It’s appropriate that a country club so heavily influenced by the woman’s touch in the early days should evolve nearly a century later to having such a rich tradition in the world of women’s golf. From Edith and Cornelia Vanderbilt’s financial investments and visionary leadership of an embryonic Biltmore Forest Country Club in Asheville, N.C., through today’s competitive prowess with such players as Debbie Adams and Brenda Corrie Kuehn, women’s golf has been a key element of the club.
That’s one reason the 91-year-old club is looking forward to hosting the 2013 U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur Championship in October. It follows by 14 years the playing of the 1999 U.S. Women’s Amateur on the Donald Ross-designed course carved into the rolling hills and verdant woods just south of Asheville.
The club is located just a mile to the southeast of the world-renowned Biltmore Estate, opened in 1895 by George Vanderbilt. His widow Edith used 1,500 acres of the original estate to create the Biltmore Estate Company and develop a residential community with a full-service country club as the anchor.
Then when the developer’s funds ran short to complete the clubhouse and golf course during construction during the early 1920s, daughter Cornelia, the only offspring of George and Edith, stepped in to rescue the club with an infusion of capital. Biltmore Forest Country Club opened on July 4, 1922.
The club’s winsome setting on the Biltmore Estate and the challenge of the course designed by Ross, the Scotsman ensconced in Pinehurst and on the leading edge of golf architecture in America, were attractions to golfers from around the country. The club was spotlighted annually during its first three decades by the playing of the Land of the Sky Open on the PGA Tour from 1933-51 and by spring invitationals for men and ladies. Babe Zaharias, Patty Berg, Louise Suggs, Alice Dye and Peggy Kirk Bell were among the many top ladies golfers who competed at Biltmore.
“The club has been a central part of my life,” says Mimi Ambler Sagar, who was born in 1927 and was taught golf as a young girl by her father Arthur, an Asheville physician and a charter member of Biltmore Forest. “The club during the summer was my baby-sitter. I was there all the time. We were serious about golf. I played golf with the boys and we’d go 36 holes a day at the drop of a hat. It was such a pleasure walking and talking with your friends, learning the game. It was a wonderful way to grow up. I can’t tell you the happiness that golf and Biltmore Forest have brought me.”
One of the highlights of Mrs. Sagar’s golf career came around 1939, when she took a lesson from Patty Berg, at the time the winner over three straight years of the Titleholders Championship and soon to be one of the top golfers in the ladies professional ranks. They set up in a bunker on the 11th hole, and Patty spent the hour teaching Mimi the nuances of recovery shots.
“That was quite a thrill,” says Mrs. Sagar, who went on to win nine club titles from 1943-52. “I remember she talked about taking a stance and getting anchored, which is a key to bunker play. Afterward she signed a golf ball for me. She was so kind to me. That stayed with me for a long time.”
Barbara Stark Dripps was another prominent Biltmore Forest golfer from the mid-20th century. She grew up at Biltmore Forest, learned to play golf as a young married woman in St. Petersburg, Fla., and later returned to live in Asheville. She dominated the ladies’ domain for six years, winning consecutive club titles from 1956-61.
“I loved this golf course,” she says. “I knew it like the back of my hand. It’s so different today than it was in the fifties. It was hard as a rock, the ball went a million miles in whatever direction you hit it. Over the years they learned to grow grass, and the fairways have gotten much slower.”
Kathleen Moore was another formidable force nearly half a century ago, winning four club championships from 1968-76 and being featured in October 1973 in the popular “Faces in the Crowd” feature in Sports Illustrated. The 52-year-old mother of eight made two holes-in-one in two weeks at Biltmore Forest, shooting rounds of 76 and 73 on the days she made the aces.
Like Barbara Dripps, Betsy Biggers grew up around Biltmore Forest but didn’t learn the game until adulthood while living in a different city, then returned to Asheville and enjoyed a long run of golf success. She was a young bride living in Atlanta when Atlanta Country Club golf pro Davis Love Jr. conducted a ladies clinic.
“He asked if anyone would be willing to demonstrate,” Betsy remembers. “I eagerly put my hand up, and I hit it pretty well. After I was finished, Davis said, ‘Now, ladies, you have just seen a fairly successful shot with an incredibly awful swing. That is not what you want.’ It was pretty humiliating. But I learned what I was doing wrong and improved. I immediately loved the game.”
She and her husband Carl, a physician, moved to Asheville in 1971, and she won 15 club championships over four decades from 1979-2003. She also competed in two U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateurs — in 1989 in Lakeway, Texas, and the following year in Sewickley, Pa. After raising children and making thousands of birdies over the years, Betsy returned to school in later life and earned graduate degrees in clinical psychology at the age of 62. That interest in the inner workings of the brain has always been an important part of her golf success.
“It takes so much from an individual to become a pretty good golfer,” she says. “You have to learn to block out things. That’s why the game is so therapeutic. You get so focused on things going on at home, with the children, the world’s whirling around you. You have to be able to get ‘in the moment’ and block those things out to play good golf. Golf is such a mental challenge.”
The modern era of Biltmore Forest ladies’ play has been accented by the outstanding play of two former collegiate golfers who moved to Asheville as young adults and who have maintained excellent games while raising families.
