Biltmore Forest Country Club’s date with the 2013 U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur Championship is the next chapter in the club’s rich history of having hosted top women’s amateur and professional golfers. From the early-1900s era of Patty Berg and Babe Zaharias through more recent visits by up-and-comers like Lorena Ochoa and Natalie Gulbis, the venerable Donald Ross layout with its undulating greens, strategic routing and old-world feel has been an ideal site for top-flight competition.
The national championship for female amateur golfers 25 and older will be held Oct. 5-10, 2013. That follows the playing of the 1999 U.S. Women’s Amateur, won by Dorothy Delasin, and the running of the Biltmore Ladies Invitational from 1923-46 that featured all the top golfers playing on an informal tour before the creation of the LPGA in 1950.
The club was also the venue for the PGA Tour’s Land of the Sky Open from 1933-51 — with Ben Hogan concluding his career-sparking “trifecta” of consecutive wins at Pinehurst, Greensboro and Asheville in 1940 — as well as a spring men’s invitational that featured the likes of Billy Joe Patton, Harvie Ward and P.J. Boatwright. The Biltmore Forest Invitational ceased in 1962, but since 1994 the club has been saluting the spirit of amateur golf with the Jess Sweetser Memorial, named in honor of the former club member who won the 1922 U.S. Amateur and the 1926 British Amateur.
“Biltmore Forest has an amazing history of great amateur and professional golf starting back in the 1920s,” says club member Charlie Price. “That was rekindled in 1999 with the Women’s Amateur, which was a success on all fronts. The club got high praise from the competitors and the USGA, so we began looking for another opportunity. One of the things we’re most proud of is to be among the few clubs in North Carolina to ever have been asked to have not just one national championship, but a second one as well.”
Jim Hyler, a past USGA president and chairman of the Championship Committee, joined Biltmore Forest in 1999 as a non-resident member after becoming enamored of the club and city of Asheville beginning in early 1980s when traveling there on business. He and his wife have since bought a home near the club, spend considerable time in Asheville and plan to one day make it their permanent residence.
“The 1999 Women’s Amateur was wildly successful by any measure,” says Hyler, who was USGA president in 2010 when the announcement for the 2013 Women’s Mid-Amateur was made. “It was well-received by the club, its members and the community. It set the stage to bring another event to the club. We were in constant contact with Biltmore Forest, and it was just a matter of deciding what event would be the right one.”
Biltmore Forest is located on the south side of Asheville on land adjacent to the world-renowned Biltmore Estate. Among the club’s founders and early benefactors were Edith
Vanderbilt, widow of Biltmore Estate founder and visionary George Vanderbilt, and their daughter Cornelia. The club opened on July 4, 1922 and the golf course was designed by Donald Ross, the noted Scottish architect headquartered in Pinehurst. Architect Brian Silva coordinated an extensive renovation project in 1994.
Two-time U.S. Open champion Cary Middlecoff was a longtime member of the club, and current members include two-time USA Curtis Cup Team member Brenda Corrie Kuehn, 2012 Mid-Amateur quarterfinalist Debbie Adams, 1995 USGA Senior Amateur champion Jim Stahl and four-time PGA Tour winner Morris Hatalsky. Amateur great Bob Jones was an honorary member in the 1920s, enjoying the escape to the cool mountains in the summer from his home in Atlanta.
It all adds up to quite an historical venue, and 2013 will only add to the legacy. “Biltmore Forest is a special place, a special venue, and we’ve had special tournaments for many years,” says Doug Bailey, club president in 2012 and an active member of the club’s Archives Committee. “It’s a very appropriate place for a national championship of this caliber. When someone walks down our hallway and sees pictures of Gary Player or Billy Graham or Bob Jones, they get a sense of what our club is all about. Our history is very important and these USGA championships add to that history.”
Hyler emphasizes that the contributions clubs like Biltmore Forest make to the game by offering their facilities for regional, sectional and national competitions are important and often go unrecognized.
“It’s asking a lot of a club to give up their course for a week,” Hyler says. “Volunteers give their time, area businesses give their money, the community gets behind it. It’s a big deal. A national championship like the Women’s Mid-Am is every bit as important and prestigious to Ellen Port or Meghan Stasi as Webb Simpson winning the U.S. Open at The Olympic Club. Clubs like Biltmore Forest give back to the game and to amateur golf; that’s really important and it’s very special.”
Dave Cappiello, a member since 1972 and a former club president, remembers the membership having more fun hosting the 1999 Women’s Amateur than probably the competitors did playing the course.
“It’s giving back to golf, giving back to the game and the amateur traditions,” says Cappiello. “It’s important to make your course available to the great amateur players. We did it in 1999 and all had a wonderful time. We saw some really great golf and some wonderful young ladies who went on to become great golfers. It was nice to see them play our course and then go on to bigger and better things.”
Bailey and his wife Mary Alice had three golfers stay in their home just up Stuyvesant Road from the club entrance, and he caddied one day during practice rounds. “It was a fabulous experience for me and my wife,” he says. “It was so much fun seeing these fine young golfers, trying to figure out who they were. I can distinctly remember a young girl from Mexico who didn’t speak very much English. She turned out to be Lorena Ochoa. We enjoyed having the championship and were eager to have another.”
The golf course that the Women’s Mid-Amateur field will find in October is hilly, tree-lined and compact, with most tees just a few paces from the last green. The course plays to a par of 70 and stretches to 6,606 yards from the back tees. It was set up at 6,202 yards and par-72 for the 1999 Women’s Amateur, which Delasin won by a 4-and-3 margin over Jimin Kang. Since then, Delasin has gone on to win four LPGA Tour events.
The strength of the course and the element that will give competitors the most challenge is the greens, which are relatively small, well bunkered and well contoured. Knowing where to play into the greens and where not to miss the ball is a skill that will serve defending champion Stasi and her challengers well.
Price notes that Hogan, in winning three consecutive tournaments in 1940, three-putted only twice in 216 holes, and both times came at Biltmore Forest. “Managing the greens is a real challenge,” Price says. “I’ve seen lots of good players come here, play three days in a row and their scores go down each day. It’s all related to managing the greens. On some holes you can land your ball 25 feet from the hole and you’re putting downhill and don’t have a chance at a birdie. You’re just hoping to stop it and be able to two-putt.”
Brenda Corrie Kuehn was an All-Atlantic Coast Conference and All-American golfer at Wake Forest University in the mid-1980s and has won three BFCC ladies championships and competed in 16 Women’s Amateurs and 14 Women’s Mid-Amateurs.
“The greens are the key to the golf course,” she says. “The fairways are wide and there’s not much trouble to get into. But you have to know how to play the greens. You cannot be an aggressive putter at Biltmore. The premium is on being a lag putter, unless you feel comfortable making 4 and 5-footers all day coming back. That’s not my game.”
The U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur was first conducted in 1987 and is open to female golfers 25 and older who hold a USGA Handicap Index® not exceeding 9.4. Meghan Stasi won the 2012 title at Briggs Ranch Golf Club in San Antonio to go with her previous Women’s Mid-Amateur victories in 2006, 2007 and 2010.