By David Droschak
Like so many small towns scattered across North Carolina, the local country club was for decades a gathering place for executives from the furniture or textile industries. Life was good, and business was booming.
Eden, situated in northern Rockingham County near the Virginia border, was no exception, with Fieldcrest Cannon as a flagship mill churning out bedding and blankets, and an Ellis Maples-designed golf course opened in 1958 as a key recreational piece. Between 1960 and 1970, the town’s population grew more than 350 percent to 15,871.
But as changes and restructuring started affecting the textile industry throughout the South, companies began moving manufacturing operations to areas with cheaper labor, In 1997, Fieldcrest Cannon was sold to Pillowtex, which subsequently closed its Eden plants in 2003, laying off the last of 495 textile workers.
As Eden’s population decreased, so did the golfers and members at the golf course known as Meadow Greens Country Club. In short, the club was in serious trouble, and eventually filed for bankruptcy as the recession of 2008 struck the country hard — and in particular the golf course business.
So, it was of little surprise when local developer Homer Wright, the brains behind the ultra successful St. James Plantation golfing community along the North Carolina coast, was the only one to show up at the courthouse in 2009 to potentially purchase the club that was now in disrepair.
“Homer bought the club on the courthouse steps,” said David Tucker, who along with Wright’s son, Kenan Wright, purchased the club from the elder Wright in 2012.
Kenan Wright and Tucker were boyhood friends that reconnected in later life while at the club. With local pride on the line, they were not about to let the “country club” die on the vine.
“Our whole philosophy is that we knew we were probably never going to make any money off of this but we believed Eden needed this golf course,” Tucker said. “If we were ever going to attract industry again we needed to have a nice golf course. We wanted to make sure it was here for the community. If it went under it would have been just another dagger in the downfall of a small town, and we just didn’t want to see that happen.”
“Any time you offer an alternative to people who are looking for recreation that’s important, in particular the youth of our area,” said co-owner Wright, who offers up the golf course to a Virginia high school and local Eden Morehead, a high school which is virtually a 9-iron from the first tee. “Growing golf with the kids is really important for athletics and important for the golf industry. You can play golf the rest of your life. And it can be good exercise. When people move to the area they are looking at what activities are available.”
The first order of business a decade ago was to re-brand the course. The name was changed to Oak Hills — in part because of the layout’s towering oak trees — public play was now encouraged, and the methodical process began of capital investments to improve items like cart paths, irrigation, and the course’s most recent project – new Bermuda greens.
“It was in terrible shape,” Wright said of the course when his father purchased the Maples design. “It has been a work in progress over the last 10 years. It just wasn’t the 2008 downturn that hurt the course, but a lack of maintenance over the years. These rural golf clubs that were membership driven have been on a spiral downturn as mill executives either left and area or started aging out. That had been the lifeblood for country club membership pricing.
“Listen, if you are breaking even and one member drops out that very next day you’re running a small deficit, so you have to raise the price and when you raise the price somebody else drops out,” added Wright. “At the same time they were cutting expenses, cutting services, and it continued to spiral down. Areas of the golf course were not being maintained; the bent greens that had been there for over 50 years were beginning to see more and more encroachment of the surrounding Bermuda.”
Fast forward to today. Oak Hills is now open after being closed for 63 days for the new greens project, which had consultation expertise from renowned Greensboro architect Kris Spence. The 6,413-yard course is in pristine shape.
“There are a lot of Ellis Maples golf courses off the beaten path, he did so many of these smaller market clubs, and there is just a lot of real high quality architecture, and Oak Hills is one of those courses,” Spence said. “In my opinion, Ellis Maples is one of the most under-rated architects out there.”
“Ellis Maples did a great job here,” added Tucker. “Every time I play it there are holes that make you feel like you’re in the mountains and holes that make you feel like you are at the beach; we have doglegs left, doglegs right, we’ve got long par-3s and short par-3s. My feeling is we have something for just about everybody’s game. Every time I go play somebody else’s golf course I come back to this one and say ‘This one is so pretty, so many things that make it nice.’”
The owners estimate they’ve invested more than $1 million into the golf course over the last decade between new cart paths, a new irrigation system and new greens.
Wright’s connection to St. James Plantation has helped along the way.
“The biggest advantage was the resources, of having that group down there that I can go to and ask questions,” Wright said. “And we had the good fortune of being able to buy some of their used equipment early on. More than anything the connection with people down there that knew golf. It’s all about who you know and partnering and communicating with people in the golf business because you can’t know it all.”
Don’t be surprised if you play a round at one of the state’s true saved golfing treasures that you’ll pass Wright or Tucker, or both owners in their mid 60s, pitching in to help elevate the golf experience.
“I can’t begin to tell you how much it impresses me seeing the owners out here putting in the time to try to make the place as good as it can be,” said director of golf Mickey Westmoreland. “The undulation of the greens is the exciting part of this course and all the hills. I would describe a round here as ‘an experience.’ It’s one of the prettiest golf courses in North Carolina with a lot of wildlife.”
Wright said Oak Hills, which also features a restaurant, an event center and pool, is no longer just “hanging on.”
“We used to joke that the cart paths were so rough they would just ‘beat you to death,”’ Wright said. “All the work that has been done has been a process, and yes David and I enjoy getting out there and continuing to work on it some ourselves, to take some of these little areas that were not in good shape and gradually get grass to grow back in.
“The golf course is in the best shape as it has ever been. The end game is to make sure there is a sustainable golf course in the community that people enjoy playing. There is a lot of excitement around the course now, which is so nice to see.”