Will Forest Hills residents chip in to buy old, overgrown golf course?

Presented with a tempting yet expensive offer, the Village of Forest Hills has to choose whether to buy an abandoned golf course in the center of its small community, or stand by and watch it be developed.

Swingin’ for the Smokies

travel golfCraig Hartle just might have the best job in Western North Carolina.

The head golf professional for High Hampton Inn and Country Club in Cashiers, Hartle spends his days instructing any and all visitors ready to step foot on the majestic 18-hole course that snakes through the rich and varied landscape of the Southern Appalachians.

The new par? Decline in golfing persists in post-recession world

As people’s discretionary spending remains low nationwide, golf courses in Haywood County are trying to drive their way out of a bunker with price cuts and special offers aimed at drawing in atypical players.

Golf courses in the Haywood County are, at the very least, trying to stay on par with past numbers — be it the number of rounds played or total revenue earned.

“It’s a luxury,” said Jay Manner, the general manager at Maggie Valley Club & Resort. “We understand that golf is important to a lot of people, but it isn’t shelter or food.”

To help golfers save, the club is waving its initiation fee for anyone who signs an 18-month membership commitment.

The decline in golf has mostly taken its toll among casual, or “fringe” golfers, said Duane Paige, the general manager of Laurel Ridge Country Club.

Core golfers, a term Paige uses for those who play two, three or even four rounds a week, have been less likely to let up on their game in the recession.

But fringe golfers, those who played once or twice a month, have backed off, perhaps only playing every other month now, Paige said. And those who used to play very other month might now play just twice a year — or not at all.

Manner said the Maggie Club is “cautiously optimistic” about its numbers this year, particularly given the unseasonably warm winter. The course was up 1,000 rounds of golf in April compared to the prior year.

However, more rounds does not automatically translate to more money coming in. Several years ago, a round at the Maggie Valley Club was around $90. Today, its about $60. The club also moved its twilight hours up. Golfers with tee times after 2 or 3 p.m. would typically pay discounted rates because of the late start. Now that rate has been extended to those who tee off after 1 p.m.

The Waynesville Inn is no different, offering limited time play passes that are cheaper than a full-fledged membership, though without some of the perks.

The passes are “for that golfer that wants to play golf but doesn’t want to tie up money in a membership,” said Tom Halterman, general manager at Waynesville Inn Golf Resort & Spa. “We have gained a great deal of the local play” as a result, he said.

Halterman said that he thinks younger generations are put-off by the lifestyle a golf club membership portrays.

“Today’s generation they are not interested in that type of thing,” Halterman said. “Membership tends to scream stuffy.”

Courses that were once almost entirely private have opened up their fairways to outside play as a way top counter the decline.

“If we can bring in some amount of outside play that helps supplement our income,” said Paige. Laurel Ridge is now among those semi-private courses that accept outside play.

“We are always looking to help people enjoy our golf course because if they do we hope they become a member one day,” Paige said.


Changing demographics

Golf course managers with a long view of their sport are perhaps most troubled by the declining number of younger golfers there to replace their aging core clientele.

Paige said the decline in play among younger golfers isn’t due solely to the economy. Men, who still account for the majority of golfers, typically spend more time with their families on the weekend. They are more likely to be involved in activities with their children and have household responsibilities than men in previous generations.

That’s led Paige to look for ways to get the whole family out to the course, including wives and children. Laurel Ridge offers junior golf camp in the summer, as well as special Tee-It-Forward rounds where the tee box is moved closer on the fairway to make the course doable for youth.

Maggie Valley Club is trying to get kids into the sport by offering junior golf lessons for all ages. That way, when the kids are learning to swing and putt, the parents can enjoy the golf course themselves or the club’s other amenities. Otherwise, people just don’t have the time to devote to golf nowadays as they did in the past.

“They’ve got kids, families,” Manner said. “They don’t have 4 to 4.5 hours.”

Likewise, golf courses are not capturing as much of the baby boomer generation as they expected, given that many people are being forced to work well past retirement age.

In hindsight, the proliferation of golf courses developments aimed at retirees and second-home buyers during the real estate heyday of the early 2000s was perhaps overly optimistic, Paige said.

