STRATHAM — It was up on a rise overlooking an old cornfield and a shag bark hickory tree that golf great Arnold Palmer met the members of the Golf Club of New England.

The event, held under a white tent to shade the 150 guests from the sweltering sun, was billed as a ground-breaking for the millionaires’ golf club, which will cover 450 acres of Stratham and Greenland when it is done. And although Palmer never laid a hand on a shovel at the event, he did touch a lot of hearts. “He’s the most gracious man I have ever met,” said John M. Kehoe Jr., president and chief executive officer of The General Chemical Group and GCNE’s president. “This is great,” agreed Craig Benson, founder of Cabletron Systems in Rochester.

Introducing Palmer to the crowd underneath the tent, Kehoe called it “an absolutely unadulterated thrill. “This is the finest ambassador of the game of golf ever,” he said. He also announced that the road leading from Winnicutt Road to the new course will be named Arnold Palmer Drive. GCNE hired Palmer Course Design Company to design the chic, state-of-the-art course. Palmer, who stood beside the makeshift stage, bowed graciously at the honor of having the road named for him. And when he took the stage, the golf great brought laughs from the crowd.

The levity came when a GCNE member asked if Palmer would return for the opening of the course next year. “When we open this up, will you come up and play the first round of golf with us,” the man asked. “God hopes I will,” joked Palmer, apparently referring to his 71 years and his health. “I don’t even buy green bananas anymore,” he quipped. Palmer called the rolling Stratham and Greenland fields and forest that will be created into fairways “fantastic.”

In fact, Kehoe said Palmer’s enthusiasm for the Stratham site is the reason they chose his design company to build it. “When you come to New Hampshire and have a piece of property like this, it makes you drool,” said Palmer, whose company builds six to 12 golf courses a year. “The naturalness of this land is going to make it a classic golf course.” Palmer, who just finished the Fleet Boston Classic on Sunday, a Senior PGA Tour event, will compete in the U.S. Senior Open on Thursday at the Salem Country Club in Peabody, Mass.

Brian DeVellis, the design consultant who went through two years of permit-seeking to make the golf course come true, said he was happy to see Monday arrive. “It’s been a long haul,” he said, smiling. GCNE spokesman Brad Sweet called yesterday’s event a great success. “It was unbelievable.” More than 140 members have shelled out $55,000 each to join the posh new club. They were joined yesterday by local officials and the press for the Palmer visit. Kehoe announced that GCNE expects to receive its final Army Corps of Engineers permit mid-week and will begin building the golf course in earnest by week’s end.

The 18-hole, 7,200-yard, 72-par golf course will feature a $4 million golf clubhouse. In addition to the clubhouse, the Stratham side of the course will include 10 member homes and four of the 18 holes. The maintenance buildings will also be located in Stratham.

A total of 146 acres of the golf course are in Stratham. The remaining 295 acres are in Greenland. The 12,000-square-foot clubhouse will feature an 18-table dining room that can accommodate 72 diners.

The founding fathers of the club are Craig Benson, founder of Cabletron Systems in Rochester; Stephen W. Foss, chairman and chief executive officer of Foss Manufacturing Co.; John M. Kehoe Jr., president and chief executive officer of The General Chemical Group; Neil Garvey, president of Tyco Submarine Systems; and L. Dennis Kozlowski, chairman and chief executive officer of Tyco International.

By Susan Nolan | Exeter Newsletter