John Shearer: Historic Brainerd Golf Course Still Enjoyed By Longtime Golfer Richard Keene

Wednesday, August 10, 2022 - by John Shearer

The summertime is always the height of golfing season, and many area courses have been busy with play in recent weeks, including the Brainerd Golf Course.


Since 1926 – through all the changing social customs that have opened the game to more people and even the up-and-down flow of people taking up the game in recent years – Brainerd has weathered it all.


And among those who still enjoy playing the city of Chattanooga-owned facility, despite having played on a lot of nice private courses as a college golfer and former aspiring PGA Tour golfer, is Richard Keene.


Now in his mid-60s, Mr.

Keene still finds time from his flooring business to play or practice a few times a month at this course where he grew up learning the game on his way to becoming perhaps the top local junior golfer for a period in the mid-1970s.


“It’s home,” he said, adding that he lived when he was younger only about a mile or so from the course. “I know everybody out here. Everybody’s friendly. It’s fun to play.”


He said that it is also a good course for a beginning golfer, adding, “No matter where you hit it, you are going to find it (your ball). It’s not going to beat you down on a bad day.”


It is also still a challenging enough test for a more skilled golfer at 6,470 yards total, and that is in part due to the successful putter-like touch from the most famous name connected with the course -- original architect Donald Ross.


Perhaps the best known and most-prolific American architect of golf courses opened before World War II, the Scottish native had a multi-faceted career that included working as an apprentice to the famed St. Andrews pro Old Tom Morris. He also enjoyed a good run in some early U.S. Opens as a competitor before focusing more on architecture.


Among his most famous courses are the highly ranked Pinehurst No. 2, Oakland Hills, and Oak Hill – which have all hosted major championships – as well as East Lake in Atlanta, Bobby Jones’ boyhood course and the annual host of The Tour Championship.


He also designed the Chattanooga Golf and Country Club when it went to 18 holes and such courses as Cherokee and Holston Hills country clubs in Knoxville.


Records from a website maintained by the Donald Ross Society and The Tufts Archives in North Carolina say that he worked on the Chattanooga Golf and Country Club in 1920 and Brainerd in 1925 before it was built. Chattanooga Golf and Country Club opened in 1896 as a nine-hole course.


His involvement with Chattanooga C.C. would have to be researched further for details, but Mr. Keene said he understands Brainerd was built in two phases. He said Mr. Ross did the drawings for the whole course but visited only when the back nine (today’s front nine) was under construction.


Regarding what is left of the Donald Ross course at Brainerd, he said plenty is still visible, such as many of the simplistic tees and the basic layout of the holes. “No. 16 (now No. 7), the bunkers and around the green and the fairways are still the same. And No. 8, the sinkhole area’s the same where they got the dirt for the course when they built the tees and greens.


“And the shapes of his bunkers. They sit more natural and don’t look like they are manufactured. They are naturally built into the side of the green.”


He also said his sand traps usually sit a few feet off the green and are not usually right next to the putting surface.


A 2016 article found online at The Fried Egg website said that Mr. Ross designed over 400 courses and that he was known for his skill at routing courses or making a good layout for the available property and topography. Due to his high work volume, he often only minimally visited courses but depended heavily on land surveys in doing his drawings.


Designing courses at a time when the growth of the game to the masses was continuing, he realized a lot of people playing his courses might be new to the game, so he wanted to make the layouts playable for beginners but also challenging enough for the accomplished golfer.


With beginning golfers in mind, he would use bunkers to direct the line of shots and would also give golfers options on shots and holes, with a high risk/high reward option often available, the article said.


The piece also mentioned that Mr. Ross’ courses around the country often do not look like each other, because he wanted to connect a design specifically to each piece of property.


Exactly how Mr. Ross became connected with Brainerd might require further research, but his work on the Chattanooga Golf and Country Club likely helped.


According to some old newspapers on file at the Chattanooga Public Library, the Brainerd course was apparently originally designed as part of a planned private club, not the public course it became.


A February 1924 story from the Chattanooga Times said that H.H. Eager, president of the Brainerd Development Company, was planning the private Brainerd Golf and Country Club in an area east of the old Crabtree home place. Some 60 people had already been accepted as members. 


A separate second course had apparently also been discussed for that area, but T.R. and C.M. Preston said at the time the Eager course was planned that they had decided against a golf course on their property. 


This was the Roaring ‘20s and the automobile was making living away from downtown Chattanooga easier, and the Brainerd area that was once farmland was being developed east of Missionary Ridge.


Wilbur Oakes from the Chattanooga Golf and Country Club had quickly laid out potential hole sites, but a golf course architect “of national reputation,” perhaps Mr. Ross, was to be employed to plan it, the 1924 article said. Houses were to also to be part of the development.


