By Brad King
He has been there since the beginning.
Tom Ducey remembers back in the early 1990s driving to the Stanly County Airport to pick up Tom Fazio, when the then-relatively unknown golf course architect was in the process of building what would become Old North State Club on 5,300-acre Badin Lake, along a 2 ½-mile peninsula called Uwharrie Point.
In November 1991, the project’s original developer, Dominion Resources, hired Ducey to serve as Old North State Club’s inaugural Director of Golf. Nestled between Badin Lake and the Uwharrie National Forest, Old North State Club was immediately recognized by Golf Digest as the No. 2 “Best New Private Course in America.”
Despite its location slightly more than an hour from Charlotte and two hours from Raleigh, in a remote section of the state’s Piedmont area, Old North State Club has been a perennial top 5 mainstay in North Carolina’s golf course rankings since the day it opened.
At the course’s grand opening in July 1992, Ducey struck the ceremonial opening tee shot along with famed Golf Digest instructor Dick Altman. “We kind of came out of nowhere,” Ducey said. “It was fun to be part of all that — a very cool indoctrination to the big time.”
A quarter century later, Ducey, now a youthful 64 years old, still leads the charge at Old North State Club. And though his hair has whitened through the years, little else has changed about the lean, amiable, ultimate golf pro — including his silky swing.
Ducey grew up near the coast in tiny Ridgeland, S.C. One of his closest friends a few doors down was future Georgia Tech and South Carolina men’s golf coach Puggy Blackmon. The two of them and a group of friends regularly battled on a nearby 9-hole golf course called Sergeant Jasper.
Ducey’s father wanted his son, a standout defensive end at Ridgeland High School, to try out for the University of Georgia football team. But by then Ducey was totally focused on golf. After a year in Athens, Ducey transferred to Carson-Newman University to play golf with his friend, Blackmon.
After college, Ducey competed on mini tours, including a few years on the Asian Tour. “When you go to Asia, at least back then, you played 10 weeks in a row,” Ducey said. “You sit in the hotel or maybe do a little sightseeing or practice at some crummy facility. When you arrived at the airport there was a bus waiting for us, with players piling in from every corner of the globe. It was literally a traveling vagabond circus.”
He spent one season in Asia competing against a young, extremely self-confident Payne Stewart. Nearing the end of his 10 weeks together with Stewart, stuck on another bus, everyone’s nerves frayed — “I had had 10 weeks in a row of Payne (Stewart) as a rookie,” Ducey said. “And back then it was P-A-I-N” — when all of a sudden Stewart pulled out a harmonica & started playing “King of the Road.” Ducey followed his lead, singing “Mama, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys.”
“To be able to see that part of the world when you’re 26 years old and single, it was pretty priceless,” he said.
More importantly during that time, Ducey met an English flight attendant named Jacquie on a British Airways Flight. They have been married now longer than Ducey has been at Old North State. “Finding my future bride over there made it all worth it,” he said.
Ducey later competed in Australia and New Zealand. He won the Idaho Open in 1980. “My one trophy,” he said.
“I wanted to be a Tour player my whole life,” Ducey said. “I played every day I could every time of the year with that in mind.
“I wasn’t good enough to get any sponsors, so I said ‘let’s go be a PGA guy.”’
Through his relationship with Blackmon, Ducey helped convince the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) to come to Old North State Club. Soon after its grand opening, Old North State served as the host site for the ACC Women’s Golf Championship and the league was so impressed that in 1995 it awarded the men’s golf championship to Old North State — where it has remained for all but three of the years since.
The late Tom Butters, legendary athletic director at Duke University, used to call Ducey, “one of the classiest guys” he had ever known. “I have never seen Tom (Ducey) under any circumstance, whether during the ACC Tournament or a rain delay in the member-guest tournament — when things are going to hell in a hand basket — I’ve never seen him lose his cool or even think about losing his cool,” said longtime Old North State member Glenn Miller. “He’s steady as can be.”
Despite being an immensely modest man, Ducey is one of the most popular and well-respected members of the golf professionals industry. “He would rather eat glass than have an article written about him,” said Brian Kittler, one of Ducey’s many former assistants he mentored through the years. Kittler went on to become vice president of golf operations for Raleigh-based McConnell Golf.
“He’s an amazing guy,” Miller said. “I’ve never seen a guy who can hire so successfully. He hasn’t made a mistake. His assistants are all first-class guys, real professional gentlemen. I know from experience that doesn’t happen by accident. He trains them well.”
In 2013, the Carolinas PGA awarded Ducey the Bill Strausbaugh Award, given to the PGA member who by his or her day-to-day efforts has made significant contributions to the game and the business of golf through the mentoring of PGA professionals and the furtherance of their careers. While the award centers on the qualities of a professional that allows him or her to prepare tomorrow’s leaders in the golf industry, consideration such as the character and integrity of the member, service to the section and involvement in community and charitable activities are also part of the selection process.
Many of his nearly two-dozen former assistants were on hand to watch Ducey receive his honor.
“I think we were more proud of that award than he was,” Kittler said. “For a lot of us, he’s kind of like a father figure. He’s a stand-up, first-class type of guy.”
“I would rather have been Player of the Year five years in a row,” Ducey said with a chuckle. “That was a really nice surprise. For me, that’s probably the epitome of who I am and what I do. I kept persevering trying to play and trying to play, and then 25 years later you’ve got 20 assistant pros out there that you’ve mentored. I think, ‘Well, that’s not that bad.’”
For Ducey, his quarter century at Old North State Club has not been without heartache. In July 2004, his daughter Emma, a rising junior at UNC-CH, was killed in a car accident. His son, Zach, recently had a daughter who he named in his late sister’s honor.
“Losing a child is a terrible fraternity to be a member of,” Ducey said. “Anyone who goes through it knows that. It’s the lowest of lows.
“When I look back, the support I got from the membership here to let us grieve the way we needed to, that was pretty special.”
Every year Ducey helps host a memorial golf tournament in memory of his late daughter to continue girl’s high school golf in Randolph County.
For Ducey, they are bittersweet events.
“It’s a small, personal thank-you,” he said. “It’s depressing the morning before it happens, then that night when you start reflecting about what could have happened in your child’s life it’s a very surreal time. Just something you’ve got to face up to.”
Ducey spends time giving back to his community and attends town meetings to keep all informed of the development of Old North State Club. He helps manage many golf events for great causes during the year and provides endless options on charitable golf events.
Old North State Club was the lead fundraiser for the first year of Patriot Golf Day in 2006 and continues to be a leading money collector of the Folds of Honor foundation each year.
There is a photo that hangs on the way into Ducey’s office of Fazio and Ducey, autographed by the architect. “About six or seven years ago I sent it back to him,” Ducey said. “I said, ‘Tom, it’s been on the wall so long the ink has started to disappear. Can you re-sign it?’”
In 2002, Dominion sold Uwharrie Point to East-West Partners, which had co-developed the community with the energy company beginning in 1992. But Dominion retained ownership of the golf club until 2009 when McConnell Golf, which owns a dozen private clubs in the Southeast, purchased it.
“I hope I can hang out here a few more years and see the direction McConnell Golf takes it,” Ducey said. “They are poised to make a really big impact here. Hopefully I’ll still be alive to see everything they do.
“We’ve got members I’ve known for 20-plus years,” Ducey said. “We’ve watched each other — I hate to say – get old together. I’ve grown up with them and all of a sudden we’re old. But to have that type of relationship with your membership is pretty special.”