“We were predicting continued prosperity that if you built it, they would come,” Paige said of the region’s outlook. “So we overbuilt. We have a little bit more supply than we have demand.”

Staff Writer Becky Johnson contributed to this story

Chefs will tee up their best for the Masters

Like most great tales, it began like any other day.

Sous Chef Alex Tinsley, 24, was working his usual day in The Gateway Club’s kitchen — chopping veggies, toasting buns, helping to ensure that any food that left the kitchen was perfect or as close to perfect as it could be. Then, co-owner Art O’Neill asked to talk to him.

O’Neill had received a call from a friend who was lining up personal chefs for golfers competing in the Masters Golf Tournament in Augusta, Ga., this April. Unable to work the gig himself, O’Neill asked Tinsley and Executive Chef Daniel Morris, 27, to take the spot.

“Of course, I said ‘yes’ immediately,” Tinsley said.

Both are accomplished chefs in the area and, as luck would have it, golf lovers.

“Daniel and I are both golfers — poor ones at that,” Tinsley said, laughing.

Tinsley and Morris will spend the four-day tournament bunked up in the same house as their assigned golfer — namely British pro Ross Fisher — where they will eat, sleep and breathe the world of golf while hopefully wowing him and his support entourage with their cuisine.

The gig is being coordinated by Horizon Sports Management, a firm that represents professional athletes and lines up any and all accommodations during the Masters, including renting houses in the Augusta area for them to stay in.

The pair will be responsible for dishing up Fisher’s breakfasts, dinners and snacks for the course. They will also organize a large cookout for 50 to 60 people during their stay.

Amid the excitement lingers another thrilling prospect: what if their food helps Fisher clinch the green jacket — one of the most coveted prizes in all sports?

But on the flip, perhaps burnt, side of that idea is this thought: “I’d hate to be the reason Ross Fisher lost the tournament,” Tinsley said.

For chefs, food is more about personal satisfaction, knowing that they have created something both visually alluring and pleasing to the palate. For athletes, it is fuel.

“I think a lot of golfers really are conscious of what they eat and how that is going to make you feel,” Morris said.

The duo is just starting to receive details of what Fisher, who is currently ranked 118th in the world, does and does not like.

“I know that Ross Fisher loves M&Ms,” Morris said, adding that a bowl must be set out in the house at all times.

The menu items will be up to Fisher’s discretion. During the first day, the guys will meet with the golf pro to discuss his gustatory expectations and preferred eats while playing in the tourney.

“If he wants a grilled cheese sandwich and a can of Campbell’s soup, I am fine with that,” Tinsley said.

However, that doesn’t mean that they aren’t prepping their own ideas of what they think Fisher would enjoy.

“I have some things in my pocket that I have done many times,” Tinsley said. Then again, “He might want nothing but granola and lean protein.”

Morris has already started scrutinizing all his culinary concoctions, contemplating whether this or that meal would be a good option to make for Fisher.

“You start looking at everything you do a little differently,” Morris said.

The whole event won’t be work, however. After shopping for groceries and making the meals, Morris and Tinsley will have the chance to walk the course and see some of the game’s greatest players at work.

Tinsley said he plans to walk every inch of the course, if possible, because it could be his only chance, although both chefs are hoping not.

The two compatriots are “crossing our fingers, kind of hoping we can keep going back,” said Morris, who is confident that the notion is possible “as long as we perform like I know that we can.”

“To cook and to be part of this, you’re dotting all of your I’s and crossing all your T’s,” he said.


Going pro

Morris, a Waynesville native, got his start in the restaurant business about nine years ago while studying at Appalachian State University. While in Boone, he got a job at a Japanese Steakhouse.

“I absolutely loved it,” he said.

After he moved back to Waynesville, Morris worked at Laurel Ridge Country Club and The Sweet Onion. At one point, he quit cooking and worked for an excavation company but couldn’t stay away from the culinary arts.

“I realized that restaurants were where I needed to be,” Morris said.

So, he signed up for culinary school at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College. He is now the big cheese at The Gateway Club — and boss of his former boss Tinsley.

Now a sous chef at The Gateway Club, Tinsley was formerly executive chef at Balsam Mountain Preserve, and Morris was his sous chef there.

