By Eddie Southards
The King’s Grant Golf Club opened in 1990 and, for at least a decade, was one of the best-conditioned golf courses in the area.
But a series of ownership changes led to a decline in playability. Fertilizer wasn’t put out when it should have been, brush and trees were allowed to overgrow and there were drainage and irrigation issues that weren't addressed. Its popularity fell and in September 2016, the golf club closed.
Enter Kevin Rodriguez, Gary Robinson and Chris Blanton.
The three men are successful businessmen, avid golfers and friends who live on or near the course. And they didn’t want to see the course close for good.
So they pooled their resources, took out a loan and bought it from Methodist University in November 2016. They’ve been working ever since to bring the course back up to par, with the ultimate aim of restoring it to its glory days.
The partners knew it would be an uphill battle. Sixteen months in, they say they’re making progress.
“The course condition and what it takes to get it in good shape surprised us a little bit,” said Robinson, a builder and record eight-time winner of the Cumberland County Golf Championship.
“I’ve been around golf a long time,” he said. “Now I have a high appreciation for places that have high-quality golf courses. It takes a lot to get it in that position.”
Rodriguez, a mortgage banker, said that before the sale, the course went for several years without essential maintenance.
“It’s just like a house,” he said. “If you don’t take care of it, it falls apart. I feel like we bought a foreclosed house, but instead of fixing it up and then moving in, we moved in and we're trying to fix it up while we live in it. And that's a different challenge.”
There have been plenty of challenges. And there will be plenty more.
“When we took it over, the course had been closed for two months,” Robinson said. “We had no greens and it was winter time. It took a while for us to even get it playable. Once you get that reputation of not being in good condition, the general players are not going to come play.”
The new owners reseeded the greens. But the closely trimmed putting surfaces didn’t have enough time to grow in well before summer hit last year.
“We're still struggling from that first year,” Rodriguez said. “I mean, we were behind the eight-ball from the beginning.”
But progress is being made. The partners credit smart hires – general manager Brian Dreier, who happens to be Robinson's son-in-law, and course superintendent Shawn Thornton – along with tremendous support from volunteers, most of whom live in the 1,100-home King’s Grant subdivision.
“Our volunteers are unbelievable,” said Blanton, who’s in the air-conditioning business. The volunteers help out with course operations, the club’s social media outlets and its burgeoning array of social functions. “This place was slammed with people for our Super Bowl party this year,” Blanton said.
The club, which also has a swimming pool, has added social members since the new owners took over.
“I feel like we are winning on that side,” Rodriguez said. “If we can put things in place to get the golf course right, then I think it will be a win-win. I think we are making strides.”
In its bid to attract new players, as well as win back former players, the club last summer began some youth-outreach programs, including one-day golf camps for tweens and young teens enrolled at local recreation centers and at the Boys and Girls Clubs of Cumberland County.
“You could see that most of them had no idea what they were coming to,” Rodriguez said. “They thought it was going to be boring. But it was well organized by Brian and his staff and the kids just had a blast.
Our members welcomed it. They were happy to see the kids out there.”
The club followed those programs up with two week-long golf camps that drew about 600 youths. Those will be held again in July.
King's Grant is also working with the city to start a middle school golf program.
Other changes include renovations to the covered pavilion, now larger and nicer, and the installation of new mats and range balls at the practice range, which is open to the public.
Plans are in the works to create another putting green and practice green, and to repave the entrance to the clubhouse and its parking lot. The partners are acquiring another loan to do that work.
The three men say the club’s income is covering its maintenance costs.
“We've taken zero dollars from it,” Robinson said. “Everything has been reinvested into the golf course. It's not making money but we came into this thing not thinking that we are going to get rich… We don’t want to lose money but we don’t have to make money.”
If course conditions improve, the club can start hosting revenue-producing tournaments again.
“Last year, we missed all the tournaments,” Robinson said. “We're slowly getting that back. It will take a couple of years and course conditions need to improve. I think we can get back there.”
Blanton said he has heard all kinds of reactions from players. “We hear a lot of complaints because we're not where we want to be yet,” he said. “But then some people pull you aside and tell you they had a great time. Or you hear someone say, 'I had a hole-in-one’ or ‘I had my best round.' For me, that's the rewarding part.”
Cumberland County public golf courses
904 Four Woods Drive
2126 Cypress Lakes Circle
6775 Irongate Drive
347 Shawcroft Road