Rolling Knolls Country Club:
A Personal Reminiscence
by Dusty Helbling
The original two-story mansion that was to become Rolling Knolls Country Club was built by Gen. Benjamin Bonneville in 1865 on his 1,000-acre farm in Fort Smith. (The total acreage making up Rolling Knolls probably was in the 60 to 80 acre range.)
The lumber was brought from Little Rock by wagon and steamboat. I remember the beautiful old, worn black walnut staircase. Many historic figures in past history tread those stairs as this was the social center of the area. The home was built by the 75-year-old general for his new 24-year-old bride.
S.W. Creekmore Sr. was the one that owned and built the Rolling Knolls Country Club golf course, which opened in 1932. I'm not sure how much of the layout of the course was his or if Little Rock pro Herman Hackbarth might have had some input as he laid out several Arkansas golf courses. Mr. Creekmore drove to Little Rock in a Model T Ford for golf lessons in the late teens and early 1920s.
S.W. Creekmore would be a story in himself. He played football from 1908 to 1909 for the Arkansas Razorbacks and was All-Southwest Conference back. He later was the state amateur several times. He played golf with royalty in Europe. His weakness was Coca-Cola. He seemed to always have one in his hand and this led to a kidney stone problem.
Even as a kid, I could tell this was a real gentleman that was respected by all. He took on the Rolling Knolls Country Club project in the middle of the Depression, which took a lot of guts. About every businessman would say it was the worst possible time to start a business.
This was probably one of the reasons he was known to be very tight with his money. My mother, Daisy Helbling, tells about some caddies that were digging around the clubhouse flower beds. When they came across an old rusty shovel blade underground, most likely left there from construction of the home, then one caddy said to the other, "Let's bury this thing before Mr. Creekmore sees it and puts a new handle on it for us to use." The funny thing was that he was serious.
They had a contest to name the golf course with the grand prize of a lifetime membership. Ford Hinkle came up with the name Rolling Knolls and claimed it.
My father, Henry Helbling, was the club pro from 1932 to 1942. He started as caddy in 1917 for Scottish pro John Gatherum who came to the United States to serve as club pro at Fort Smith Country Club. We still have the clubs that were given by John to my father when he was nine-years-old. As he got older, my father worked his way up to caddy master, then assistant pro at the Fort Smith Country Club. He was unique as a pro because he had a reverse grip, playing crosshanded. As a kid, I did not know there was anything unusual about that as I also played that way.
During the summer months, Dad put in long days and nights. He got up around 5 a.m. to check the greens and mowers had to be sharpened and ready for work crews just after sunrise. The tractor and Model A pickup and the mowers had to all be ready. During the day, he was repairing the clubs, giving lessons and handling fees and sales in the club house.
I mentioned Mr. Creekmore being a little tight. When the last golfers finished in the evening or around sunset, Dad would have to put the sprinklers out to water the greens. The catch was they only had three sprinklers so around 11 p.m. he would have to go out and move them to the next three greens, then again at 2 a.m. back out and move them to the last three greens. I don't recall how much watering went on during the winter months. It was a hard job, but during that time period he was lucky to have a job and a place to live, so we were better off than a lot of people.
As a kid, I was not able to judge how good a golfer my Dad was, but knew that he did have a temper and I didn't want to be around when he was having a bad day on the golf course. The late Bill Mosley told me that when he was on his game he was the best golfer he ever saw, including the likes of Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer.
During the 1930s, Henry Helbling and pro Bob Steel from Texas were supposed to be the longest drivers of a golf ball in the United States. The sports editor of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram wrote that he saw Dad hit a ball 500 yards at Colonial Country Club. My Dad's response was that the editor was crazy and needed a headline to spice up his golf coverage.
He did admit to me how much fun it was in 1934 when Southern Hill Country Club in Tulsa opened up. He was in a group with the great Walter Hagen and was outdriving him 50 yards on average. The fans were trying to figure out who in the heck was this young pro no one had heard of.
He set five course records during the 1920s and 1930s in Arkansas and Oklahoma. Bill Mosley told me about one he set in Oklahoma on a nine-hole par 36 sand green course. He was in a foursome that day. He shot three on every hole for a record 27. The word spread fast and when they went out to play the second nine holes, bets were being made if he could do it again by the spectators. He did the first four holes in threes, but on the fifth hole, a par 5, he only had a birdie.