Brenda Corrie Kuehn grew up in the Dominican Republic and played golf at Wake Forest from 1982-86, her outstanding career as a Demon Deacon earning her induction into the Wake Forest Athletics Hall of Fame in 1999 and the National Golf Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2004. As a senior in 1986, she was first-team All-America and won the ACC Championship and the Duke Fall Invitational. She was an All-ACC selection in 1984-86.
After college, she tried her hand for two years on the ladies’ mini-tour. She missed qualifying for the LPGA Tour narrowly in two consecutive qualifying schools, but she was at peace because she believed the nomadic life of a touring pro was not for her. Then she married Eric, whom she met at Wake Forest, and they moved to Asheville in 1995 and joined Biltmore
Forest in 1996. Eric is a radiation oncologist and the couple has three children — Corrie (15), Rachel (11) and Taylor (8).
Brenda has won three BFCC ladies titles (2002, 2005 and 2007), is a two-time U.S. Curtis Cup Team member and has played 16 Women’s Amateurs and 14 Mid-Amateurs, her best finish in the latter a second place in 1995. She made news in 2001 by qualifying for the U.S. Women’s Open, played at Pine Needles in Southern Pines, and competing while being eight months pregnant with her second child. Rachel was born one week later.
“Rachel is a pretty good golfer, and it’s a running joke between the two of us that she’s already ‘played’ in the U.S. Open,” Brenda says. “I tell her that if she gets good enough someday, she can play in a second Open.”
The Kuehns enjoy the Biltmore Forest club lifestyle because there are so many activities for children and the club reminds Brenda of her family’s club growing up in the Dominican Republic. The three children have been exposed to all sports, including golf, and Brenda passes on to her kids the elements of golf that are so important in life.
“Golf brings out the best in you,” she says. “You have to be honest, you have to be determined, you have to play hard. It teaches you not to quit. Most of all, it humbles you. It’s exactly how life is — sometimes it’s not fair. Sometimes you get the breaks, sometimes you don’t. I tell my children like my dad told me, ‘Honey, you can never trust anyone who cheats on the golf course. If they cheat in golf, they’ll cheat in business, in their marriage, anywhere.’ ”
Debbie Adams and husband Anthony moved to Asheville in 1996 from Florida and joined Biltmore Forest in 2002. They both played collegiately at Ohio State, where Debbie won three tournaments as a Buckeye. Their daughter Stacy plays golf at Denison College in Ohio and son Scott is a junior in high school with goals of playing collegiately. It’s quite the golf family — Debbie and Anthony have won six Carolinas Mixed Team Championship titles in the seven years it has been conducted by the Carolinas Golf Association. Debbie has won three BFCC ladies titles (2006, 2008 and 2009).
“I didn’t play much competitively when the kids were growing up,” she says. “When the kids were old enough, I’d take them to the club with me. I told them they were going to learn to play. They could do with it what they wanted after that, but they would at least learn the game. It’s been gratifying to see them both pursue the game. It’s now become a family thing — we’ve taken golf trips to Ireland, Scotland and other places and had a wonderful time together.
“And now that the kids are older, I’ve been able to get back out and compete more.”
Debbie has won individual and team gold medals in the International Maccabiah Games in Israel, two Florida Women’s Amateurs and one Carolinas Women’s Amateur, that coming in 2004 at the Country Club of Asheville.
She has played in three U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateurs. Knowing that the 2013 championship was set for her home club in Asheville, Debbie’s goal at Briggs Ranch Golf Club in San Antonio in 2012 was to advance to the final eight, thus earning an automatic qualifying berth to the 2013 championship. She did exactly that, tying for third in stroke-play qualifying and advancing to the quarterfinals before losing in 19 holes to Stacy Dennis of Huntsville, Texas.
“I’m very excited for this year’s Mid-Am now that I’m exempt,” Debbie says. “That was my goal going to San Antonio — make the final eight and qualify for Biltmore Forest. Now my goal is to advance further than I have so far.
“This will be a great event for the club. These are the best women’s golfers in the country — 25 and older. They come from every part of the country. We’ll have a great field and you’ll see some really good golf.”
Another Biltmore Forest member with an impressive golf resume is Tammy Wilmot, a non-resident member from Orlando, Fla. She and husband Chris discovered Asheville and
Biltmore Forest in the early 2000s when his business brought him to town often. They joined the club in 2005 and visit frequently, particularly in the summer.
Tammy has played in eight U.S. Women’s Amateurs, including her first at the age of 15, and advanced to the round of 16 at Prairie Dunes in Hutchinson, Kan., in 1980. She has also competed in four U.S. Women’s Opens and was a sectional qualifying medalist in advancing to the championship proper of the inaugural U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur, held in 1987 at Southern Hills in Tulsa, Okla. She has also won titles in Florida State Golf Association competitions in five decades beginning in the 1960s — including the Women’s Amateur titles in 1971 and 1986.
Though she’s no longer competitive at the level of the Mid-Amateur field, she’s looking forward to seeing the best in the game try their hand on the classic Ross course. Locals like Debbie Adams will certainly have a home-course advantage.
“Debbie and Brenda know that course backwards and forwards, which is so important,” Tammy says. “Their experience on the greens is immeasurable. You have to know where to hit your ball on your second shot if you want to putt well at Biltmore. If you can’t land it on the right spots or bounce it in from the correct angle, it’s hard to get the ball close and putt well.”