By Bob Sutton
The changing golf course scene in and around Alamance County is retaining some of its familiarity.
There’s an owner change at The Challenge Golf Club in Graham. Another Graham venue, Southwick Golf Course, has new management.
In both cases, the men taking charge should be plenty familiar to the area golf community.
That’s because Ritchie Belton is the new owner at The Challenge Golf Club, adding that to his immensely popular Quaker Creek Golf Course north of Mebane.
Tony Byerly is the new general manager at Southwick Golf Course, doubling his responsibilities because he holds the same title at Brookwood Golf Course in Whitsett.
“What we’re trying to do is operate two courses and cut down on some expenses,” Byerly said.
These changes come in the face of the closure of Graham’s Quarry Hills Golf Club (which has operated under several different names in recent years).
For Belton and Byerly, it’s viewed as an opportunity to capitalize on a reduction of golf options in the area. In each case, they have multiple offerings depending on what golfers are looking for.
“(Quaker Creek) is a little bit more affordable,” Belton said in comparing his courses. “The Challenge attracts from probably a wider area. It’s right there and easy to find.”
Belton said he couldn’t turn down the opportunity to purchase The Challenge Golf Club — which is partly located in view of Interstate 85/40 — when it was made available by Carolina Bank.
Pinnacle Golf Properties continues to manage The Challenge, part of an existing arrangement that Belton inherited.
The deal for Belton closed late in 2014, and he said it’s a process of letting golfers know about the new ownership.
“People wanted to know on a daily basis what’s going on with the ownership,” he said. “I think this is good that it’s happening. I think it’s a golden opportunity. It’s sad some other courses aren’t making it, but it opened this up for us.”
Belton has a track record of success. Quaker Creek, which opened in 2001, has become one of the busiest courses in the area.
“When the weather is right, we’re just about slammed packed,” Belton said.
With his two courses, Belton is serving slightly different clienteles.
That’s the case for Byerly with Southwick Golf Course and Brookwood Golf Course … but for different reasons. He said the combination of overseeing two courses has worked well in a short time.
Byerly assumed operations of Southwick Golf Course at the beginning of 2015 after former operator Mark Hopkins relinquished control following a nine-year run with Aurora Golf Management. The course is owned by Villane Inc., with Burlington’s Jim Smith Jr. as president.
“It was kind of a last-minute change,” said Byerly, who began a three-year lease arrangement. “January was a bad time to take over a golf course, especially in this area.”
Byerly long has been associated with golf in Alamance County, so he’s counting on his connections. He’s happy with the early support.
“Seems like people are happy I’ve taken it over,” he said. “That means they’ll support me. Things are going pretty smooth. That’s a comforting feeling.”
Byerly said he continues to work with golfers who’ve held several different levels of memberships at Southwick Golf Course, including three-year set-ups. He said he doesn’t expect any major changes at the course right away.
One enticement he’s offering is discounts for members at each of the two courses (Southwick, Brookwood) to play at the other course.
“Members at both places have two places to play,” he said. “That helps. Brookwood has picked up a little bit.”
Brookwood Golf Course is located just across the Alamance County line in Guilford County.
The locations of the two Byerly-operated courses provide a benefit because neither course relies strictly on Burlington-area golfers. Both fall in the category of grassroots facilities.
Brookwood attracts golfers from the Greensboro area. Southwick lures golfers from Chapel Hill and Durham. He said the different clienteles mean more golfers are bound to be visiting his courses.
Byerly was on the staff at Brookwood off and on from 1995-2006 before returning there a few years ago. He spent from 2006-08 at Quarry Hills and from 2008-11 at Southwick.
Byerly, a Gibsonville man and Western Alamance High School graduate, is a three-time Alamance County Amateur champion, a 10-time winner of the Brookwood Amateur and four-time winner of the Southwick Amateur. He’s also one of two titlists of the relatively new Graham City Amateur.
“I think what has helped me is I’ve been in golf all my life,” Byerly said. “The name recognition helps.”
Brookwood and Southwick are sharing in many ways. Aside from Byerly’s dual role, Mike Noah is the course superintendent and Willie Noah is the assistant superintendent at both places.
Byerly marvels at the amount of play at Quaker Creek. He said he hopes that’s a sign of a golf revival in the area, particularly with the potential for facilities to prosper without an oversaturation of courses to pick from.
“I know Ritchie’s courses,” he said. “He has different players than I’ve got, so we’re not going to hurt each other.”
Belton said there are upgrades in the works for The Challenge Golf Club, which has been considered a more upper-scale facility.
“We’re looking to maintain the quality that course should be,” he said. “We’re trying to execute (our to-do list) slowly, but surely, to get it back to where it should be and has been.”
For instance, Belton said bunkers are in desperate need of drains and new sand.
“Just making improvements,” he said. “It’s just a lot of small things as far as putting money in it to improve the turf quality. … I’m working with Pinnacle, somewhat. Naturally, any major decision they run by me.”
Quarry Hills, which had a semi-private label yet welcomed public play, had undergone several changes in the past decade and now it might have encountered its final downfall. With bankruptcy looming, it went to auction in the fall and was at first purchased by Capital Bank.
Then the latest accepted bid appeared headed toward a Raleigh-area investment group. That might curtail its operation as a golf course, which is located along N.C. 54 just south of Graham on the way toward Chapel Hill.
The pins have been removed from the greens is yet another signal. By early February, it became apparent that golf on the Quarry Hills layout might not be in the immediate plans.
Combine that with the closing of Mebane’s Arrowhead Golf Course so an outlet mall could be built, along with the closing and reopening of Burlington’s Shamrock Golf Club, and it’s clear that there has been some significant fluctuation in the region.
Belton attended an equipment auction at Quarry Hills. That’s not all that he might be obtaining.
“We picked up right much play from there,” he said.
Byerly said there will be no shortage of competitive opportunities in the area. He said he’ll revive the Southwick Amateur, which he has pegged for August.
Between Brookwood and Southwick, he said he plans to hold a significant amateur event once a month beginning in the spring.