Town golf course has chipped out of the rough

The Black Mountain Golf Course was off the mark in years past, but it looks like it's back on the fairway now

Fred McCormick

The players heading for a round of golf at Black Mountain Golf Course March 1 were energized by the spring-like temperatures. Belly laughs and jokes about old golfing buddies echoed through the parking lot as the large group prepared to start their day on the course.

“It’s in as good a shape as it’s ever been,” Mack Padgett said of the golf course. He caddied here as a child when the Black Mountain Golf Course had only 9 holes, prior to its expansion in 1964.

Mack Padgett, left, who caddied at the Black Mountain Golf Course as a child, said the course is in as good a shape as he's seen it. The course has looked "great" through the winter, according to Mike Stewart, right.

"Good shape" is perhaps the best way to describe the course, both physically and financially - it is on track to pay  its operating expenses for the first time since 2004. That's no small feat considering the town-owned course's recent history.

From 2004 to 2010 the course lost about $84,000 per year. In 2010 the town began reduced memberships fees significantly, resulting in a $200,000 loss in revenue. Town officials began looking for answers.

In 2011, the town hired Billy Casper Golf, a Virginia-based management company, to oversee the course. Twenty-eight months into the 60-month contract, the course had more than $450,000 in losses. In April 2014, Black Mountain aldermen voted unanimously to buy out the remaining contract with Billy Casper Golf.

Assistant town manager and financial director Dean Luebbe was tasked with righting the ship. He sought input from the town’s golf advisory committee and from Brent Miller, the golf operations manager at the course, now in his 10th year.

“We focused on investing in course conditions while keeping our prices competitive with other public courses in the area,” Luebbe said. “We’ve also had slight increases in our green and cart fees, which make up around 80 percent of the course’s revenue.”

Luebbe reduced the number of personnel to save on expenses, which peaked during 2010-11. "At that point the course could not afford to have six or seven full-time workers,” he said.

Reducing the staff to two full-time employees - Miller and interim superintendent Jerry Brigman - and hiring part-time help to help maintain the course seasonally has helped cut costs by 35 percent, according to Luebbe.

“Our personnel costs in fiscal year 2010 were $392,000. Last fiscal year it was $275,000,” he said.

Miller and Brigman's willingness to take on additional duties has been crucial to the golf course’s turnaround, Luebbe said. “It’s impossible to overstate the role they’ve played in getting the course where it is,” he said.

Miller has been a lot busier in the pro shop in recent years, but believes the extra work is worth it.

“I’m the only full-time guy in the pro shop and Jerry is the only full-time guy down there,” Miller said, motioning toward the greenskeeper shed across Hiawassee Avenue. “I want to see this golf course be successful. For a long time it wasn’t, and I got tired of seeing the place struggle. So it's been great to see things turn around.”

Recently the town put in a $100,000 pump station to replace an old one on the brink of failure. Brigman can monitor and control the new system from anywhere.

His work on the greens and fairways has been noticeable over the last several years, according to Austin Crowson, a course member for about four years.

“The conditions are so much better than they were a few years ago,” he said. Hole number 5 "was shredded when the town took it back over. And when Jerry came in, things turned around quickly.”

Austin Crowson, who believes conditions of the Black Mountain Golf Course have improved significantly in recent years, surveys the green on the second hole.

Robert McKinney, known to many around the Swannanoa Valley as “Goose,” has been playing the course two to three time a week for years. “Since the town has taken it back over it’s gotten so much better," he said. "They really have a good group of guys here who keep it looking and running nice.”

Robert McKinney gets ready to play a round of golf at the Black Mountain Golf Course on March 1.

The improvements go well beyond the fifth hole, according to Padgett.

“The drainage has been better recently,” he said. “Holes 4, 5 and 14 have all improved tremendously.”

The town’s managing the course itself has led to a more efficient approach to solving problems, according to Luebbe. When problems are reported, he can address them immediately. “I can go out and look at it and give it the attention it merits,” he said.

From September to November, the course took in more revenue in green fees and cart fees than it had in at least seven years, Luebbe said. But what's more promising is the money that the course has brought in during the peak months of April-September.

"Our best months are the ones we've had recently," he said, "many of them in the current fiscal year."

Eleven of the course's best 12 months have come in the past two years, Luebbe added.

Unseasonably warm weather has the course on track to generate 35 percent more revenue from green and cart fees this fiscal year than it did in 2014, the year the town regained control.

That type of success can be built upon, Luebbe believes.

“We think that’s because the quality of product we’re putting out is better and we’re doing it with less money going out on the personnel side,” he said.

“My goal is to get this golf course to where we could start showing a profit of $50,000-$100,000 a year. I don’t think that will happen this year, but we may show a small profit. It’s still a challenge and a work in progress. But we’re proud of what’s happening there.”