I’m home for holiday break and my favorite golf course is calling for me to come take a walk. The first tee at Capital City Country Club is less than a five minute drive from my house. It is so close to home that It is easy to take for granted. I am a part of a new generation of golf enthusiasts and friends in Tallahassee who have fallen in love with the old course. Winter is setting in over Tallahassee and I’m headed to my home track with a fresh cup of coffee, friends waiting on the tee, and a smile on my face.
Capital City is a unique club. The course is set in the hills just south of Downtown Tallahassee. The Myers Park neighborhood is Tallahassee’s only declared historic district and the course and club sit right in the middle of it. The course was there first and during the early decades of the twentieth century homes and parks began to be built around our beloved links creating a beautiful setting for a historic club.
If Capital City were located outside of Philadelphia, New York, or Boston it would cost $100,000 to join assuming you could even get invited. In Tallahassee though there is no initiation fee or invitation to join required to experience the majesty of Florida’s only A.W.Tillinghast designed course. The club is a classic example of a place that is so good it’s startling for me to see how little its appreciated by the masses. My friends and I in the local golf Illuminati walk the hills and traverse through the trees each week knowing that our home course is a time machine to golf’s golden age.
Tallahassee is not the Florida your grandparents retired too. It feels much more like “Georgia on my mind” than it does a Jimmy Buffet song. North Florida is rolling red clay hills and a mix of tall pines and live oak trees. It’s Spanish moss and moving landscapes. The Nature Conservancy once declared the area “one of America’s last great places”; a far cry from much of the overdeveloped areas of Florida.
It’s that setting though that makes the magic of Capital City possible. Golf has been played over the grounds at Capital City for over a century. The marriage of when and where that has shaped the course’s identity would be impossible to replicate. Every time I tee it up at Capital City I’m grateful that history and geography created such an incredible place to pursue my passion.
The course was first established in 1914 by developer and landowner George Perkins. He enlisted the expertise of renowned British player H. H. Barker to devise a nine hole course over hilly property just south of town. Barker’s layout was instantly regarded as favorable for local players as the game was growing in popularity.
The course saw little change over its first two decades, but as the depression arrived in Tallahassee so did tough times for the local golf club. In 1936 the club gave the course to the City of Tallahassee to maintain as a public asset. Among the stipulations in the agreement was for the city to expand the golf course to 18 holes. With public ownership, the course was eligible for government funds from the newly created Works Progress Administration(WPA).
The city was successful in securing WPA funds, and because the course had a PGA member as its professional they were also able to secure design services from A. W. Tillinghast who was employed by the PGA at the time.
Tillinghast was in the midst of a national tour for the PGA of America when his travels brought him to Tallahassee. He spent a day reviewing the site and drawing plans for a new nine holes while altering the Barker holes that were already there. As the course was built he continued to comment on the plans via letters sent from the road.
The course was a municipal offering for nearly twenty years before the city leased it back to the club due to financial difficulties and concerns with racial integration in the 1950’s. During the past 50 plus years the club saw peaks and valleys of success and struggle that mirrored its hilly landscape. Increased competition and the rise of suburban living had serious impacts on the club and course.
Today, the course is the centerpiece of a private club and seeing a renaissance as demographics and tastes of the population shift back towards Downtown and to the club’s advantage. As people are rediscovering the charms and treasures of Capital City there are three aspects of the course that serve as the main attraction: the hills, the routing, and the trees.
The topography of a golf course can tell you a great deal about its architecture. Often a good golf adventure is a pursuit from high points to low points and vice versa. Capital City is home to some of the hilliest lands in all of Florida. When the course was first opened in 1914, it was given the moniker “Hill City Golf Course.” It most certainly lives up to that name. From the initial tee shot on the first hole it is apparent that the hills drive the discussion about the course. There is hardly a flat hole or an even lie on the grounds.
