July 31, 2009

Arnold Palmer Returns To Raleigh to Open New Golf Course

Arnold Palmer returned to his college roots and his first home away from home today to help dedicate the opening of the on-campus course that Palmer's design company built.

The new Lonnie Poole Golf Course will serve as home to NC State University's men's and women's teams as well as serving as a living laboratory for the school's award-winning turfgrass management program.

Wearing a bright-red N.C. State shirt and accompanied by a gaggle of old friends, Palmer gave the keynote address for the opening ceremonies for the first on-campus course built by his course design company, signed autographs and took a few swings in front of a gathering of fans.

Palmer spent his college years in Wake Forest, NC, attending Wake Forest University from 1952-54. Soon afterward, in 1956, the school moved to Winston-Salem. NC State is actually one of Palmer's alma mater's archrivals, as collectively NC State, Wake Forest, the University of North Carolina and Duke University are known as The Big Four and comprise one of college basketball's most treacherous neighborhoods for visitors: Tobacco Road.

Times may have changed since Palmer spent time here: Wake Forest is now a suburb of greater metropolitan Raleigh (the cities actually touch each others' borders) and many of the courses he played are long gone, victims of "civic progress": Wake Forest Country Club was shuttered a couple of years ago and the former fairways are thick with waist-high weeds, Cheviot Hills was plowed under recently and will soon be the site of a major automobile dealership. Still others remain, however. The tough Carolina Country Club is still essentially its original form, the Raleigh Country Club, the last course Donald Ross built is still open, as are many others, but the formerly sleepy towns are now integral parts of a bustling city that over a million people call home. Of Raleigh, Palmer remarked today that “it's grown a lot but this area still has a familiar friendly feel to it."

For its part, NC State has evolved from an agricultural and engineering land grant college founded in the late 19th century to the largest university in the state of North Carolina, and is recognized as a top-20 research institution in many of the fields for which it offers instruction. Matt Hill, the current NCAA men's golf champion and Atlantic Coast Conference Athlete of the Year attends the school and plays for the Wolfpack, and PGA players Tim Clark, Carl Petterson and Marc Turnesa are recent alumni of the State golfing program.

Compared to the courses that Palmer played in the metro area, the Lonnie Poole course -- named for its alumni financier -- is an absolute monster. The par 71, 7,358 yard course is challenge enough for even the biggest hitters of the game, and the course itself is deep in risk/reward options, with green complexes that will demand precision to avoid three putts.

Along with Palmer, NC State graduates Erik Larsen and Brandon Johnson, who are architects with Palmer's firm, saw the course to its recent completion and opening. Palmer said today that most of the heavy lifting was done by his Wolfpack-alum employees, as they did much of the design work and were on site for th two years it took to construct the course. Palmer was a frequent visitor, giving his guidance and thoughts. When asked today how much help he gave Larsen and Johnson, Palmer said humbly that “I helped them a little.”

Palmer said he is very pleased with the young course, and added that he had delivered what he promised: one of the finest on-course golf courses in the country. Indeed, early reviews of Lonnie Poole are effusive in their praise and many have made comparison to the Scarlet Course at Ohio State and the Yale Golf Course in New Haven, Connecticut. Palmer said that "the golf course is beautiful" and added later that “over time, it's only going to get much, much better with maturity.”

Much like Arnold Palmer himself has.

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