Upland Chronicles: Cotton Berrier, PGA Hall of Famer, helped build golf in Sevier County
Golf, an ancient game invented by sheepherders on the moors and glens of Scotland some five hundred years ago, came to Sevier County in July 1955 when Gatlinburg Golf Course opened its doors for play.
It was the very first golf course in the county, and a very unique one.
The course was carved out of the hills and hollows of mountain farmlands by a Scottish golf architect named William Langford. And as the Scotsman and his crew worked on the completion of the course, a fresh-faced, lanky young man from Knoxville named Harry “Cotton” Berrier was selected as the course’s first head golf professional.
For Cotton Berrier, the new golf course would become more than just a job site.
The course and the area would become his professional and personal home, a place where he and his wife would raise their daughters and where he’d invest a life’s work for the growth of the sport. The game now enjoyed by residents and tourists alike in Sevier County would grow dramatically under his leadership.
Berrier would spend the next 44 years as the head pro at the new course.
Over those years he also became a leader in Tennessee and national golf. In the annals of Tennessee sports history, he can fairly be called one of the most influential golf professionals in the state.
Gatlinburg Golf Course grew out of a desire by local promoters in the 1950s to have a course for tourism and a place to play locally. These promoters and like-minded officials at the City of Gatlinburg saw that tourism was increasing due to the beauty of the Smoky Mountains, and they wanted a course to cater to that growth.
The idea started to grow.
But a new golf course produced daunting challenges, such as raising money, acquiring land, finding a good golf architect and recruiting an energetic golf pro to manage the club and make it profitable.
That’s where young Berrier comes into the story. He was working as a 25 year-old assistant pro in Oak Ridge when he heard that a new course was being built outside Gatlinburg.
He applied for the head professional job, was interviewed, and got the position in 1955.
Berrier would stay at the course for 44 years because he loved the area and the opportunity of bringing a top-notch golf experience to the Smokies. He brought to the course an agreeable personality and a competent management style.
Berrier helped establish the TN Section of the Professional Golfers Association of America (PGA) in 1968.
He was the PGA TN Section “Professional of the Year” in 1971 and 1985. He served as Vice-President and member of the Board of Directors of the national PGA from 1974-76, 1983-85 and 1991-94. He served as a member of the Ryder Cup and PGA Championship Committees several times.
In 1993 he assisted in the re-design of the Gatlinburg course with architect Bob Cupp. In 1974-1975, he hosted a national LPGA tour event at his course, featuring famous golfers Mickey Wright, Louise Suggs, Jackie Pung and others (Berrier and his wife treated the lady golfers to a cookout at Chimneys Picnic Area in the Smokies, where they all enjoyed seeing bears).
He’s also been inducted into the Tennessee PGA Hall of Fame (2004), the Knoxville Sports Hall of Fame (2009) and the national PGA Hall of Fame (2009). Those are very high honors, indeed.
But Berrier didn’t grow up in a golfing family. He came to the sport on his own.
“I needed a job and heard that Whittle Springs golf course in Knoxville wanted caddies,” Berrier recalled. “In those days there weren’t golf carts yet, not even pull-carts. So I worked there with my brother, toting the bags of one and sometimes two players. During the long summer days I could caddie for several rounds, so I made more money. I also got to play the game, and got pretty good at it. It was an outdoors job, and right down my alley.”
Berrier (his dad called him “Cotton” because his hair was snow white as a child) was such a good golfer that he got the assistant pro job at Oak Ridge after a tour in the Air Force.
Then came the Gatlinburg head pro job in 1955. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Over his years at the Gatlinburg course, Berrier taught golf to hundreds of new players, hosted tournaments and events, promoted the game and grew the course into a profitable $1.2 million golf operation. And he made friends all over the sport.
Berrier retired in 1999 and Rick Tucker took over the head job.
“Cotton is an institution in Tennessee golf and in the ranks of the PGA,” Tucker stated. “His tenure over this course for 44 years is a remarkable achievement. He took this course from its infancy and nurtured it to its rank as one of the top courses in the region, which we’ve maintained. He’s also been my mentor and friend. I’m honored to have succeeded him as the head pro, since he is such an icon in golfing circles.”
Retirement didn’t mean the end of golf for Berrier. You can still find him practicing on “The Hill” or playing a game at the course. He’ll always give a wave and a smile when you pass by.
“Golf sure has been good to me,” Berrier stated. “I couldn’t have found a more satisfying career or a better place to work all those years than here at Gatlinburg Golf Course. It’s ‘home’ to me.”
Arthur “Butch” McDade is a retired Great Smoky Mountains NP ranger with 30 years of service in the National Park Service. The Upland Chronicles series celebrates the heritage and past of Sevier County. If you have suggestions for future topics, would like to submit a column or have comments, please contact Carroll McMahan at 453-6411 or email to firstname.lastname@example.org; or Ron Rader at 604-9161 or email to email@example.com