Death of a Golf Course
By: Ray Gaskin, Special to the Herald Democrat
Sutton Chambers methodically lined up a putt on a recent visit to Grayson County College Golf Course. It was a ritual he’d undertaken a zillion times since 1984 when he started teeing up at the venerable course. But this day was different. He knew that soon there’d be no more putts to sink.
On December 31, the lights in the pro shop will go dark for the final time when the Grayson County course shuts down, a victim of economic belt tightening and a slump in the game’s popularity.
“It’s been easier to get on it the last few years,” remarked Chambers, who said he was a scratch golfer in his younger days but hasn’t carried a handicap in a long time.
Nearby, on the driving range, Gerald Owens was going through a bucket of balls.
“This is the most relaxing place I’ve ever been to,” Owens said. “It’s laid back.”
Owens was shocked when he heard the course was going to close.
“I thought somebody was pulling my leg,” He said. “I saw it on KXII and Googled it. Sure enough, it was true. It’s like losing one of your best friends. Mike Hurley, the pro out here, has helped a lot of people. He gave me plenty of tips and was always in a good mood.”
Owens spoke of the course in past tense, as if it were already closed. “It wasn’t a country club atmosphere,” he said. “Everyday people were out here and you could wear what you want, blue jeans and tee shirts. There were big groups, small ones, kids, older people, and everyone’s friendly. One day I was playing with some buddies and came upon a group of about 15 guys. They were just having fun. They waived us around them and we played on.”
Golf has been a stress reliever for Owens. “I could come out here upset about something and by the time I left I didn’t even remember what I was stressed out about.”
Owens said he plans one last round with four of his pals before the course closes on New Year’s Eve.
In a storage building behind the driving range Buck Sartor unloaded a cartload of range balls. He said it’ll be business as usual right up until closing day. “I’ll be here for my regular shift on the 30th,” he said, “and Mike Crowe will bring in the last load of range balls on the 31st.”
Reggie Marr, who works part-time in the pro shop, hasn’t smiled much lately. “We know everybody out here,” he said. “They’re all our friends, what’s happening is just plain pitiful.”
Marr contends that if green fee and cart rental rates had been gradually raised over the years, instead of remaining static, the course might have been in better shape financially. “This has always been the cheapest course to play in the area,” he said.
A decision to shut down the course was made in October by the Grayson College board of trustees. They rejected a last ditch plea by a committee made up of members and employees of the golf course to keep the venue open. According to the trustees the course operated at a substantial loss in 2014.
Noted golf course architect Joe Finger designed the original nine-hole layout for Perrin Air Force Base. It opened in 1962. Among Finger’s other North Texas creations are Las Colinas Country Club in Irving and Stonebriar Country Club in Frisco. A second nine was added in 1985.
Director of Golf Mike Hurley, who’s been at Grayson County for 28 years, is accustomed to seeing the same faces at work every morning. His greens superintendent Andy Kirven has been there 15 years, and golf pro Tim Inman has 13 years under his belt.
Hurley has no idea how many rounds he’s played at Grayson County. His low score was a 64, just two shy of the course record of 62, held by Scott Bandemir. He has stories about every hole, but number 11 in particular. It’s a short par four, only 258 yards from the white tee. Big hitters can drive it, giving them a chance at an Eagle, but the slightest hook or slice will likely go out of bounds leading to a disastrous score.
“I was on 11 one day with some kids from the college and they were skeptical when I told them there were many different ways to play it. I pulled out my wedge on the tee box, then hit it again from the fairway, chipped on and sank my putt for a par.”
Hurley said the last Air Force vet with Perrin golf course connections was Billy Newell, who passed away a few years ago. “Bill flew missions in Burma during the big war,” Hurley said. “He was here the day in 1971 when the Air Force turned the course over to the college.”
Vic Foster, a fixture at the Grayson County course for two decades, was a member of the citizen’s committee that tried to rescue it from extinction. He said he loved the course because it was a place where a player of any skill level could feel comfortable.
“There was something for everybody,” he said. “Thursday night scrambles, Saturday money games, and tournaments. No matter what skill level you were, you were always welcome. The course would never win a beauty contest but it was a great layout. Over 18 holes you used every club in your bag.”
Through the years there were hilarious moments and tragedies. Foster said he knew of at least three golfers who had suffered heart attacks while on the course.
He recalled an episode where a blue heron scurried across the fairway, picked up a ball and strutted off with it.
On another occasion a hawk landed on top of a flagstick and hung precariously to it while the stick swayed. One of Foster’s playing partners hit a ball onto the green. The hawk swooped down, inspected the ball and flew off.
“There was a beaver,” Foster said. “He lived at hole number eight, and he’d swim up and down the channel. He was fun to watch. And then one day he was gone, and I heard somebody had done him in. That was pretty sad.”
Golfers are a stubborn bunch. Not even a twister could scare them off. “A tornado crossed the fairway at number one and players ducked down behind the number five tee box for cover,” Foster said. “As soon as it was gone they continued playing.”
Foster gazed out the window of the pro shop. “People are going to drive by here one day,” he said, “and when they see the weeds they’re going to cry out, ‘who did this to this wonderful, old historic golf course.”