There are numerous points on the course where vistas are created in which players can observe expansive views of the property. Often times you can’t appreciate how severe a hill actually is until you are looking back at it from the top of the next hill. These terrain features make the walk one to remember and the golf ideal for shot-making. It’s easy to find yourself trying to remember tips on what type of shot is likely to result from certain uneven lies. An even greater challenge is in discovering how the larger hills surrounding a hole can influence putts more than the gentle slopes of the green that you’re on.
Walking Capital City is a workout. The course is delightfully compact and only measures some 6,600 yards from the tips, but if you check your fit-bit after the round, you’ll see you walked nearly five miles over the hills. The burning in your calves makes the beer with friends taste better afterwards.
Capital City is routed in two nine hole loops. The front nine starts in the center of the property and spirals out towards the edge. The back nine begins on the edge and winds back to the center. Each side has its own distinguishable characteristics that create memorable moments in the round and is a product of when it was built and who laid it out.
The front nine holes are the Tillinghast originals. Built in the late 30’s they are classic examples of the genius of the Philadelphia school of architecture in which Tillinghast was a charter member. The holes on the front nine are laid over the hills of the property in the most gentle nature. They fall over the slopes with such ease that it is stunning to imagine how little dirt was moved to create them. Each teeing ground offers a glimpse at how the legendary designer saw the game should be played. Holes 1, 2, 4, 7, and 8 are some of the best on property and likely in all of North Florida. Each is demanding off the tee and requires a precise approach in order to score. These are the holes that bring you back time and time again.
The back nine are the Barker holes that served as the earliest portions of the course. Barker’s routing is quirky at times, but still challenging and fun. The Barker nine is very much a product of being built during the infancy of the American game. The holes are the shorter ones on the property, but also require more precision. A small miss on the inward nine can result in a big number. Holes 10, 14, and 17 are all great short holes with the potential for derailing a round if not played properly. The par three holes on the back nine make wonderful use of the natural hills and are the best of the four on the course. There are subtle places where you can see evidence of Tillinghast’s updates to the Barker holes, but his changes were minimal there. The back nine is the scoring nine, but players expecting a low number should beware of approaching an old design with a modern attack. Finesse is often rewarded more than power here.
The trees at Capital City Country Club are unforgettable. Especially the live oaks. The patriarch oaks that tower over the fairways there shade the grounds like large umbrellas. Although an abundance of trees are typically not ideal for great golf, Capital City makes a distinct case for how to incorporate them into a design as vertical hazards.
The trees are integrated into the design on both nine hole loops in similar fashion. In many ways, it is the use of the live oak trees as hazards that unify the two loops of different eras as one course with a cohesive sense of place.
There are no less than eleven holes in which a massive live oak tree or grouping of trees is the primary hazard feature of the hole. Holes like 4, 5, 9, and 10 all incorporate these trees as the demarcation of an aggressive line off the tee. Carry the moss draped monsters and be rewarded, miss and face penalty. Other holes like 7, 12, 14, 15, and 17 all feature live oaks as the main defense against the approach. Perhaps the greatest example of the oaks as hazards is the home hole where on 18 you must play through an amphitheater of oaks in order to score on the reachable par five.
You won’t find Capital City on many “best of” or top 100 lists, but Tom Doak lists the trees there among the most unique of hazards in his Confidential Guide to Golf Courses. When you walk beneath these relics, you can’t help but wonder what all they have witnessed as they’ve grown through the centuries.
For my friends and I, Capital City Country Club is the girl who lives next door. You get so used to her that it becomes hard to appreciate how special she really is. I’m so incredibly spoiled to be able to enjoy the delights of a golden age course right in my own back yard. Not just any golden age course, but a Tillinghast design with elements that are over 100 years old.
Throughout the year I travel to play and discover new aspects of the game, but its always at the end of the year when the holidays anchor me home that I can be reminded of how good I have it at Capital City. Driving in to the course I see the hills, the routing, and the trees and I think about how remarkable it is to be able to enjoy the Capital City experience on a near daily basis. As I pull into the club, I see my friends on the first tee. It may be a cold day, but the walk we are about to have is as good as it gets. Capital City Country Club is close to me in more ways than one.