By STEVE HANF
Bill Lankford celebrates his 30th year running Maple Leaf Golf Club this year. But like many 30-somethings – and beyond – Lankford instead likes to focus on the 29th birthday.
“The biggest one was back in October: 29 years,” Lankford jokingly said of anniversaries. “I worked for Container Corporation of America for 29 years, retired in 1984 and then came straight up here. I told everybody I’m still figuring out what I’m going to be doing the next 29 years.”
Lankford also chuckled as he said that. At 77, Lankford certainly didn’t imagine he’d spend a whole second career owning and running a golf course.
“I had no idea I’d be here 30 years later,” he said. “You can have hard times and have struggles with the weather and the economy, but you never give up.”
There are plenty of reasons to not give up on Maple Leaf. Its location in Kernersville is less than five minutes from Highway 311 and Interstate 40 at the Union Cross Road exit, so it’s quick and easy to reach from most spots in the Triad. The atmosphere is warm and inviting, with a cozy shop and affordable rates. The course is a short one that can be played in four hours, but still offers plenty of challenges for golfers of all ability levels.
“Our golf course is not an easy golf course,” Lankford said. “The front is pretty tight. The back, it opens up a little so you don’t have to worry about hitting it into the woods on every shot. I think we’ve got a pretty challenging golf course.”
When Lankford bought Maple Leaf in 1984 from Don Charles – his brother-in-law – the course had nine holes. Charles, who still owns Olde Homeplace just down the road, built Maple Leaf’s original layout and then worked with Lankford to design and build a back nine, which opened in 1988.
“I saw the handwriting on the wall that you needed 18 holes,” Lankford said.
When players finish their first nine on the par-35 front side, they arrive at a “halfway house” with restrooms and vending machines. They then continue along the back nine’s par-36 layout to arrive home. This layout provides challenges at times and Lankford said players often are ferried back to the first hole if shotgun starts are involved, but that’s the way it had to be done.
Even after being stretched to 18 holes, Maple Leaf still plays just 6,056 yards from the blue tees. Those distances drop to 5,664 from the white tees, 5,256 from the gold and 4,639 from the red. That length makes Maple Leaf an enjoyable outing for seniors, especially, and the club has an active seniors association, ladies association and other regulars who play throughout the week. Maple Leaf will serve as host of the first round of the Forsyth County seniors tournament in May.
Maple Leaf also is a nice spot for juniors. Glenn High School’s men’s and women’s teams use Maple Leaf as their home course, and other youths from around the Triad also enjoy coming back after having visited for high school matches.
Lankford said he doesn’t keep track of how many rounds are played each year. The course stays quite busy in the summer and employs nearly 20, including Bill Lankford Jr., who is the course superintendent. The winter months see less traffic as the elder Lankford joins the rest of the golfing industry in a continuing battle for business.
“The economy and the weather and a lot of other things have had effects on us,” Lankford said. “It’s a lot different than it was four, five, six years ago when golf was going real big. We still have a lot of play, there’s just not as many people who get to participate as much as usual. It’s a change of times. Everybody has to work so hard to get what you get.”
Even Lankford doesn’t get to play as much golf as he would like. The ice storm in early March took down more than 50 trees across the course, including a signature pine at the first hole and a key hardwood on the fifth. Lankford and his crew spent an entire Saturday clearing trees and limbs to get the course playable for Sunday.
“When a tree falls, it doesn’t want to fall into the woods – it wants to fall onto the golf course where you’ve got to do something with it,” Lankford said.
He also had bad news for Maple Leaf’s regulars hoping the meddlesome tree guarding the seventh hole had fallen: “Darn! That’s the one that should’ve come down!” was the common reaction Lankford got when he told people that tree survived. “Every hole out here has its quirks to it. There’s some easy holes and some harder ones.”
After surviving this challenging winter, Lankford is eager for a warm spring, pleasant summer and long fall season. That’ll make his 30th year running the course all the more enjoyable. Or would that be 29 years … again?
“You have a different attitude about things when you see the sunshine instead of clouds and ice,” Lankford said.