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New owner brings new vision to Sea Trail

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By Elsa Bonstein, Golf Gab

 Sea Trail Golf Resort and its three fabulous golf courses have long been a favorite with me and my family. Twenty-five years ago, the Maples Course opened, followed by the Byrd Course, then the Jones.

Odd names, perhaps, but not when you realize the courses were designed by three of the most pre-eminent golf course architects in the world: Dan Maples, Willard Byrd and Rees Jones. Each was a pleasure to play and they were always on our list of courses when we came down to the Grand Strand on family vacations.

But Sea Trail isn’t just about golf. It is a full-service community: homes of various sizes, condominiums, two clubhouses, restaurants, a convention center, community center, indoor and outdoor pools, and one of the best practice facilities in the county, plus a golf school.

Residents and vacationers alike enjoyed Sea Trail, and for years it boomed.

Then the economy dipped and for several years the course and amenities were not maintained to former standards. There were rumors of financial difficulty and possible foreclosure.

Last June, a man known only as Mr. Pan (with a company known as China Way) came to the rescue and bought the whole distressed property for a reported $8.5 million.

Now things are changing at Sea Trail — and changing for the better.

Last week, I visited with Chad Wiebelhaus, the director of golf at Sea Trail. Wiebelhaus has been in that position since last November and is excited about the transformation of this venerable golf course community.

“We are working hard to restore and improve all the courses and amenities here,” he said. “We have redone all the bunkers on the Jones Course. We went from 130,000 square feet of bunkers to 90,000 square feet. The bunkers were in terrible shape, eroded and contaminated with sticks, stones and everything but sand.

“We reduced the number of bunkers on the course and the size of them, but we didn’t do it without proper guidance and direction. We hired Greg Muirhead, golf course architect with Rees Jones Design, the original designers of the course. Greg worked with Kris Spence, one of the best men around for restoration and redesign. Together, they did a magnificent job.”

I rode around the Jones Course and saw bunkers that were crisp, clean and well-defined. There were no ruts or gullies, despite a lot of recent rain.

“We redid the drainage, cut the edges, softened the lips, put in some fingers. We took out the contaminated soil and installed fresh white sand,” Wiebelhaus said.

Other improvements are ongoing and planned.

“We repaved and patched the parking lot. We have a whole new fleet of club carts coming in that have rain hoods, something we did not have on our old carts.” 

Wiebelhaus has a diverse background. He grew up in Sioux City, Iowa, then served in the Air Force as a firefighter. He played competitive golf in the service, then attended Arizona State, receiving a bachelor’s degree in psychology.

“I played on mini-tours for several years out west, then got into the PGA in Phoenix, Arizona,” he said. “I worked at various facilities, including Green Creek near Lake Tahoe. Then I got a job with Cristovich Management & Associates, which sells and manages distressed golf course communities.”

“The job here came up and I was hired. This is very exciting because this is Mr. Pan’s first American venture and we are all working hard to make it a success. Tourists will come here from China and our local golfers will travel there. The golf business is growing overseas and this is a wonderful opportunity to help that happen here. In the process, we will help Sea Trail, Sunset Beach, Brunswick County and the whole Grand Strand flourish.” 

Wiebelhaus said an important initiative with the new ownership is creating a “player-friendly” atmosphere.

“We want to treat golfers as welcome guests, not customers. We are educating our staff to that approach. We want to take care of folks, to make them feel welcome, especially seniors and ladies. The culture of Sea Trail is changing as we implement changes and improve our courses.”

In addition to revitalizing golf operations, Sea Trail’s new food and beverage director, David Sprowles, is updating its food service, including convention, business and event programs.

Sprowles is a graduate of the Cornell University Hospitality School with additional certifications and degrees from the Ecole Hoteliere De Lausanne in Switzerland, Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, France, and the Chicago Wine Institute. He has been nationally recognized as a chef by the James Beard Foundation, Bon Appetite, Food & Wine, Gourmet, Cooks Illustrated and the New York Times. He was named a Food and Wine rising chef and was featured on the Discovery Channel cooking series.   

“We have several restaurants, a convention center with over 40,000 square feet that has a large Carolina Ballroom, breakout rooms and executive boardrooms,” Sprowles said. “We can accommodate groups from 100 to 1,100. We expect our business, convention and special events operations to grow steadily over the next few years.” 

Other future innovations are remodeling of the Magnolias and Brassies restaurants, reopening the pool and tiki bars and renaming them Flippers Poolside. Sprowles will plant gardens for the restaurants at Sea Trail for really fresh veggies, and he will add Chinese cooking stations to both kitchens.

Forming a good relationship with homeowners and members is part of the new Sea Trail agenda. 

“We have established a food committee and are meeting monthly to discuss how we can all work together,” Sprowles said.

Wieblehaus looks forward to new events for members and guests at Sea Trail.

“We had a Valentine’s Day dinner dance and roasted a wild boar,” he said. “It was a huge success and we look forward to doing more events like that in the future.”

Sea Trail currently has over 400 members and will be hosting another membership drive soon. ”

I wish Sea Trail and its new management all the success in the world. Things are starting to boom here in Brunswick County. New ownership and management at several of our golf course communities are providing a new, updated look to golf in our region.

We can build our nucleus of excellent golf and excellent golf course living in this part of the beautiful Carolina coast. Folks will come here from all over the world. They will enjoy it and come back again and again. They will build vacation homes and buy retirement properties here. We’ll make new friends.

It’s all good.   

 

Golf Gab groaner: Golf Balls from the same “sleeve” tend to follow one another, particularly out of bounds or into water hazards. (Submitted by Karen Welch)