Communing with Golf and Nature

Guest blog post by Lee Pace, author of Good Walks: Rediscovering the Soul of Golf at Eighteen of the Carolinas’ Best Courses

Howard Lee was an administrator in Governor Jim Hunt’s administration in 1977 when he initiated what would become a walking trail of some 1,200 miles from the North Carolina mountains to the Outer Banks. “To be able to get out here and see the trees and the flowers and to be able to see the animals and the natural areas is just so relaxing and so soothing,” Lee said upon the 40th anniversary of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail in 2017. 

Lee finds exercise and solace on another trail—that of a golf course. 

One April afternoon in 2019, Lee and I are walking the fifth fairway at Old Chatham Golf Club just east of Chapel Hill, with the green complex set amid a hillside resplendent in white and pink azalea bushes at full bloom. “If you can’t be relaxed looking at this kind of beauty, I don’t know,” said Lee, 84 at the time.  “And that’s the beauty of walking, whether it’s a trail or the golf course, you learn so much when you can commune with nature. There’s always something to appreciate, a bird or flower or something in nature.”

Over four hours and six miles you come to understand how Lee, the former mayor of Chapel Hill and N.C. State Senator, is a poster boy for playing golf the old-fashioned way—on foot. Slinging the bag over his shoulder after one tee shot: “I enjoy carrying the bag, so I just think as long as someone my age can walk, it would be a sin not to do it.”

Strolling up to another shot: “I’ve been struck by the number of young people who are riders. They just jump in the cart and off they go. I hate to see that.” And on his surprise at seeing newfangled golf carts equipped with a means to power up a cell phone: “For what good reason would you put a USB port in a golf cart? Isn’t the whole point of golf to get away from your cell phone for a few hours?” 

Howard Lee and I sing from the same hymnal—with choruses abounding on the joys of walking the golf course and avoiding at all costs planting your bum in an artificial contraption. And I found over the last three years there are many more of our ilk. 

Which is why I’m delighted this month with the release of my book, Good Walks—Rediscovering the Soul of Golf at 18 Top Carolinas Courses. The coffee-table format volume was published by University of North Carolina Press and is built around essays, photographs and historic artifacts from a blend of private, resort and daily-fee courses around the Carolinas. The goal was to weave the architecture, ambiance and culture into an essay about each of the courses, tipping the cap to those already in the choir of the walking golfer and offering a welcoming gesture to those on the outside.

That there is even a hook for a volume like this is a sad commentary on the state of golf in America. Walking golf? What’s the angle? Of course you walk when you play golf. I played Mid Pines in Southern Pines one afternoon in June 2019 with Ran Morrissett, an avowed walker and traditionalist and co-founder of the Golf Club Atlas website built around stories, photos and conversation about golf architecture. We arrived at the golf shop, checked in and were on the way to the first tee when a young attendant approached and offered to put our bags on a cart. 

“It’s a walking sport,” Morrissett told him in a pleasant but direct and matter-of-fact tone and never broke stride walking toward the first tee. Later we were striding down one fairway, enjoying the day. “I get nothing out of riding through corridors of condos or houses. That will not lift my spirit. Walking will.”

The book is built around essays examining the history, course architecture and walking culture of eighteen of the best courses in the Carolinas. There is certainly a “preaching to choir” element of the book, as the golfers who’ll best appreciate it are those like me who sling the bag on their shoulder and set off down the first fairway. But it’s also intended as invitation to those who customarily ride a cart. 

As Henry David Thoreau “I took a walk in the woods and came out taller than the trees.” Especially when the woods are lined with golf holes. 

Lee Pace is a writer, editor, and publisher with more than thirty years of experience writing about golf. He lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.