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New owners spell new hope for Carolina National

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By Staff Brunswick Beacon

In the last few years, unhappy changes have occurred in golf courses in Brunswick County and the upper Grand Strand. Some courses have closed; others are in obvious financial straights with weed-filled courses and empty parking lots.

To add to the angst, several restaurants at golf facilities have closed or operate with limited hours.

In the middle of this worrisome trend, there are happy shards of light. The popular user-friendly Sandpiper Bay completely renovated two of its nines and is proceeding with the third in 2010. Rivers Edge closed last summer to install new greens and now has durable, smooth putting surfaces for members and visitors.

Beautiful clubhouses opened at Crow Creek and Thistle Golf Club and, best of all, the spectacular new Cape Fear National Golf Course at Brunswick Forest is open for play.

Now there’s more good news.

Carolina National was recently acquired by Traditional Golf Properties in Williamsburg, Va. The deal was closed Dec. 30 as part of a three-course acquisition in North Carolina. The other courses are The Preserve at Jordan Lake Golf Club, near Chapel Hill, and the Chapel Ridge Golf Club in Pittsboro. Chapel Ridge (like Carolina National) is a Fred Couples Signature Course.

A fourth course, The Golf Club at Brickshire, near Williamsburg, was part of the deal.

Traditional Golf Properties now owns 11 courses in Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina. Several of them have appeared on Golf Digest’s Best 100 Courses You Can Play, 100 Best Residential Golf Courses or various other listings.

I spoke with Mike Bennett, vice president of operations for Traditional Golf Course Properties.

“We are delighted to add these courses to our properties,” he said. “Since they were all owned by Bluegreen instead of by separate owners, the deal was so much easier.”

Asked about anticipated changes at Carolina National, Mike said, “We met with Connie Cook, the ladies’ association chair, and with Murray Spruce, the men’s association chair, months before the deal finally went through. We wanted to establish lines of communication early on. After the deal was finalized on Dec. 30, we met again with them. We recently sent out a survey to the members and we look forward to a reception and meeting with everyone on Feb. 24.

“In the immediate future, we are doing simple things like painting tee markers, redoing signage around the course, replacing equipment, putting in tons of pine straw, adding rakes to bunkers and trimming. Our ultimate goal is to restore Carolina National to its former glory; to make it back into the course it once was.”

Ray Newton, director of golf at Carolina National, is excited about the new owners.

“It’s a new opportunity and a new venture for us here at Carolina National,” he said as we chatted in his office last week. “The Traditional people are golf course professionals who own a number of highly successful golf courses in Virginia, Maryland and North Carolina. We’re all in the honeymoon stage now, and I’m sure it will continue.

“Our staff is essentially the same, except they brought in Tom Dedrick, one of their own superintendents, to take over the position of head golf course superintendent.”

According to Kathy Regan, business manager at Carolina National, efforts are being made to obtain a new chef and staff for the restaurant.

“Our restaurant was only open sporadically in recent years,” she said. “The new owners want to change that. We are all feeling positive about it.

“Right now we are offering a huge discount for the first 10 new members to sign up.

“They can join for a $1,999 initiation fee. The normal initiation fee is $8,500. It is not necessary to be a property owner to belong to Carolina National.”

Annual membership fees at Carolina National are $2,460 for an individual membership and $2,760 for a family membership. That fee includes unlimited green fees, but does not include cart fees. Although the course actively solicits outside play, members are given preferred, blocked tee times. In addition, members who pay their entire annual fee up front are given a discount.

I spoke with several members of Carolina National to see how they felt about the change in ownership.

Murray Spruce, the current president of the men’s association, was impressed when he met with representatives from Traditional Golf Properties.

“They have been very consistent,” he said. “They told us they were negotiating to buy the course and that we would meet again when they did. When the deal finally went through, they met with us as promised. Since then, they have followed through on everything they told us, including the member survey and the upcoming meeting with our members.

“When we first heard that Traditional Golf Course Properties was negotiating to buy Carolina National, several members traveled to Virginia and played some of their courses. They were very impressed by the operations and the friendliness of the staff at each facility.”

Linda Bergstrom is excited about the change in ownership.

“The new owners are communicating with our members and we see workers out on the course, spraying and putting down new pine straw. We are all hopeful and encouraged.”

“The course is already looking better,” John Cook said. “They are aerating our greens this week. Bluegreen had let the course deteriorate in the last few years, and we’re happy to see changes occurring.”

Mildred Crane echoes their thoughts.

“We look forward to enjoying dinners in our clubhouse someday,” she said. “We rented at St. James Plantation while we were building our new home here and we enjoyed going to the various clubhouses for dinner. We want to do that here at Carolina National.”

Mildred is the chairperson of the 2010 Ladies Member-Guest Tournament.

“It will be fun to work with our new chef, and I know the course will be in good condition by then,” she said.

Kathy Gustafson is a former chair of the 18-hole Ladies Association.

“I’m impressed by the fact that they’re talking with our members and taking action on the golf course,” she said. “We had some serious erosion problems and they’re working on them now.”

Kathy and her husband are going to Williamsburg in March to play three of the courses owned by Traditional Golf.

“Our members get a reduced rate at all their courses, and we got a fantastic deal for this trip.”

Joe and Pat Schutzman, longtime active members of Carolina National, are cautiously optimistic.

“Conditions really went down during the last two years here,” Joe admitted. “Right now, we have kept all our membership rights with tee times blocked off for us. We’re hopeful.”

So, good luck, owners, members and friends of Carolina National. We love hearing positive news about our golf scene.

GOLF GAB GROANER

Alex was sitting at the bar in the grillroom after a round of golf when he turned to his friend George and said, “I’m not going to play golf with Jim ever again. He cheats.”

“How do you know that?” George asked.

“He found his lost ball just 2 feet from the green on the 17th hole,” replied Alex indignantly.

“But that could have happened. Maybe his ball hit a tree and kicked forward.”

“Not when I had it in my pocket.

ELSA BONSTEIN is a golf columnist for the Beacon. Reach her at elanbon@atmc.net.