As the golf coach for Swain County High School, Stephenson fears the team will face yet another season with no course to play on. The only golf course in Swain County — Smoky Mountain Golf Course in Whittier — was closed down this year by its out-of-state owners.
“We don’t have a clue where we are going to play right now,” said Stephenson. “We are sort of in a bind about what we are going to do.”
The golf course owners, a group of men from Pennsylvania under the name Woodville Associates, ceased operation of the course in May after several years of continuing neglect, according to golfers and legal filings against the owners. The owners never officially closed the golf course or laid off the staff. They simply quit making payroll one day and refused to return phone calls to the course manager.
“The general manager just told everyone to go home because there was no money in the payroll account and he could not make contact with anyone at Woodville,” said Jeremy Boone, golf course superintendent.
The sudden move left golfers in Swain County and homeowners of the adjacent Smoky Mountain Country Club in the lurch.
Michael Hill, a country club homeowner, said he golfed almost exclusively at the course. He occasionally poaches a round at the course now, but spends most of his time on the road, traveling to courses elsewhere in the region.
Stephenson was also forced to make the rounds to other courses, but the added travel time meant he got in a lot fewer games. An afternoon round after work was out of the question, and a four-hour game on the weekend turned into an all-day affair.
“I have had to cut way back,” Stephenson said.
Hope on the horizon
When Woodville shut down the course, it violated a legal agreement with the owners of Smoky Mountain Country Club. The country club conveyed 40 acres of land to the golf course for a redesign of several poorly laid-out holes, along with easements for golf cart paths. In exchange, Woodville was supposed to improve design shortcomings in the course, keep it maintained, and keep it open.
Woodville failed at all three, according to a lawsuit filed by Mike Cornblum, the owner of the county club. Even before Woodville closed the course, it didn’t live up to the agreement to keep it maintained, according to the suit and to golfers.
“The golf course was in dire need of upkeep. It was virtually being ignored,” Hill said. “It was playable but it was not as enjoyable as it should have been.”
At first, the lawsuit was aimed at getting Woodville to take better care of the course and improve its shortcomings. That didn’t work, however, and now Cornblum hopes to buy the course from Woodville and make the improvements himself, putting an end to several years of neglect from the absentee owners, he said.
Cornblum is armed with a court order mandating the sale of the course by Woodville. But it could take several months to execute the sale, and several more to get the course up to par.
When the course closed in May, Cornblum stepped in to keep it from becoming overgrown with weeds and brambles. He put Boone on his own payroll to keep the course mowed and somewhat presentable. As a result, most golfers and homeowners are cheering for Cornblum in the drawn-out court battle.
Donald Bunn, a country club homeowner and golfer, said it would be a good thing if Cornblum can take ownership of the course.
“He is developing the property around the course and his corporation would have vested interest in keeping it up. That’s been the problem. The other owners don’t have a vested interest in keeping it up,” Bunn said.
Bunn said he was very disappointed to see the course close this year, but is hopeful about the sale of the course to the country club.
“Right now it is a very difficult golf course. They have some real good improvements planned,” Bunn said of Cornblum. “They are planning to make it a little more user-friendly.”
That would be beneficial to the business community and the economy of both Swain and Jackson counties.
“Any improvements to the course could potentially attract tourists as well as new property owners,” said Julie Spiro, director of the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce. “I hope it can be resolved.”
The Swain County High School golf team is also keeping its hopes up. This year, Frank Manley, the athletic director at Swain High, served in a role he calls simply “the golf chauffer.”
“We really just didn’t have an opportunity to practice at all,” Manley said. “When we had a match, we would load the kids up and go play, but we didn’t have a chance to prepare or work on technical problems. With that facility being closed down, we didn’t have anywhere they could work on their game.”
Stephenson said he is “awfully hopeful” about Cornblum’s fight for the course.
“Mike is working his hardest to do what he can do,” Stephenson said. “He is pushing as hard as he can push.”