But by the time the course or at least part of it opened in 1926, it was by then a municipal course under the direction of city of Chattanooga Commissioner Eugene Bryan.


It had apparently opened in the fall of 1926, as a February 1927 story in the Chattanooga Times talks about many area golfers getting ready for the upcoming golf season and having played over the mild winter and the previous five months. 


It also discusses the charm of the course created by Mr. Ross, saying, “Even a non-golfer would be struck by the beauty of the course, which was constructed by the Donald Ross company. Sweeping expanses of Bermuda grass fresh from its winter headquarters deceive even the eyes of a professional.


“The long, slightly rolling fairways are artistically punctuated with natural and artificial hazards and lined on both sides with shady trees, which long to shelter an errant slice.”


The article also discusses the construction of the new clubhouse over the winter, saying it rivaled the course itself for attractiveness. The stucco building, the same one still there today, was designed by Chattanooga architect Clarence Jones and featured arched French windows.


The first pro was to be Allan Langstaff, who was said to be genial and described the Brainerd course to the 1927 reporter by saying, “If you keep the ball in the middle of the fairway, the course is easy.” He had quite a long list of prior club jobs, including working at courses in Milwaukee, Detroit, Nebraska, Dallas, Pasadena, Portland and Eugene in Oregon, and Florida. While in Florida, he was said to have shot even par on nine holes by using only a putter.


He was living in the upper floor of the clubhouse, which Mr. Keene said has been common for club employees over the years. Now, the upper area is used mostly for office space.


Mr. Keene said the old men’s locker room of the club is now a room full of tables for eating and fellowship but featuring some nice windows. The old pro shop was where a deck facing No. 10 tee is now, he said.


Brainerd was the fourth course in the immediate Chattanooga area to open behind Chattanooga, Signal Mountain and Lookout Mountain/Fairyland, which opened one year earlier.


Mr. Keene had grown up playing at the Brainerd course as a youngster, caddying or pulling a cart for someone in the morning on a Saturday and then playing in the afternoon at a reduced price of $2. “And during the week I would play from sunup to sundown,” he said. 


While his family did later get a membership at Valleybrook, he continued to play Brainerd regularly on his way to becoming the No. 1 player at Notre Dame before graduating in 1976. Among the other good golfers for Notre Dame at that time when it had the best prep program in Chattanooga under coach Jim Phifer were Tommy and David McKenna, Chris Godbold, Richard Smith, Ricky Eberle and others.


He then went on to Alexander City Junior College in Alabama – where the coach had the then-innovative concept of players lifting weights – and finished at what is now Troy University. Both schools had rich golf traditions for their classifications, and he ended up playing against such golfers as Georgia Bulldog star and later near Masters winner Chip Beck.


Before and after he was trying to make a living as a touring pro, he won some of the big area amateur tournaments – such as the Redbud Invitational, the Signal Mountain Invitational, the Brainerd Invitational and the Men’s Metro.


In his pro efforts, he made the final stage of the tour qualifying school twice, but he could not quite advance on to get a regular PGA Tour card, he said.


“I thought I was pretty good until I played some guys who were pretty good,” he joked of his discovery of how many good golfers there were out there.


So, he switched ways in which he made a living using ground surfaces and eventually joined with friend Donny Phillips in buying Chattanooga Flooring Center, where he is now branch manager. His late father, Jack Keene, had run the well-known Tennessee Plywood off Main Street.


But he still can also hit a golf ball with skill and competed in the Brainerd Invitational last weekend and served as the tournament director with Mike Jenkins. 


He also still enjoys talking about Brainerd and such people of yesteryear as pros Jack and Marvin Jones and Tater Head Miller. The latter was said in one article at the library to be a great golfer in the making in the 1940s before an automobile accident, and that he started running the snack stand by the course turn at No. 9 before being killed in another automobile accident in 1970.


Other good golfers Mr. Keene remembers playing there are Larry White, Harold Lane, Hunt and Wes Gilliland, the Bales family members and Gibby Gilbert, who grew up playing there some before a successful tour career and a later return to operate the course. Mr. Keene said such fellow PGA Tour friends as Grier Jones and J.C. Snead would visit Mr. Gilbert at the Brainerd course.


The course itself has had some character shaping over the years, too. The original Nos. 1 and 2 (now Nos. 10 and 11) had to be moved slightly to keep balls from hitting nearby homes so much. And course officials had to solve some irrigation issues after South Chickamauga Creek was moved farther away from the course to solve flooding problems after the famous 1973 flood.


Mr. Keene is flooded with memories and affection for Brainerd as well.


“All can play and have a good time,” he said in summing up the course.


* * *


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