Golf on Cardiac Hill

How one South Georgia golf club helped President Eienshower get back on his feet.

By Jay RevellApril 10, 2021

Golf has a funny way of shaping history. Every so often, this simple game will find its way into being the backdrop for consequential moments. There are even certain courses that seem to attract such scenarios. One of which is at a quiet private club tucked away in the serene and shady woods of Southwest Georgia.

Most golf fans have likely never heard of Glen Arven Country Club, but it has served as a retreat for numerous individuals who have shaped both the game and our nation. Located in the small town of Thomasville, Glen Arven is one of the oldest yet least heralded clubs in America. It’s pedigree would hold up well against nearly any prestigious East Coast haunt, but because of its remote location, it has largely flown under the radar for over a century. And, with a mostly local membership, that’s exactly how they like it.

Thomasville, Georgia is well known in the bird hunting world. With hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland and spacious forests of longleaf pine trees, the area known as the “Red Hills” is the quail hunting capital of the South. Well healed hunting enthusiasts have been coming to Thomasville to chase down the succulent birds since the Victorian age. One of the more notable travelers to incamp in Thomasville was President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Like many others who made their way to those woods, when he came to hunt he also brought his golf clubs.

It was on such a trip that Eisenhower decided to seek a second term in the White House — a decision he made on the fairways of Glen Arven. If not for a fateful round of golf, the course of the American Presidency may have looked very different in the second half of the twentieth century. Because of Glen Arven, Ike found the strength to give the Presidency another go.

Why Thomasville?

Thomasville was born as an agrarian town, but after the Civil War it became a tourist destination. When wealthy travelers from the American Northeast came South for the Winter, Thomasville was the last stop on the train. With beautiful scenery, a mild climate, and various sporting options the area became a popular place for many of the nation’s most influential families to spend their downtime. This fueled the creation of a sprawling “pleasure park” on the edge of town that would one day become the Glen Arven Country Club.

Founded in 1892, Glen Arven was one of the first places in the deep south to have golfing grounds. Beginning with a rudimentary routing and then expanding to nine holes with sand greens, the golf at Glen Arven helped set the tone for the game’s growth below the Mason-Dixon line. Even from its earliest golf holes, the club has attracted travelers from across the country to play there. As golf’s popularity increased and northern industrialists kept flocking to town and buying estates, an expanded facility was called for.

The course Glen Arven members know today was created in 1929 by the design duo of Wayne Stiles & John Van Kleek. Built over rolling land that provides sweeping views of the South Georgia countryside, it has captivated golfers for nearly a century. The bucolic setting for the club even provided a name to its most prestigious golf championship, an amateur tournmanent founded in 1919 called the Piney Woods Invitational.

The charms of Glen Arven and the surrounding hunting plantation lands brought many of America’s most wealthy and powerful people to Thomasville for decades. By the middle of the twentieth century, those names included the likes of US Treasury Secretary George Humphrey and Ambassador to Great Britain Jock Whitney. Both of which were backers and close confidants of President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

In the Winter of 1956, while still recovering from the effects of a heart attack the previous Fall, Eisenhower and his top White House staffers descended upon Thomasville for ten days of clean air, exercise, and relaxation. As a guest of his Treasury Secretary, Eisenhower had come to Thomasville to make a call on whether or not he had the strength to run for a second term.

Ike’s Decision

As the conquering hero of the European theater of World War II, President Eisenhower enjoyed great political popularity. That alone didn’t make him a consequential President though.

After nearly three years in office, Eisenhower had a mixed reputation when it came to major accomplishments. The hallmark of those years was undoubtedly negotiating an end to the Korean War - something he went on to proclaim was his greatest achievement. He had also made two appointments to the Supreme Court including Chief Justice Earl Warren who oversaw the landmark Brown vs Board of Education case that began to unravel segregation policies in America. With the Cold War brewing abroad and racial tensions rising at home, Eisenhower was facing what would be a challenging second term in office. In the Fall of 1955, another four years began to look doubtful when the President suffered a serious heart attack.

That September, during a round of golf at Cherry Hills Golf Club in Denver, Colorado, Eisenhower began to experience chest pains. What he and doctors initially thought was indigestion turned out to be a serious heart condition. Facing a troubling diagnosis, Eisenhower had to remain under medical care in Colorado for six weeks.

With a near 80% approval rating, the outcome of the 1956 election seemed in hand, but with his health scare and accompanying fragility, the big question was would the President run again. When he was first elected at age 62, Eisenhower became the oldest person to become Commander in Chief since James Buchanan. By the Winter of 1956, he and his closest allies were in discussion about what would be the best path for the President to take.

One of the leading names to replace Eisenhower on the ticket should he choose not to pursue a second term was Treasury Secretary George Humphrey. In a cabinet filled with some of America’s brightest business minds of the time, Humphrey was widely regarded as its most influential member. Augusta National Golf Club Chairman Clifford Roberts even suggested to Eisenhower that Humphrey might succeed the President should he not be able to run. Before entering the government, Humphrey was the Chairman of one of America’s largest steel manufacturers M.A. Hanna and Co. Humphrey, like many other industrial magnates of that era, was a frequent visitor to Thomasville and President Eisenhower had made a habit of joining his Treasury Secretary there for hunting each February.

The trip they took in the Winter of 1956 had a larger agenda though. Based on orders from Eisenhower’s doctors, the President was seeking to test his stamina through the quail woods and golf holes of Thomasville. With a schedule filled with bird shoots at Humphrey’s plantation and friendly golf matches at Glen Arven, the President was set to stretch his limits. The trip would represent the most activity he had undertaken since the heart attack. The President was in Thomasville not only to relax, but also to see if he was ready for the challenges of another national campaign. 

