With a toast of champagne and expressions of thanks, members of the Henderson Country Club last week celebrated the sale of the golf course to one of its members.
With it, club advocates and staff hope to see the golf course rebound and recapture some of its previous popularity and remain in operation for years to come.
“Thank you for your support,” Charles Morris, who closed on the purchase of the 18-hole, 142-acre course on Tuesday, said during a celebration at the club’s upstairs banquet room.
“We appreciate what you’re doing,” Eric Williams, who has been president of the club’s board of directors, replied.
A deed recorded at the Henderson County Courthouse indicated that Morris Enterprises LLC paid the country club just over $1 million for four parcels of real estate. But Morris said he has also agreed to make a “considerable investment” to enhance the property and operation.
In an interview, he outlined a vision for upgrading course facilities and services, making continued improvements to the golf course itself and rebuilding the club as a social venue.
And while ownership changes from an association into private hands, he said the facility’s name won’t change.
“We’re leaving the name ‘Henderson Country Club,’” Morris said. “I thought, it’s been around since 1899; it would be a disservice to change the name.”
The sale comes after a period when golf’s popularity, and the country club’s fortunes, have been in decline.
A year ago, the National Golf Foundation, which is the golf industry’s primary research and consulting organization, reported that golf participation in the U.S. peaked in 2005 at about 30 million golfers and by 2019 had declined to about 24 million, a drop of 20 percent, The Denver Post reported last year.
Paradoxically, more than 4,500 new golf courses had been constructed in the U.S. over the previous 20 years, many of them associated with real estate housing developments, as had been seen with the Player’s Club (now The Bridges) and Bent Creek golf courses in Henderson.
The combination of declining play and a growing number of courses put pressure on many courses and forced more than 1,200 to close, the Post reported.
It likewise caused difficulties for the Henderson Country Club. Members say membership, which once numbered in the hundreds, declined sharply in recent years. Club pro Brant Williams said the club today has about 75 full-time members and a few dozen introductory memberships, not counting social (swimming- and dining-only) members.
Morris said his goal is to build the club to 300 golfing memberships.
“We’re going to service these people,” he declared.
Morris said he knows the club has room for improvement.
“A couple of years ago, (after) I had been a member for many years, I knew everything was struggling,” Morris said. “I told Brant to tell me if there was ever an opportunity to buy this, if anything ever happened, call me first.”
Six months ago, club President Eric Williams and Vice President Adam Grogan came to Morris’ home at the country club to discuss just such a transaction.
“They (club officials) had several meetings,” Morris said, and on July 26 club stockholders voted unanimously to sell the golf course to him.
“They needed two-thirds” of stockholders to approve the sale, he said. “I never expected it would be unanimous … It was 62-0. That meant a lot.”
Morris is a native of northern Florida and a 28-year veteran of the poultry-growing industry who moved here in 2008. He said he operates 50 broiler houses in Webster and McLean counties.
He acknowledged the decline in golfing in the U.S. “Over the years it had been dwindling,” Morris said. But during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, he said golf has been one of the few activities people can safely do together, albeit it with adaptations such as limiting one person per golf cart.
“Actually, golf is on the upswing now,” Morris said.
Members have said the condition of the golf course deteriorated some years ago. “I wouldn’t even play out here, and I live here,” Morris said.
But he said that under current course superintendent Brandon Miller, the course “has come a long way.”
“Brandon and the guys have done a good job,” Morris said.
“This course is in the best shape in four or five years,” he said. “Members will tell you.” (One longtime member agreed and said credit also is due to Grogan, who chairs the Greens Committee.)
“It’s a good course,” Morris said. “I love playing here.”
He said he intends to maintain the existing staff at the club, including Miller, club pro Brant Williams, office manager Katie Brooks and clubhouse manager Reeanna McCarty.
“I’m keeping them all, keeping the entire staff,” Morris said.
He said he wants to upgrade food service. “We’re going to get food back to where it used to be,” he said. “Back in 2009, we’d eat breakfast (here) in the morning … It used to be we’d hang out here and eat dinner” or watch ball games in the evening.
“Down the road, (but) not too far down the road, we’re going to have a chef,” according to Morris, who said that “when I get home (from work in the evening), I don’t want to go back to town” to eat dinner.
He also wants to upgrade the course facilities, including the two-story, approximately 9,500-square-foot clubhouse and the adjacent 2,400-square-foot pro shop. “We’re going to pick it up,” Morris said.
“I’ve already painted outside,” he said. “When you pull up (to the clubhouse), we want it to look good.”
Morris said he intends to remodel the 19th Hole — the bar and grill downstairs — and the banquet room upstairs as well as refurbish the tennis courts and build a fitness center. The course also has two swimming pools.
“We’re getting all new golf carts,” a fleet of 25 E-Z Go rental carts with lithium batteries.
He also hopes to restore special events at the club. “Because of the pandemic, events haven’t been here,” Morris said. He hopes to bring back golf scrambles and corporate outings on Mondays, when the course is closed to regular play.
In prior years, the club also regularly hosted social events such as trivia nights, Halloween masquerade parties, tailgating before University of Kentucky football games, New Year’s Eve parties — even a Goodwill Date Night, when couples were encouraged to go to a second-hand store to select clothes for each other to wear.
The country club’s two Williams — Eric, who has been president, and Brant, the club pro — each expressed optimism with the change in ownership.
“He’s in a position to make some improvements to the club that we as a club would struggle to do,” Eric Williams said. “So it’s all going to work out.”
“This is finishing my 10th season (as club pro), and this is the most exciting day I’ve had here,” Brant Williams said. “I’ve been talking to Charles and hearing his vision for what the club could be. This is very promising for the club.”
Eric Williams also credited club staff with keeping the operation going through the challenges of 2020. “Reeanna and Brant have both done an excellent job through this pandemic — above and beyond the call of duty.”
As noted, the Henderson Country Club had its beginnings in 1899 when the organization formed and developed a nine-hole course on leased ground, according to a 2009 Yesterday’s News history column by Gleaner reporter Frank Boyett. It closed some years later when the club struggled to collect dues from members.
In 1909, some of the original members led by President B.G. Witt revived the country club, building a clubhouse on a hillside across North Elm Street from the entrance to Atkinson Park and developing a nine-hole course in the park — presumably, the subsequent site of the former Henderson Municipal Golf Course (which closed July 7, 2019, as the city of Henderson prepared to reopen the renamed Bridges Golf Course of Henderson.)
The country club’s Elm Street clubhouse burned to the ground in early November 1923. After a failed attempt to purchase much of Fernwood Cemetery from the city that was defeated in court by relatives of several people buried there, the country club purchased a 2½-story brick building on South Main Street where current-day Chapelwood Apartments now stands.
The building had been constructed in 1917 as the Henderson County Tuberculosis Sanitarium, then briefly operated as a hospital, according to a 2015 Boyett history column. On Nov. 25, 1924, Henderson Fiscal Court agreed to sell the building for $10,000 to the club, which developed a nine-fairway, 18-hole course that crossed U.S. 60-West at current-day Rural King.
The country club relocated to the current 18-hole course off U.S. 60-East in 1973, providing members a full-sized course that didn’t require crossing a busy highway. Ron Reiner of Evansville served as head pro at the club for 25 years from 1975 until his retirement in 2000; he succeeded Fred Thomas, who had been the last pro at the Main Street country club and the first pro at the current course.
Morris said he committed to the country club’s board to keep the course open for golf for three years, but he said during an interview that he expects the course to remain open well beyond that.
“It won’t be row crop,” he said, referring to converting the golf course to corn or soybean fields. “It will always remain a golf course. Always.”
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