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The History of Highland Park

A Brief History of Highland Park Golf Course

On February 18, 1903, members of the Birmingham Golf Club and the Country Club merged their memberships and agreed to call their combined clubs the Country Club. It was a win-win deal: the golf club wanted a clubhouse and the Country Club wanted a golf course. They wanted a "real" golf course, with grass on the "greens" rather than dirt with tin cans for cups. They all wanted a big clubhouse where they could celebrate, dine and dance, and put Birmingham on the map. They found an excellent place, in Lakeview, where the newly made Highland Avenue met Clairmont Avenue. Once the site of a mineral bath spa and hotel (that had burned down), there was a stream fed lake, hills, and meadows; perfect for a golf course.

On the afternoon of Thursday, April 7, 1904, the Country Club celebrated the grand opening of possibly the grandest clubhouse, and certainly the best golf course in Alabama. With the Lenten season, and Easter Sunday, behind them the members could now party in fine fashion. But it rained. No mere April shower, a torrential downpour threatened to ruin the day. Members and guests, dampened but determined, arrived at the 4:00 luncheon by horse and buggy, trolley, and some by automobile. The "luncheon" went on until 7:00, when the gayety moved from the café to the ballroom. There, a local orchestra played popular songs like "Sweet Adeline", "Listen to The Mocking Bird" and "Under the Anheuser Bush" ("Come, come and make eyes with me under the Anheuser Bush. Come, come drink some ‘Budwise’ with me, under the Anheuser Bush." (No kidding, it was a hit.)

In 1906, Nick Thompson, a Canadian, who had originally been hired to teach members the finer points of the game, was re-assigned to add 9 holes to the existing course. Thompson had found the rolling hills, the creeks and lakes well suited for a first class golf course and went to work on the addition (This was before the Golden Age of American golf course construction, the 1920’s, and much of the work had to be done using mules and oxen. Sand traps and similar features had to be dug using picks and shovels.)

Now with 18 holes and a state-of-the-art clubhouse (imagine a large Tutor-style house, about as tall as it was wide, with fieldstone chimneys and a handsome limestone arch entryway – complete with ballroom and excellent views of the golf course from its wrap-around veranda, the Country Club was firmly established as Alabama’s top golf club. Word of such a genteel facility quickly spread around Alabama and the Deep South. Before long it was "the place" to have a social reception for visiting dignitaries such as Presidents William Howard Taft, and Theodore Roosevelt.

If hiring Nick Thompson had been a good idea, hiring the club’s first pro, Charles William "Charley" Hall, was even better. Hall was a golf renaissance man. At only 27 years old, the Irish born, Tennessee raised dynamo could make golf clubs, design a golf course, teach, host tournaments and, when he chose, he could strike a golf ball, straight and true, over 400 yards; no mean feat for a man who stood five-foot-seven and weighed 155 pounds. In exhibition matches at the club he set the pace and outdrove the likes Harry Vardon and Ted Ray – both Open Champions.

In the summer of 1915 the Country Club hosted its first major tournament, a regional for the Women’s Southern Golf Association. The indomitable Charley Hall registered over a hundred ladies – many of whom he had taught – and set them forth upon his immaculate golf course. The following summer, the club hosted another tournament, an Invitational, featuring male golfers from around the south.

The World's Greatest Golfer

On Thursday, June 22, 1916 the Birmingham Age-Herald featured this paragraph in a story on its Sports page: "Among the first of the prominent visiting golfers to reach the city were Perry Adair and R.T. Jones, Jr., of Atlanta; W. Nash Read of Montgomery, Pollock Boyd of Chattanooga and Lowry Arnold of Atlanta. Adair is recognized as one of the greatest player in the south. Although a youth in this teens, he has won more trophies probably, than any other player in the country at his age." (No further mention of R.T. Jones, Jr. was made.) The great hope for the Country Club was 30-year-old, movie star handsome, Jack Stewart Allison. A cousin of U.S. President William McKinley, Jack was a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and worked in the United States Court with his father, Major Charles Allison. He had won golf tournaments at the Montgomery Country Club and at the Country Club in Birmingham; he was favored to beat the teenager, Perry Adair.

The Sunday, June 25, 1916 Birmingham Age-Herald Sports page had the following headline: "ATLANTA YOUTH SCORES CLOSE VICTORY OVER JACK ALLISON FOR CHAMPIONSHIP CUP AT COUNTRY CLUB," followed by these thirty-eight words: "R.T. Jones, Jr., a 14year old boy of Atlanta, won the championship cup in the invitation amateur golf tournament at the Birmingham Country Club yesterday afternoon, defeating Jack Allison of Birmingham two up on the 18 holes play." The formidable Perry Adair came in fourth, behind R.H. Baugh, of Birmingham. A gallery of 300 witnessed the event.

That was the second time R.T. Jones, Jr., had defeated "grown ups". From then on he was known simply as Bobby Jones. Jack Allison joined the Army and went to fight the Germans in the fields of Flanders, France. He was killed one month before peace was declared.

For a while after WWI ended days at the Country Club were halcyon; members drank cocktails and watched the slow-motion sport of golf from rocking chairs on the clubhouse veranda. Americans were once again thankful at Thanksgiving and Christmas, the economy was booming and the Country Club (still the only "country club" in town) thrived. Dresses got shorter; men’s golfing attire featured open collared shirts, sweater vests and plus-fours (knickers) as they tried to look like Bobby Jones. Dance bands played racy music in the beautifully decorated ballroom, while older members shook their heads in disbelief at the "Shimmy" and the totally licentious "Charleston". It was during these high times that the club made the decision to move "over the mountain". Membership was full and there was a waiting list of people wanting to join; members wanted two 18-hole golf courses. 300 acres were found; famous golf course architect, Donald J. Ross was hired to build two new courses and construction began on a new clubhouse. In March of 1927 the City of Birmingham wisely purchased the old clubhouse and golf course; it would be called Highland Park.