The 18th at Glen Arven.

Cardiac Hill

The golf course at Glen Arven bears a striking resemblance to another famed Georgian course that President Eisenhower was a frequent guest at. With bulging pine ridges, gentle grassed valleys, and trickling creeks cutting across the property, Glen Arven is one of the prettiest courses in the Peach State. The hilly terrain comes into play on nearly every hole with the most stark elevation change reserved for the course’s grand finale.

The eighteenth hole at Glen Arven is a par five with a sharp dogleg right. The predominant features of the hole include a pond in play off the tee shot, a creek coming across the fairway at its midpoint, and a rising final stretch that towers over the golfer seeking to approach the green. From the creek bottom, the closing green site appears to sit atop a mid-rise skyscraper.

During his stay in February of 1956, President Eisenhower played three rounds of golf at Glen Arven. Because of the hill on the eighteenth hole, he kept the first two outings strictly to the front nine.

Between the quail hunts and bridge games at Humphrey’s lodge, the President was excited to include some golf on his trip. Having not played since his heart attack, Eisenhower was eager to get back on the links. His White House team, especially Press Secretary James Haggerty, was also itching to have the media see just how fit the President was for office.

For the first outing, the President only played nine holes. His personal physician even drove around the course to observe the President’s condition. After getting a feel for the game again, the President chose to extend his stay so that more golf could be added to the agenda. During a second round, Ike decided he was up for 18 holes, but instead of touring the whole course the group decided to play the front nine twice to avoid the hill on 18. However, after making it around that day, Ike concluded that he was ready to take the climb on his next outing.

Glen Arven’s Place in History

Although President Eisenhower may have been the most prestigious guest in Glen Arven’s history, he has certainly been in good company with other visitors to the club. The charms of Thomasville have brought many famous and infamous individuals out to play golf at Glen Arven over the years.

The course has hosted the likes of Edward the Duke of Windsor, former King of England as well as the great gentleman golf champion Bobby Jones. Like the President, both the Duke and Bobby Jones played at Glen Arven while visiting friends for quail hunts and socializing at nearby plantations.

There was also the short lived Thomasville Open, a stop on the PGA Tour before World War II. That event brought names such as Ben Hogan, Gene Sarazen, Sam Snead and Byron Nelson - who counts the tournament among his 52 wins on tour.

The Piney Woods Invitational continues to bring elite amateurs to Thomasville each Summer even though the tournament is now a four-ball competition. Its list of winners include names like Frank Stranahan, Bert Yancey, Doug Sanders, and many others.

Glen Arven was also home to some of America’s most accomplished women amateurs. Three separate winners of the United States Women’s Amatuer Championship have enjoyed membership there. Beatrix Hoyt (1896,1897, and 1898), Fraces Griscom (1900) and then Mary Lena Faulk (1953) helped to create a strong culture of female golfers at the club.

Today, Glen Arven remains a quiet retreat for its members. The club celebrates its history throughout its stately clubhouse and thanks to an impressive renovation by architect Bob Cupp the course is as beautiful and challenging as ever. Glen Arven is widely regarded as one of the finest club’s in the South and Cardiac Hill is still a stearn test. It’s easy to see why President Eisenhower made multiple trips there. Thanks to that history, Glen Arven and the President made a lasting imprint on each other’s legacy.

Ike’s Second Term

On February 23rd 1956, President Eisenhower was joined by Ambassador to Great Britain Jock Whitney, White House Press Secretary James Hagerty, and Glen Arven Club Professional John Walter for a full 18 holes. The outing was later described by the New York Times as “the most politically significant round of golf in American history.” While enjoying a beautiful winter day and some friendly competition, the President developed the idea that if he could successfully climb the hill on Glen Arven’s 18th hole then he would deem himself fit for a second run at the Presidency.

As the legend has been reported, Eisenhower told his Press Secretary his plan as they reached the final hole. The President described his idea to Hagerty telling him that if he could climb the closing hole with no pain or assistance then he would feel confident in tackling the larger task of running for office again. The President made a private display of his strength and indeed made it up the steep slope. When the round was finished, word of the President’s intentions began to circulate around the press who had been gathered at the clubhouse. His Press Secretary would downplay the events at the time, but later confirmed the accounts to be true. It was indeed there at Glen Arven where Eisenhower made his decision.

Five days after that round of golf, President Eisenhower announced he was running for re-election. He went on to face former Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson in the general election — a rematch of the 1952 Presidential contest. Eisenhower was elected in a landslide with 457 electoral votes to Stevenson’s 73. An impressive feat considering that the Democrats won the House of Representatives again in the same election.

President Eisenhower’s second term was significant in many ways. In September of 1957 he signed the Civil Rights Act of 1957, the first legislation to protect the rights of African Americans passed since reconstruction. That same month, he sent 1,000 federal troops into Little Rock, Arkansas to oversee the integration of public schools there. Those actions marked the beginning of a serious sea change in race relations across America.

In addition to advancements in civil rights, Eisenhower helped kickoff the American space age. After being rocked by the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik, Eisenhower created the National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA) in 1958. He also was America’s first widely televised President. In his second term, Eisenhower used the growing medium to broadcast his beliefs and the American agenda around the world.

In his final two years, President Eisenhower traveled the world extensively. He visited 27 different nations in an attempt to strengthen foreign relations. An important maneuver while Cold War tensions continued to rise. In a rapidly changing world, the Eisenhower administration helped to lay the foundation for America’s growing global power in the second half of the twentieth century.

Jay Revell is the author of The Nine Virtues of Golf: Essays, Musings, and Other Contemplations on the Game