By John Brasier
Kris Spence couldn’t see much when he first visited the Maples Course at Woodlake Country Club, a residential community in Moore County about 14 miles northeast of Southern Pines.
In 2021, when the Greensboro golf architect first looked over the remnants of a course designed in 1971 by Ellis Maples and Ed Seay, he said he saw only limited signs that a golf course had been on the site. Lake Surf, which bordered the first few holes and the finishing holes, was drained and filled with vegetation, resembling a wetlands area.
“I couldn’t see most of the greens when I first came out here,” Spence said. “I knew it was an Ellis Maples design. It turns out, it may be one of his best.”
A veteran in renovating courses designed by Donald Ross and Maples, a protégé, Spence took the project, which at the beginning required a solid three months of bush hog clearing. Several encroaching trees and vegetation had to be eliminated. He had to undercover fairways and greens.
Two years later, Spence takes pride and satisfaction in looking over the course, which plays over undulating fairways to challenging greens with new Bermuda TifEagle surfaces. There’s a new 18th hole, but for the most part, Spence said he tried to restore the layout to its original design, albeit with a few modern enhancements and some new back tees.
Spence jokes that his work at Woodlake was neither a renovation nor a restoration.
“This is a resurrection,” Spence likes to clarify. “We’re bringing this thing back from the dead. It’s probably one of the most satisfying things I’ve done.”
Finished almost a year ago, Woodlake management waited until mid-September before opening the course to residents — one round per resident. For 30 days beginning Sept. 20, more than 600 homeowners at Woodlake had the opportunity for a “sneak peek” at the course.
A formal grand opening is planned in the spring. Memberships will be sold, though the course also will be open to public play and be part of Pinehurst area golf packages.
Wreckage and Recovery
Hurricane Matthew in 2016 wiped out the two Woodlake courses in Vass, as well as the Oates House, its stately clubhouse, leaving property owners without golf courses and other amenities. And after the state made a post-hurricane check of the community’s aging dam of creeks that created the 1,200-acre Surf Lake, they lost the lake, too, as the state mandated the dam be breached for safety purposes.
Spence said the reaction of homeowners over the past two years has been particularly gratifying.
“When we were first out here, there was not a 2 by 4 being nailed whatsoever, and that went on for about 6-8 months,” Spence recalled. “When it was known the lake would be restored, within 30 days they were clearing lots and buildings houses like crazy. They were just sitting there waiting for that assurance.”
A few weeks ago, Spence was playing the course when he saw a retired military officer he’d gotten to know sitting on his back porch. Back in 2021, the same man had seen Spence in his yard and questioned what he was doing there.
“I yelled to him, ‘I bet you thought you’d never see this,’ and he was grinning ear to ear,” said Spence.
Maples’ designs included much-heralded layouts such as Grandfather Golf & Country Club in Linville and Country Club of North Carolina’s Dogwood Course. Seay, then a Maples associate, joined Arnold Palmer in 1971 to form Arnold Palmer Design Co.
The course has a new irrigation system. As a result, the tee boxes, greens and bunkers are in mint condition and the fairways are plush. All that remains is the restoration of the lake, and work commenced in June on the new dam. The lake is expected to fill quickly once the dame completed.
Woodlake has not announced its plans for its former Arnold Palmer design, where the first hole has been transformed into No. 18 on Maples.
The existing holes at the Maples Course had to be reclaimed. Assorted vegetation had grown over the former Bermuda fairways. Little pine trees and shrubs had grown in bunkers. Spence had trouble finding the location of some of the former weed-covered greens. Intruders had used many of the former fairways for their ATVs. The course, which over the years had a reputation as neglected due to financial problems, looked like a “jungle,” recalled Spence.
Plus, the lakebed, which Spence said ranges from about 6 feet in depth near the edges to about 20 feet, was filled with tree stumps that had to be removed to meet state requirements. The cleanup was hard work, managed by Jim Harbin, a Spence project manager. Spence said he made many 75-minute drives from his office to check the project.
Bermuda Fairways Survived
That was the situation facing Spence in 2021 after he was contacted by Fayetteville businessman Keith Allison, who bought the community’s assets for $3.5 million at a foreclosure auction in March 2021, with plans for saving at least one of the courses and building a new clubhouse that is currently under construction.
The hurricane and state-forced breach of the dam had left Woodlake, which had gone through an earlier foreclosure, without its major amenities. The German developer, Woodlake CC Corp., went bankrupt and lost the property. In 2018, a Superior Court judge awarded a homeowners’ group almost $162 million in damages for negligence that led to the loss of the lake, plummeting property values and an adverse effect on quality of life. According to several reports, that award remains unpaid.
A group of property owners, the Restore Woodlake Committee, won a class action lawsuit in 2018 against Woodlake CC Corp. after claiming the company’s negligence led to the loss of the lake, adversely affecting residents’ quality of life and property values.
In some ways, the course’s resilience surprised Spence. The Bermuda 419 grass fairways were mostly intact when weeds and overgrowth were removed. After mowing and spraying with herbicides and the application of fertilizer and some rain, the Bermuda fairways were in such good condition, no sprigging was needed. Some sodding was done, especially where new trees and overgrowth had blocked sunlight.
Spence also found a working pump station from the lake to help irrigate the course.
Due to flooding concerns downstream, the state voted to pick up a $9.6 million bill for replacing the dam. Spence said that in a year or so, the lake should return to form, creating 25 or so new lakefront homesites on the former 18th hole as well as rejuvenating the property values throughout the community. A new sales office is in future plans.
Allison, the owner of Systel Business Equipment, and a Woodlake property owner prior to buying the golf courses, has his three daughters learning the golf business. Jeff Crabbe, the general manager, was hired from Lakeside Park Golf Club in Richmond, Virginia. He was previously a golf pro at Pinehurst Resort.
Greens Restored, Bunkers Rebuilt
The Maples Course begins with four holes along the western bank of Lake Surf, before turning inland. The final four holes return to the lake, though the new 18th hole is now on the location of the first hole on the former Palmer Course.
Spence had particular respect for the green designs by Maples and Seay. Spence said Maples was known for creative, undulating greens in a variety of sizes and shapes.
“For the most part we restored the greens,” Spence said.” We did not rebuild the greens — we just stripped off the overgrowth.”
To bring the course up to date, Spence did create some new back tee boxes to add 300 yards or so, extending the course to 7,350 yards — enough to play host to top local or statewide tournaments. Some bunkers were also repositioned to bring them into play more for today’s bigger hitters.
Though the lake — lakebed, for now — provides a formidable hazard at the start and finish of the course, the par-3 eighth, a downhill beauty that stretches to 236 yards, may be the most memorable hole.
Spence said he expects significant feedback in 2024 when golfers from throughout the world come to the Sandhills for the U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2. Many will bring their clubs and play at courses throughout the region when not at the tournament.
“This golf course is going to have a lot of eyes on it next June when they get things ramped up and the U.S. Open is here,” said Spence.
Spence, whose Quixote Club design in Sumter opened last year, said he has remained busy with several projects, including a renovation at Hope Valley Country Club, an original Donald Ross design in Durham.
Spence’s renovations in the Triad have included Sedgefield Country Club, Forsyth Country Club and Cross Creek Country Club. Within the state, Spence’s projects have included prestigious courses at Roaring Gap Club, Country Club of North Carolina Dogwood Course, Grove Park Inn, Blowing Rock Country Club, Cedarwood Country Club, Gaston Country Club, and Providence Country Club.