“I was his boss first,” Tinsley joked, adding that he constantly reminds Morris of that fact.

Tinsley, of Clyde, got his start washing dishes and worked for his family’s Waynesville restaurant, Sunset on Main, which closed when they embarked on the Gateway Club endeavor. His mother, Suzanne, is currently a part owner of and the events director at The Gateway Club.

Going for the green: Tribe debates future course for Sequoyah Golf Club

Despite a double-digit rise in revenue this year, the Sequoyah National Golf Club in Cherokee is at least five more years away from breaking even — let alone turning a profit.

“The cost of maintaining a golf course is astronomical,” said Ryan Ott, director of golf at the club.

To be successful, a golf course must have a quality staff, facilities and well-groomed fairway — all of which come with a price. Few golf courses are stand-alone entities like Sequoyah. Most are run as part of a larger business model, with a country club, restaurant, condos or real estate development underwriting the cost of the course.

“Golf courses aren’t self-sufficient,” Ott said. “Most golf courses are built around some sort of housing.”

Despite this, however, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, which owns the course, is determined to make it work.

“Our goal is to make this a break-even or at better a profitable center,” said Michell Hicks, principal chief of the Eastern Band.

The club needs to be more aggressive in its public relations and advertising initiatives, he said.

“We’ve got to make it work,” Hicks said.

The $9 million golf course was built nearly three years ago as an amenity for tribal members as well as an additional draw for visitors to Harrah’s Cherokee Casino. But, tribal leaders have grown weary of helping keep the golf course afloat.

Hicks and members of Tribal Council grilled Ott about the golf course’s budget for more than an hour at a tribal council meeting this month.

“This is dead weight expense to the tribe right now,” said Mike Parker, a council member from Wolftown.

Although Sequoyah’s revenue jumped 20 percent compared to the previous year, it is still in the red.

Tribal Council members agreed that the Eastern Band cannot continue to subsidize the golf course in the way that it has because it takes money away from other tribal programs.

The tribe will supplement the club’s budget with $1.2 million next year. Similar to how Harrah’s is operated, the tribe contracts with an outside management entity, Troon Golf, to run the golf course. Troon, which runs 220 golf courses worldwide, has three more years on its contract with the tribe.

Tribal council members questioned whether the budget for the golf course is too generous.

“I cannot support this budget right now due to fact that we’ve got all our tribal programs on cost containment,” said Tunney Crowe, a council member from Birdtown.

Crowe pointed to a particular line item for Sequoyah — a $30,000 budget for employee relations, which includes human resources expenses, travel and association dues — as an example. Other departments and organizations run by the tribe have little or no money in their employee relations line item, Crowe said.

Adam Wachacha, a tribal council member from Snowbird, said he agreed with Crowe and did not support the budget.

Tribal Council has become a “punching bag” for the golf course, he said, citing numerous complaints from the public about the money being pumped into the course.

“We get some positive, but we get a lot of negative out of it,” Wachacha said.

Kim Peone, the tribe’s chief finance officer, countered council’s budget concerns, saying the club has “bare-boned the budget” for next year. Though, she added, the budget could be trimmed more the following year.


Designing a destination

When the tribe ponied up $9 million to build the signature golf course three years ago, it was seen as an integral component in their long-range vision to become a resort destination. It complement a major expansion of Harrah’s Cherokee Casino, which is adding amenities like a spa, luxury suites and upscale dining.

Meanwhile, the golf course fit the tribe’s mission of improving the quality of life for tribal members, with a concerted push to increase recreation outlets. The tribe has built a movie theater, skate park, walking trails and children’s water park.

The golf club’s debt from the construction was paid off this month, Ott said. However, he would not say how large an operational deficit the course is running nor what its total budget is.

Several tribal council members verbalized a desire that Harrah’s and Sequoyah work together to attract visitors. In a perfect world, people would stay at a hotel on the reservation, shop at its stores, gamble at its casino and play a round of golf. Cherokee would be a destination for vacationers, not a brief excursion.

Because of its higher prices, the club has had trouble attracting players.

Memberships are currently $200 with a $35 green fee —meaning members must pay $35 each time they tee off. Non-members are charged between $35 and $59 to play at Sequoyah.

