Standing in the remnants of a Civil War foxhole between the ninth green and 10th tee at The Farm Golf Club in Dalton, GA., you can almost feel the presence of those long-dead, gray-clad defenders of Dixie who slept, ate and fought here more than 130 years ago. In May 1864, soldiers from the First and Second Florida Regiments hunkered down on this land and prepared to battle Sherman’s advancing troops in the first leg of the Battle of Atlanta. Today, as you walk off the front-pitched green of the alarmingly narrow, 566-yard, par-5 ninth and trudge up the 40-degree slope at the base of 2,000-foot Dug Gap Mountain, you’re acutely aware of the history of these surroundings, knowing that this experience is something truly special.
Tom Fazio certainly felt it. In 1985, when Dalton resident and carpet magnate Bob Shaw first approached the noted architect about the site, Fazio was lukewarm to the idea. Although he had yet to open any projects in Georgia at that time, he was a busy guy throughout the state. Eagles Landing in Stockbridge (host site of the LPGA Chick fil-A Charity Championship) was under construction, and he also had projects in the works in north Atlanta and Savannah. So when Fazio got a call from a man named Shaw who owned “a farm” in an industrial town 20 miles south of Chattanooga, Tenn., Fazio politely told the caller he would have to pass. He didn’t know at the time that Shaw was one of the largest carpet manufacturers in the world with a net worth of more than $1 billion. Nor did he know that “the farm” Shaw owned consisted of 500 acres of rolling wooded terrain unlike any in the area.
“Just come down and have a look,” Shaw insisted. “If you don’t like what you see, I’ll pay for your time and you can turn me down on the spot.”
Unable to come up with a reasonable excuse that wouldn’t insult the caller, Fazio acquiesced and made the trek to Dalton, where he and Shaw toured the site in Shaw’s pickup truck. The proud property owner pointed out spots on the land where General Joe Jackson’s confederate forces camped during the winter of 1864, and where an oak waterwheel once churned under the flow from a meandering mountain stream. One of the meadows at the base of Dug Gap Mountain had been converted into a sod nursery, but most of the land was still as it must have been in the days of Sherman and Jackson, with tan-tinted heather waving wistfully in the autumn Georgia wind.
“I convinced my wife to buy this place so our golden retriever, Sam, would have a place to run,” Shaw told Fazio. “We called it Sam’s Farm.” Unfortunately, Sam retired to doggie heaven, after which the name was shortened to The Farm. But the vision lived on, as Fazio quickly found time to add another project to his list.
“It was a designer’s dream,” Fazio says. “At the time most new design projects were driven by real estate development or resort hotel layouts. This was going to be a pure golf club where we were given license to do whatever we wanted. It was the fore-runner of what has become a return to traditional golf club settings in the ‘90s—what I like to call the Augusta national syndrome.”
Shaw belonged to The Honors Club in Chattanooga, and he visited Castle Pines, the Golf Club of Oklahoma and the Vintage Club, all unencumbered golf experiences that suited his appetite for purity. It didn’t take Fazio long to realize he had a soulmate in Shaw.
“He and I agreed that the objective should be to take a great piece of land and tremendous views and a blending of several different environments and create 18 individual golf settings,” says Fazio. “It was like a dream come true because we had so many options at our disposal. We probably went through 20 different plans and layouts, trying different combinations and looking at how everything fit. It was great to work without any restrictions.”
The result was a course that gained immediate recognition as one of the finest private clubs in Georgia, and Atlanta residents such as Fran Tarkenton raced to suburban Dalton to join the best “second club” in the region. Today, half of The Farm’s 380 members commute the 90 minutes north from Atlanta or travel south from Tennessee.
“A lot of people are surprised when they come out here for the first time,” said Head Pro Deck Chetham. “Enjoyable golf is about having a unique experience, and that is what people get when they visit The Farm.”
That experience starts with the drive to the club. A plethora of low-rise modular homes (trailers on foundations) awaits you as you turn off Interstate 75 and weave your way along Dug Gap and Mill Creek roads. If you happen to miss the gated entrance—a very real possibility given the club’s understated ambiance and the fact that the residence across the street features a custom GTO perched on cinderblocks in the front yard—you could end up at the Friendship Café, a pale white diner with a sloping front porch and a “Hey, how are y’all” waitress named Crystal. The whole scene looks like something from “Easy Rider,” but the burgers and sweet tea are delicious.
One can only imagine what passed through Justin Leonard’s mind as he drove out to The Farm in 1993 in search of his second consecutive Southern Open title. Like most who make the journey, Leonard was pleasantly thrilled once he found the club’s entrance and crossed Mill Creek on a cobblestone bridge that borders the 15th fairway. He was even more astounded to find a golf course that places a premium on accuracy off the tee and deft touch on and around the subtly undulating greens.
It’s not brutally long (3,896 yards from the tips), but you have to find the zoysia fairways with your tee shots or you could end up in briar thickets, fighting nature’s barbed wire on your way to double-bogey or higher. The course has two distinct nines. The front, which runs through a valley at the base of the mountain, is marked by meadows and long, perilous par-5s; and the back which creeps along the mountain’s edge, is distinct for its elevation changes.
Leonard, who was the reigning U.S. Amateur Champion when he first ventured onto The Farm, couldn’t have been more pleased with his surroundings, or with his results. He had no problem negotiating the fairways or the deceiving and treacherous greens, and his four rounds of 68-66-66-70 were good enough to win his second Southern Amateur title by eight shots over future Senior Tour star Allen Doyle.
Leonard wouldn’t fare as well in future visits to the Farm, however, even though his enjoyment of the golf course increased each time. In his next two visits, in fact, he didn’t even break par. Future stars such as Tiger Woods and David Duval, who both passed through the pines of Dalton while playing in the Carpet Capital Collegiate Classic, didn’t fare much better. Woods finished second to Stewart Cink in 1995 despite shooting 75-69-72 and showing off his prodigious length by hitting the uphill, 566-yard ninth with a 3-wood and a 3-iron. Duval never recorded a round in the 60s, carding a 76 and an 83 in 1994. Cink shot a 65 once, but that wasn’t a course record. Mike Clark Jr., a regular on the Nike Tour shot a record-setting 64 in 1991. Despite hosting a stream of the world’s best amateurs, no one has bettered that number.
Fourteen years after Fazio took that fateful truck ride with Bob Shaw, The Farm is still considered one of the most challenging and aesthetic designs in the South. The USGA selection committee has made two visits to the course and is considering it as a future U.S. Amateur site. When the Palmer Cup, college golf’s equivalent of the Walker Cup matches, was played at the Honors Club in June, the Great Britain and Ireland team made it a point to visit The Farm and left muttering comments like “Bloody tough, that one.”
Indeed it is. And as Bob Shaw now looks out the windows of his hunting lodge-sized house behind the 13th green, a wry smile crosses his lips. He knows the land that was at various times a battleground, a sod farm and a place where Sam could chase quail and bark til his heart’s content, is flourishing under good stewardship. And he knows that The Farm is a modern golf classic that continues to live up to the rich legacy of the land.