For two glorious years aspiring golfers could play the same course Bobby Jones had. The beautiful clubhouse and golf course became known as "The Poor Man’s Country Club". Now "ordinary" people had a place to have their grand celebrations. They drank beer while sitting in the rocking chairs on the veranda; they played cards in the four card rooms; an April 1927 article in the Birmingham News told of the wonderful gift the City of Birmingham had given to the public.

The "Twenties" were still roaring, but those who listened closely could detect a little hoarseness. In September of 1929 there was a reckoning and it would be ten long years before America regained her footing. Soon hungry people would eat all the fish that were in Highland Park’s lake and the grass would grow tall on Neal Thompson’s pride and joy.

The World's Greatest Blind Golfer

The same year Bobby Jones beat Jack Allison, Charles Albert "Charley" Boswell was born in the nearby city of Ensley. An athletic youth, he lettered in three sports in high school. He earned a football scholarship to the University of Alabama, set a punting record that stood for 30 years, and played in the 1938 Rose Bowl. The terrible trouncing (Golden Bears -13 / Crimson Tide -0) didn’t slow the young positive thinker down, he quickly signed on with the Atlanta Crackers professional baseball team.

Charley was living the dream in 1941 when he met, and married, Kitty Lacey. They had a baby girl and, for a while, Charley’s dreams only got better. Then just as everyone began to think about the coming Christmas season, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the United States entered World War II. Charley was soon drafted into the Army.

A smart kid, he was enrolled in Officers Candidate School at Fort Benning, Georgia, and was made a captain. But too soon he had to kiss Kitty and little Kay goodbye and ship off to Germany. Near the town of Lindern, Charley and five other soldiers climbed into a Sherman tank to make a supply run. They thought they would surely be safe, but they were ambushed, took mortar fire and ran for cover. One of the young soldiers in his platoon was trapped in the tank and crying for help. Charley ran back to help him, but another mortar round hit the tank, killing the trapped soldier and Charley was permanently blinded.

While recovering in a military hospital near Washington, D.C., a young corporal named Kenny Gleason approached Charley in his room and said: "I hear you’re an athlete". The two talked for a while then Gleason asked him to play a round of golf. Charlie was taken aback: "How can a blind man play golf?" But Charley went out to a golf course with Gleason anyway. Kenny teed a ball and lined the shot up for Charley. Whack! 200 yards, straight down the middle of the fairway. It was the first golf ball he had ever hit in his life and he never saw it. Charley Boswell had found his new sport and eventually he showed the whole world how a blind man could play golf.

In 1946, the same year he retired from the Army and resettled in Birmingham, he finished second in the National Blind Golf Championship, in Inglewood, California; the next year he won. He proceeded to win 16 national championships, 11 international championships, and scored 3 aces during the course of his career. His home course during those years was Highland Park. One of the many celebrities who became friends with Charlie was comedian, Bob Hope. Once, while he and Hope were playing in a tournament in Canada, Hope asked Charlie: "Wanna play a $10 Nassau?" Charley replied: "Make it twenty if you like, provided I name the time and the place." "You’re on." Hope chirped. "Okay" Charley said. "My golf course in Birmingham at midnight." Hope’s eyebrows jumped in reply.

In 1958, at the height of his golfing career, Highland Park was renamed "Charley Boswell Golf Course at Highland Park." Charley sponsored many Pro/Am tournaments, raising more than a million dollars for the Helen Keller Eye Research Foundation. In his private life he went from the small insurance agency he started when he left the Army, to being Revenue Commissioner for the State of Alabama. He died in 1995, survived by Kitty and their three children.

Build to Burn

"It was built to burn", said Birmingham Fire Marshal, Agron Rosenfeld, Friday morning, June 30, 1972, the day the grand old clubhouse burned to the ground. "Like somebody had lit a box of pine knot kindling", a bystander remarked. Possibly caused by a spark in the basement where electric golf carts were charging, the fire was reported at 9:45 a.m., about 30 minutes after it had ignited; three hours later there was nothing left but the chimneys. Over the following years there was an attempt to build a "tourist" hotel on the property but, in the end, the present clubhouse was opened to the public in 1974. Ultimately, the thriving tennis program at Highland Park may have saved the golf course.

During the late 1970’s, the 1980’s and 90’s many new golf courses were built; longer courses, dramatic courses, and Highland Park began to look tired; it was time for a makeover. In 1998, Bob Barrett, co-founder and CEO of Honours Golf, and Bob Cupp, a renowned golf course architect, applied their wisdom and art, breathing new life into Highland Park’s old links. Not only did they take advantage of the elevation changes, creeks and lakes, they implemented Honours’ high standard of maintenance and conditioning. To this day Highland Park has some of the best-conditioned greens in the Birmingham area.

Today, on almost any afternoon, you may see attorneys from a prestigious law firm step aside to allow a couple of auto mechanics to play through. You might see skilled players playing with deadly accuracy, followed by beginners, wet with the morning dew, emerging from the rough. Highland Park is a very democratic place, where the "hoi polloi" mixes with the "highfalutin" and the ghosts of greats are in the gallery.

MICHAEL CLEMMER | 2016