobile along the fairways and greens to watch his friends play from the comfort of his car. His personal secretary and friends often rode with him, carrying a pitcher of chilled martinis to share with the players, toasting all the good shots and some bad ones as well.
When president, FDR created the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which built almost 600 golf courses, making his favorite sport available to Americans who could never have afforded to join a private golf club.
He wanted to see courses constructed during the Great Depression because it meant the building of clubhouses and employment for greens keepers, managers and teachers of the game. It also provided helpful income for thousands of young boys and girls who caddied and learned to love the sport.
The Donald Ross Golf Course lost its greatest patron when FDR died April 12, 1945. He suffered a cerebral hemorrhage at Warm Springs while having his portrait painted by Elizabeth Shoumatoff. FDR’s longtime friend Lucy Mercer Rutherford had commissioned the portrait and was present when he died.
The unfinished portrait now hangs in the resort’s Little White House Museum.
I hope to hear that FDR’s nearby golf course may reopen one day soon.