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HOW GREEN WAS THE VALLEY

by Alex Ashe

It’s changed a lot in the past 28 years, but probably not as much as the neighborhood around it.

On the right side of Pembroke Road, behind Friendly Shopping Center, a dirt path veers off of the sidewalk and through several rows of cedars and pines. It leads to a massive clearing that runs parallel with the shopping center, stretching to a point adjacent to the Wells Fargo parking lot.

This vacant patch, roughly 700 yards long, is the last remaining trace of the Green Valley Country Club, Greensboro’s first public golf course and, for a period, its most popular one. Specifically, it’s the former site of the course’s 14 th and 15 th holes, a par 3 and a par 5, respectively. Along with the adjacent par-4 13 th , now a row of homes on the other side of a wall of foliage, the holes were removed from the rest of the course on the opposite side of Benjamin Parkway. To cross sides, the golfers would travel through a tunnel underneath the road, a hallmark of the course for more than 30 years.

Before I can take my third step into the clearing, I spot a man in the distance sitting under some trees. He’s either squatting or picnicking alone, and I have no desire to learn which is true. Instead, I stay to the right and make my way to the old course. Unlike much of the office park across the street, this stretch undeniably resembleswhat it used to be. The tee box of the short 14 th is nestled back in a pocket of trees, beside the sole remnants of the course’s cart path. Its elevated green is still recognizable. On No. 15, there are dips in terrain that appear to be overgrown bunkers. The right side is lined with a series of mounds that slope toward the brushy creek. It’s far too easy to envision myself slicing a drive into there. An abundance of clippings suggests the grass has been mowed somewhat recently, but at anklelevel, it’s just long enough to require a thorough check for ticks.

For an empty patch of grass it’s quite scenic, but it reeks of fertilizer and I’m ready to move on. Instead of retracing my steps, I try to find an outlet toward the tunnel, but to no avail. I see an escape route on the creek side, but crossing the creek involves walking across a drainpipe roughly 7 feet above the shallow, rocky stream. I don’t have great balance, but as an experienced golfer with erratic driving accuracy, I’ve crossed creeks using this same tightrope act before. Without having to haul my golf bag in the process, it’s a cakewalk. I follow a narrow, gradually inclining dirt path and make my return to civilization by hoisting myself up onto the edge of the Wells Fargo parking lot like some type of street urchin. It’s quite humbling, for sure, and anyone who’s witnessing the scene must be bewildered and perturbed.

The course was originally known as Green Valley Golf Course before it started accepting memberships as a semi-private club in the mid-’60s and became Green Valley Country Club. It was also known as Green Valley Golf Club for a period. It’s a bit confusing, but for those familiar with the course, the changes had little effect.

“Everyone referred to it as ‘The Valley,’” said Aubrey Apple Jr., whose father served as the course’s head golf professional for nearly 40 years. Unlike other clubs in the area, the Valley did not cater to affluence. “It was more of a middle-income country club,” Apple said. “It didn’t matter how much money you had or how much you didn’t have. You came to the Valley and you were just another member.”

Irwin Smallwood, a News & Record sportswriter from 1947-89, was a longtime member. “I played it from when it re-opened to when it closed,” he said. A 1994 inductee to the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame, Smallwood wrote for the newspaper with a focus on the golf beat. “I can’t tell you how much fun it was,” he said. “It was such a wonderful, neat little place.”

The history of Green Valley Country Club is merely a footnote to that of the Starmount Company, the premier developer of Northwest Greensboro in the 20 th century and owner of the land for all but the opening year of the course’s lifespan. The company was formed by Edward Benjamin in 1929 to liquidate approximately 4,000 acres of western Greensboro property he’d acquired through foreclosure following the Black Tuesday stock-market crash of that year.

It’s tough to visualize now, but when the course opened in 1928, its surrounding area was mostly farmland. Its original clubhouse was made from a sheep barn and hog sheds neighbored its borders. With so much of the area still undeveloped, Grimsley High School was the nearest establishment to the course. The next year, Benjamin bought the course’s plot, which was formerly owned by the Scales family. He hired Dugan Aycock, the area’s archetypal golf pro, as the course’s first head professional.

Originally a 9-hole course, Green Valley was preceded only by Greensboro Country Club and Sedgefield County Club, making it Greensboro’s third golf course and its first public one. However, its initial run was not a long one, as it closed in 1934. Starmount Company had opened the Starmount Forest Country Club four years prior and it closed Green Valley “in order to get more members to join the country club,” Aycock wrote in a 1984 News & Record article that chronicled the course’s history.

The Valley remained closed through the remainder of the Great Depression and World War II, until Benjamin sought to re-open it in 1948. To oversee the course, he turned to Aubrey Apple Sr., a World War II Air Force veteran who had worked as the assistant golf pro at Starmount Forest since returning from duty two years prior. It proved to be a wise choice. Apple would serve as head professional and manager at Green Valley from its 1948 until its closing in 1985.

“He was just a funny, down-to-earth guy,” said Smallwood, a long time friend of Apple’s. He calls him “the common man’s golf pro” and a perfect fit for the Valley. “What you saw was what you got. He was intellectually honest and he didn’t pretend to be something he wasn’t,” Smallwood said. “As a golf pro, I don’t know anyone better than he was. He wasn’t a great player, but he was fun,” he said. “I just loved him.”

