Hot Springs Country Club

Hot Springs Country Club is home to Arkansas’s first golf course and is considered one of America’s oldest country clubs west of the Mississippi River.

Plans for the course in Hot Springs (Garland County) were announced in November 1897, and construction began the following January. Local hotel interests came up with the idea to provide entertainment and recreational activities for their ever increasing numbers of guests. Play formally commenced on March 19, 1898. World Hall of Fame golfer Willie Park Jr. is credited with the original layout of the 2,465-yard, nine-hole course. An existing two-story frame dwelling on the northwestern corner of the property was renovated to become a clubhouse. Officers of the club included many of the city’s prominent businessmen of the day. S. H. Stitt of the Arlington Hotel served as the club’s first president.

Annual dues and visitor fees were published as early as 1899, but the corporation chartering the Hot Springs Golf and Country Club Association did not issue stock certificates until April 1909. Records suggest the course expanded to eighteen holes at this time, and provisions were made for a new $10,000 clubhouse. Cedar trees planted on the course during the summer of 1912 to provide shade for golfers are still standing in large numbers in the twenty-first century.

In September 1915, Hot Springs Country Club joined six others as founding members of the Arkansas Golf Association. Two months later, a tornado touched down near the club on Thanksgiving Day, killing eleven people and causing significant damage to the clubhouse.

The club quickly became a destination for Major League Baseball players in town for spring training, and many would participate in club tournaments. In February 1921, Hall of Famer Babe Ruth made it to the second round of the annual President’s Day tournament before losing “2 up” to J. E. Brailey. Fellow Yankees pitcher Carl Mays lost in the first round. The tournament is still played in the twenty-first century.

In preparation for the 1925 Professional Golf Association (PGA) South Central Open tournament, another nine holes were added to create a “championship course” for the event. The event was played for five consecutive years and drew an international field due in part to its considerable cash prizes. Al Watrous of Grand Rapids, Michigan, was the inaugural winner, taking home the winner’s share of the $6,000 purse. This was also the first year the club became financially self-sustaining.

The following year, the club created another nine holes, bringing the total to thirty-six, before then purchasing the 147-acre Majestic Farm on adjacent property to the north. This acquisition paved the way for a third eighteen-hole course that would become “The Arlington.” William H. Diddel is credited with its design.

Tourism continued to fuel the Hot Springs economy. Led largely by local hotel interests, a third clubhouse was constructed on the site in 1928. According to Rodney McWilliams’s history of the club, “Being practically a counterpart along its exterior lines of the home of George Washington at Mount Vernon,” the colonial type building was completed for $110,000 and contained, among other amenities, over 500 metal lockers for golfers.

World Hall of Fame golfer Paul Runyan was born in Hot Springs in 1908 and grew up on property adjacent to the club. He began his golf career as a caddy at Hot Springs Country Club before turning professional at the age of seventeen. His career included twenty-nine PGA Tour wins and two major titles at the 1934 and 1938 PGA Championship.

Beginning in 1955, the club again hosted a regular stop on the PGA Tour. For nine years, the Arlington Open, and later, the Hot Springs Open, hosted hundreds of golfers at Hot Springs Country Club. Hall of Famers Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, and Cary Middlecoff were all part of the field through the years. The event was played on the Arlington course and offered a $25,000 purse in 1963. Winners of the event are credited with a collective 140 tour wins and eight major titles.

In 1965, a $250,000 clubhouse renovation and addition were announced. A third floor was added, and new locker rooms, a kitchen, and an expanded pro shop were included. A modified traditional motif was expressed in arches, and recessed balustrades were modified on the building’s exterior façade. The project was completed in 1967.

Hall of Fame golfer Ben Crenshaw was hired to renovate the Arlington Course in 1994 to its original layout. A new clubhouse was constructed in 1999 to replace the 1928 structure at a cost of $4 million, making it the club’s fourth home. Each clubhouse has been in the same general location on the property since 1898.

In 2001, extensive renovation was done to “The Majestic” course. Also known as the “No. 1,” the “Championship Course,” and “South” over the years, its name was changed in 2008 to “The Park” course in honor of the club’s first course architect. By 2020, the Arlington Course was still serving as a regional qualifying site for the United States Open golf tournament.

In addition to professional golfers, regular guests and members over the years have included steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, gangster Al Capone, heavyweight boxing champion Jack Dempsey, and President Bill Clinton. President William H. Taft was scheduled to participate in the 1910 dedication of the clubhouse but canceled at the last minute for unknown reasons.

Winners of the Hot Springs South Central Open
1925 Al Watrous
1926 Bill Mehlhorn
1927 Bobby Cruicshank
1928 MacDonald Smith
1929 Bill Mehlhorn

 

Winners of the PGA Arlington/Hot Springs Open
1955 Bo Wininger
1956 Billy Maxwell
1957 Jimmy Demeret
1958 Julius Boros
1959 Gene Littler
1960 Bill Collins
1961 Doug Sanders
1962 Al Johnson
1963 Dave Hill

 

For additional information:
“At the Hot Springs.” Arkansas Democrat, February 14, 1898, p. 3.

“Ruth Eliminated from Golf Tourney.” Arkansas Gazette, February 27, 1921, p. 14

“Babe Ruth Is a Golf Winner at the Spa.” Arkansas Democrat, February 26, 1921.

“Eleven Dead, Two Missing 50 Hurt at Hot Springs.” Pine Bluff Daily Graphic, November 27, 1915, p. 1.

“Golf.” Arkansas Democrat, December 15, 1898, p. 7.

“Golf Stars at Hot Springs to Enter Tourney.” Tampa Times, February 2, 1925, p. 13.

“Hot Springs Review.” Arkansas Democrat, January 31, 1898, p. 3.

McWilliams, Rodney, ed. Hot Springs Country Club, The First 100 Years 1898–1998. N.p.: n.d.

“A Month of Gaiety.” Arkansas Democrat, April 22, 1898, pp. 3, 7.

“Spirit of the State Press.” Arkansas Gazette, November 14, 1897, p. 4.

“Topics of Town.” Arkansas Democrat, January 17, 1898, p. 7.

“Will Seek Each Other’s Goats on Golf Links.” Hot Springs New Era, May 4, 1912, p. 1.

Len Pitcock
Hot Springs, Arkansas

Last Updated: 12/22/2020