WAKE FOREST, N.C. — Arnold Palmer will forever be linked to Latrobe Country Club in the scenic western Pennsylvania mountains, but few outside of North Carolina may know that The King began perfecting his college game at a nine-hole course called Paschal Golf Club.
Palmer and his Wake Forest College teammates used to walk from their dorm, across the football practice field, down the hill to play skins games at Paschal, which celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2017.
“When we cut through the field the football coach used to get ticked off at us because they were busting their bums and we would waltzing around with golf clubs on our backs,” said Sandy Burton, a college teammate of Palmer in the 1950s at Paschal. “Arnold would take a 1-iron on the par-5 and he would drill that thing about 5-feet high and it went forever.”
“I can still remember every hole,” said John Gerring, 82, a member of the Carolinas Golf Hall of Fame and a freshman on that 1954 team with Palmer. “A lot of times we would play ninesomes. There were seven on the varsity and I was one of two freshmen. We played skins and if you didn’t shoot 30 you wouldn’t even come close.”
Paschal's golf shop serves as a small shrine to Arnold Palmer, who became Wake Forest’s first individual NCAA champion in 1949 and was the NCAA medalist again in 1950. (Photo: David Droschak)
Gerring walked up to Palmer one day as he was hitting balls and asked him how he was doing. At the time, players had to shag their own practice balls. On this day and many others Palmer didn’t have to walk too far.
“He said, ‘I just hit 26 perfect 6 irons in a row.’ That’s the way he would practice,” Gerring said. “He didn’t aim at a target, he would aim at repetition. He was something else.”
Palmer was the NCAA medalist in 1949 and 1950 before joining the U.S. Coast Guard. After three years of service, Palmer returned to Wake Forest and led the Demon Deacons to the inaugural Atlantic Coast Conference title in 1954.
Burton, who is now 84 years old and lives in upstate New York, returned for a reunion about five years ago with his wife, and they teed it up again at Paschal for old time’s sake.
“It hadn’t changed a bit,” Burton said. “We called it the Hatchet Factory back then. It was probably a goat lot, and I don’t know where we got the hatchet part other than there are a lot of trees there. We played there very often and it was a unique nine-hole course.”
The golf course is owned by the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, which is on the site of the old Wake Forest College before the school moved to Winston-Salem and became Wake Forest University.
At less than 3,000 yards, Paschal’s small greens make it an interesting test of your short game. And while neighboring public courses – Wake Forest Country Club and Cheviot Hills – have closed within the last decade due to the Triangle’s fast-paced development – Paschal Golf Club, with just 65 members, pull cart rentals for $2 and a limited supply of electric carts, is now a century old and forging on thanks to board president Bobby Crocker.
The $2 pull cart rental makes an easy walk of nearly 3,000 yards all the more easier. (Photo: David Droschak)
Crocker, a local farmer by trade and once a novice at the golf business, has vowed to get rid of once-and-for-all Paschal’s crabgrass rough this winter, killing it off and letting the Bermuda take over.
“When I first came down here 12 years ago I thought it was a goat track,” Crocker said. “We weren’t doing the things we needed to do to keep it up, but I’ve always thought this course had the potential to do a lot more.”
Paschal has just three sand traps – two of them on the par-3 fourth hole that drops off a cliff – and near Copperhead Creek that cuts in front of the eighth green. It also boasts some low pricing and a clubhouse wall of Palmer memorabilia that stops all first-timers in their tracks, and often beings conversations among the locals about Palmer’s presence here.
And apparently famed architect Donald Ross once visited Paschal, too.
“He suggested some improvements, which they did do, so I guess it’s a stretch to say it’s a Donald Ross design,” laughed club treasurer Alan O’Shaughnessy. “There was a knoll on No. 1 that he recommend they bulldoze down and they did do it.”
Even a golf fan from Japan, headed to the U.S. Open at Pinehurst in 2014, stopped by Paschal — not to golf — but just to see the place.
“Oh wow, it adds a lot,” said O’Shaughnessy of the Palmer mystique here. “A lot of folks are really excited to know that Arnold Palmer actually played here. It’s a real presence. People are very impressed with that … and I think we are, too. You are out playing where someone of his caliber played golf and was involved in the course. It can send chills down your spine.”
David Droschak was an award-winning writer with The Associated Press for 20 years. He was honored with the Sports Writer of the Year award in North Carolina in 2003. He lives in Apex, N.C.