“My dad was just a character,” Apple Jr. said. “He always had a joke or a funny saying.”

Apple retired following Green Valley’s closing. In 1992, he was inducted into the Carolinas PGA Hall of Fame. He passed away in 2000.

In 1954, the course expanded to 18 holes with a new nine designed by golf architect George Cobb, who would design the famous par-3 course at Augusta National Golf Club five years later. The new set, which became the front nine, included the three holes that would end up across Benjamin Parkway, but actually preceded the road’s construction by a year. “They built the tunnel first, because they knew Benjamin Parkway would be coming through there,” Apple Jr. said. “One time, some teenager was driving his Volkswagen through there, he got it stuck and we had to get the tractor out there to pull it out,” Apple Jr. said. “The car was all dented up because it wouldn’t fit through there.”

At around the same time, the nearby Guilford Hills neighborhood began development. The Friendly Center, Starmount’s next project, opened in 1956.

1957 was a banner year for golf in Greensboro, as for the first time more than 100,000 rounds were played between January and December. Green Valley accounted for more than 24,000 of those rounds, making it the city’s most popular course for the second year in a row. The course started accepting memberships in the mid-’60s and remained a semiprivate country club until its closing. The club would keep a consistent core of at least 300 members in that time and was home to as many as 650 in 1978. Its public accessibility in its later years was largely reliant on its membership.

“In times when we had 500-plus members, we didn’t allow any outside play,” Apple Jr. said. “When times were a little tougher and we got down to 400 members, we’d have to take some outside play to keep mowing the grass.”

Born two years after the re-opening, Apple Jr. was practically raised at the Valley. He recalls summers when parents would drop their kids off at the club before going to work and then pick them up coming home. “We had anywhere from 30 to 40 kids there each summer that I grew up there,” he said. “They called ’em ‘Valley Rats,’ but I was the original Valley Rat,” Apple Jr. said. “My dad had me out there the first week I was born.”

Some of his most vivid memories at the club were witness-  ing the grand entrances made by aristocrats, including Benjamin, who was known to inspect the course on horseback. “I saw him ride up to the clubhouse on horseback to see my dad one time,” he said. “His stables were over by the old Burlington Industries, where they expanded Friendly Center recently.” He also recalls Spencer Love, the owner of Burlington Industries, arriving at the club in the early ’60s. “They used to land the helicopter for him on the driving range,” Apple Jr. said.

Growing up, Greensboro’s Vance Whicker played Green Valley numerous times. An avid golfer, he remembers it fondly and says it played a huge role in developing his game.

“It was excellent preparation to the play the game,” Whicker said. “You had to learn how to hit a lot of different shots.”

At around 6,100 yards, the Valley wasn’t especially long, but its shape and firmness made it challenging. “It was difficult in its own way,” Whicker said.

He also recalls rubbing elbows with some of the area’s most legendary sports figures such as NASCAR pioneer Lee Petty, former NBA player and Wake Forest head coach Bones McKinney and former ACC associate commissioner Fred Barakat, also the father of Greensboro city councilmember and mayoral candidate Nancy Vaughan. “I didn’t really cherish it at the time, but these were legends that I played with,” Whicker said.

It’s fairly evident that Starmount wasn’t too intent in making large, longterm investments in Green Valley, especially in comparison to Starmount Forest.

“In the’60s, Starmount Forest got an irrigation system and new greens, and Sedgefield and Greensboro Country Club later did the same,” Apple Jr. said. “At Green Valley, we didn’t have a long-term lease, so we couldn’t update like the other places.” As golf equipment improved, the existing courses were redesigned, making it harder for Green Valley to compete. “Green Valley would have been compared to Starmount Forest and Greensboro Country Club in the ’50s, but those updated later on.” Even still, Apple Jr. says Green Valley consistently averaged about 30,000 rounds per year.

In 1980, Edward Benjamin passed away, leaving the Starmount Company in the control of his surviving family members. By then, with the emergence of the neighboring Wendover Avenue, the land had increased significantly in value.

“Nothing changed until the grandkids came along,” Apple Jr. said. “When I look back at it, we were just keeping the place in good shape until they were ready to sell.”

The Starmount Company consulted with a Connecticut firm to inquire about the most lucrative potential use of the land. The answer: a campuslike office park for fast-growing companies for companies such as IBM and Lorillard.

“I remember the long-term lease for IBM being something like $65 million,” Apple Jr. said. “My dad said, ‘Son, you can’t sell enough greens fees to outrun that!’” The company announced plans to build the office park in September 1984 and despite objection from nearby residents, on April 30, 1985, the course held its final rounds.

The Apples, at opposite points in their careers at the time, reacted to the closing in different ways.

“My dad was ready to retire,” Aubrey Jr. said. “He didn’t like to see it closed, but he was at the age where he was ready to move on.” Aubrey Jr. moved to Myrtle Beach to become a head pro not long after the closing, but he still took the news hard. “I was devastated when Green Valley closed, because I had been grooming myself for 35 years,” he said. “That’s where I was going to be like my dad.”

He says things worked out fine, but he remains passionate about the Valley and keen to set the record straight about its closing.

“Green Valley didn’t fall on hard times,” Apple Jr. said. “It closed because the grandkids wanted that money.”

“And if I was a grandkid, I’d have been in line too,” he added with a chuckle.

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