Ryan Winfree fondly recalls walking out the back door of his childhood home, stepping onto the eighth hole and playing golf for hours.
Many youths who grow up in golf course communities have similar stories. Winfree’s tale, however, comes with a twist: He now gets to run that same golf course he ran amok on as a child. In April, Winfree became the head golf professional at Pine Knolls Golf Club in Kernersville.
“Growing up here, learning junior golf here, caring about this golf course, having a chance to run my own show – it was just a great opportunity for me,” Winfree said.
He likes what he’s seen so far, and so have many of the golfers who have returned to Pine Knolls. Jim Butler, a long-time resident of the golf course community, took over as owner of the course April 17 and immediately spent $50,000 on new maintenance equipment.
The entire course was fertilized for the first time in several years, new golf carts will debut June 1, the pro shop is being restocked, the clubhouse is getting new carpet and paint, and the crumbling staging area and parking lot where golfers first head into the clubhouse was repaved.
“He’s doing all the right things, that’s for sure,” Winfree said. “More has been done in the last month than in the last three years. He’s trying to get it back to where it was 10 or 15 years ago.”
While the upgrades to facilities are great, Winfree is eager to focus on improvements to the course itself. He learned how to play golf on this cozy layout that opened in 1969. Winfree played for East Forsyth High School all four years, then went on to work as an assistant golf pro at Grandover Resort for six years, and Forest Oaks for seven before getting his shot here.
Pine Knolls logged about 30,000 rounds last year, Winfree said. This year, the course already has seen a 10 percent to 20-percent increase in traffic since Butler took over.
“Word travels fast,” Winfree said. “I tell my buddies it’s in the best shape it has ever been.”
The greens in particular are in great shape so far this spring. On the front side, the greens are a little bigger and the layout itself is more wide open. The back nine is like a whole other course, though, with tighter fairways and smaller greens that are more undulating and fall off the edge.
At 6,433 yards from the back tees, Pine Knolls isn’t long. But it still offers a challenge, Winfree said.
The 10th hole is an uphill 509-yard par-5 that brings some of the course’s elevation changes into play. Winfree called the 13th, 14th and 15th holes the “Bermuda Triangle” of Pine Knolls. The three par-4s come together in the middle of the back nine and manage to lose some golfers – or golf balls, at least. The 15th hole is the hardest on the course, with No. 13 the third-hardest.
After a 522-yard par-5 at No. 17, golfers head home with a par-3.
“Both nines finish with a par-3, which is a little unusual,” Winfree said.
For locals who want to play somewhere, Pine Knolls has emerged as among the best and closest options. Winfree said he still gets people asking if he’s part of “Pine Tree,” which was a Kernersville course that closed down years ago. Dawn Acres in Stokesdale recently closed, which means Pine Knolls is one of the only courses remaining in the area.
Rates are $29 on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays, with regular rates at $24 and seniors able to play for as low as $20 during the week and after 2 p.m.
Pine Knolls has a driving range and Winfree offers private lessons. The overall community remains active with pool memberships, and Winfree hopes to have the men’s and women’s golf associations thriving again soon, plus get some tournaments scheduled and bring back corporate hole sponsorships.
He is even working to redesign the Pine Knolls logo and get a new sign up on the clubhouse, all part of a fun and productive homecoming. The 33-year-old Winfree has known Butler since the age of 5.
“I said to Jim, ‘Let’s put your mark on this course,’” Winfree said. “He’s a great man to work with and the kind of guy nobody could ever say a bad word about.”