This year, the club had 87 members, and it wants to increase that number to 150 members next year. The 63 new members would amount to about $30,000 in additional revenue, Ott said. The goal for 2012 is another 20 percent increase in revenue, he said.

Parker said he had hoped to hear more about how exactly the golf course can become profitable and how it can work with other area attractions such as the casino to bring visitors to Cherokee.

“It could a very viable component to the gaming side of it going forward,” Parker said.

Although the course’s bottom line may be a negative drain on tribal coffers, it could have intangible benefits that are hard to quantity — namely whether the new amenity increases the reservation’s overall profits by attracting cliental who wouldn’t otherwise come to gamble at the casino or support other area businesses.

The club began offering stay-and-play packages in June and booked 144 hotel rooms this year through the program. That number does not account for people who rented a room through the hotel and decided to golf while in Cherokee.

Next year, the club wants to increase that number to 300 hotel room nights. Sequoyah will book stay-and-play packages starting in May. Golf courses’ peak season is March through October.

“That’s a huge thing for us going into 2012,” Ott said.


Caddying for the customer

The club is currently working on several projects aimed at putting more tees in the grass, but Ott said he was not ready to disclose his plans, which are part of a five-year plan aimed at getting the club to break even.

Like the rest of Cherokee, Ott hopes to cash in on the possible deal between the tribe and the state. The agreement would allow Harrah’s casino to offer live table games in addition to the digital gaming now available.

“That’s the player that plays a lot of golf,” Ott said.

One item that the casino has but the golf course lacks is alcohol. Although Sequoyah is not technically on the reservation, it must follow the reservation’s alcohol ban. The golf course is a tribal operation, therefore it must follow tribal law.

However, with the addition of a tribally run ABC store and a new alcohol referendum up for vote, that could soon change. If tribe members vote to allow alcohol to be sold on the reservation this coming April, officials at the golf course would look into obtaining a liquor license.

Alcohol would “make a dramatic difference in the guest experience,” Ott said, adding that other courses in Western North Carolina already offer such services.

“Guest satisfaction is what keeps people coming back,” he said. “Our goal is to get them back year after year after year.”

Most of the club’s business comes from word-of-mouth or as a result of its search engine marketing campaign. Sequoyah receives 700 to 800 clicks to their site per month through the campaign, Ott said.

One way to build up the course’s reputation is to appeal to the youth market, Ott said.

“Teaching our youth the game of golf is what’s going to help grow the golf course in the community,” Ott said, calling junior golf programs a “big, big” focus.

Currently, the course hosts a summer camp and leagues from the local high schools practice there.

One major marketing snafu is people having trouble finding the golf course. The course is located on U.S. 441 and is marked by a single sign, which is easily missed among the surrounding greenery.

But because of a Jackson County ordinance, their signage options are limited.

Ott said he often hears about people getting lost on their way to clubhouse and has worked with GPS companies for nearly three years, attempting to fix their misleading directions.

The club has also created a mobile application for Apple products and Android phones that helps visitors find their way. The app includes other helpful features including visuals of each hole and its characteristics. An upcoming version, yet to be released, will also have a voice over describing each hole and a pro tip to help golfers stay at or under par.

In addition to the course off U.S. 441, Sequoyah operates a Callaway golf store in Harrah’s casino, which also advertises the golf course’s existence to hotel guests and gamblers.

“That has been a big, big push for us,” Ott said.

People can also use their Harrah’s reward points to play at the golf course.

New golf course owner promises major upgrades

Following several years of decline and neglect, Smoky Mountain Golf Course in Whittier has been wrested away from its out-of-state owners by a local developer pledging a major overhaul of the course.

Up to par? Golfers look forward to local ownership of Smoky Mountain Golf Course

While most golfers are clearing space in the closet for their clubs this winter, Travis Stephenson is already thinking ahead to next season. And he’s a bit worried.

Smoky Mountain Golf Course’s ordeal: Drawn-out legal saga nears possible resolution

A three-year legal saga between the owners of Smoky Mountain Golf Course and the developers of Smoky Mountain Country Club moved one step closer to a resolution this week.

Golf course on the rocks

An ongoing lawsuit against the owners of Smoky Mountain Golf Course alleges numerous problems with the course’s management under its out-of-state owners.

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