Just before 7 a.m. on a Monday at Winding Creek Golf Course in Thomasville, regular Joe Connell wanders up to the clubhouse with his clubs, $12 for the senior privilege membership 18-hole fee, and a bag full of tomatoes.
The tomatoes, ripe from the garden, are for Dave Costello, who works the pro shop desk. Costello is a part-timer who opens the course an hour early on Mondays just for early risers like Connell.
“He’ll bring me tomatoes all summer long,” Costello says.
Winding Creek is that kind of course. It’s Thomasville’s only public course, and it has become a place for the people. Even at a time when budgets are tight and staff is slim, Winding Creek continues to be one of the better bargains in the area. A $28 non-member weekend rate is the most expensive ticket anyone will pay.
“We’re just a mom-and-pop operation,” head professional Jason Gentel says.
In return, Winding Creek offers scenery that is different for a Triad course – rolling hills and open views that make it feel like you’re in the mountains. At 6,367 yards from the back tees, it’s not particularly long. But it’s filled with fairways that dip and turn and rise, and its difficulty depends on the hole. Some holes snake through dense woods; others are so open and forgiving that three fairways are in play from the tee.
“It’s different from most courses around,” says Thomasville City Manager Kelly Craver.
Most people might not know how true that is, unless they knew what was under their feet.
Winding Creek, for all its natural beauty, is built on a dump.
In the early 1990s, Thomasville city officials debated how to best proceed with the city landfill near Interstate 85 Business. Keeping the dump operating was draining the budget, and some officials wanted to use the land for something else.
It was the boom era for the golf course construction industry, so the city pursued the course. Some residents balked, but ultimately, Winding Creek opened in 1996.
“It has always been a certain level of controversy as to whether the city should be in the golf course business,” Craver says. “There are going to be folks that believe recreation is an expendable hobby for the city. And we have to be conscious of that.”
There’s no denying, though, that the land where Winding Creek is now, an area filled with trash, is now contributing to the city, even if only in a small way. Last fiscal year, ending June 30, the course had about $598,000 in expenses and $604,000 in revenue. And any positive number is a good number, Gentel says. Also, the city is scheduled to finish paying off the loan for the course in 2013.
It didn’t always appear that Winding Creek would be a success.
When it opened 15 years ago, it was an almost-impossible course to play. Most of the fairways were lined with thick brush, and any ball hit off target was lost. That made it difficult for casual golfers, who make up most of Winding Creek’s customers.
Gentel arrived as the assistant professional six months after the course opened, and he became the head professional six months later. His main goal in those first years was to make the course more player-friendly. So, through the early 2000s, the staff worked on clearing the brush, widening the fairways, and opening up the rough.
“In 1997, 98, and 99, if you hit the ball out of the fairway, you’d lose it,” Gentel says. “We weren’t in good shape. We just worked on making it more playable.”
Now, Winding Creek, which stretches across 165 acres, is a course that has it all. The view from the first tee is wide open, overlooking the tops of trees off in the distance. But those trees come into play later in the round.
“About seven or eight of the holes are Scottish-type, where you can see a lot of holes from one spot,” Gentel says. “But still, it remains tight.”
The most memorable stretch is from No. 7 to No. 8. The seventh is a 363-yard par-4 that runs all uphill and doglegs hard to the right. Then, the eighth is the signature hole, a 177-yard par-3 that comes straight back down the hill to a bean-shaped green.
Aside from the 592-yard par-5 fifth hole, the rest of the course plays short, with none of the par-4s being longer than 400 yards. Still, it’s not easy.
“If you don’t play it all the time, you can still get into trouble,” Gentel says.
The course rates – $28 for a weekend round, $24 during the week, and $10 off each round for those who purchase a yearly privilege card – will not go up anytime soon, Gentel says. After years of trying to figure out the right formula, Winding Creek has found its place in the Triad’s golf market, and it wants to continue to fill a need at the low end of the price scale.
The prices are able to stay down because of the resourceful staff. In 2006, the city was losing money each year on the course and faced a dilemma. It could either sell the course, let a management group take over, or cut staff. It chose the latter option, and reduced the number of full-timers to six people – Gentel, superintendent Alan Crockett, and four others. With fewer salaries and benefits to pay, the course started seeing numbers in the black.
“We made a change,” Craver says, “We thought it was a good decision in the short term, and it turned out to be a good decision for the long-term. Those guys do a great job with what they have.”
Winding Creek is also the home course for the Thomasville Golf Association, which plays regular tournaments and takes an annual golf trip every year. The TGA is an association for people who want to get together. And that seems to be what’s most important about Winding Creek, anyway.
“It’s really a fellowship thing,” Gentel says. “Everybody knows everybody.”
For more information about Winding Creek Golf Course, visit windingcreekgolf.com.