Etowah Valley Golf & Resort, a 27-hole layout that celebrated its 50th anniversary last year, has found new life in the western North Carolina mountains.
With the first golf course in western North Carolina to have fully irrigated fairways and paved cart paths throughout its entire length, Etowah Valley Golf & Resort has always been open to cutting-edge ideas. But the Etowah, N.C., property wasn’t immune to the negative effects that past economic downturns had on the golf industry—or to the positive effects that change can have on a facility. With the right leadership and a dedicated golf course maintenance staff, the property, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last summer, has proved that a return to glory days is possible.
Etowah Valley, about 30 minutes from Asheville, opened in the summer of 1967 as an 18-hole layout, with designs on becoming “the Pinehurst of the mountains.” Built on top of a brick-mining operation that ultimately stripped the surrounding land of all its clay, the property has always enjoyed visionary leadership, from original owner Bruce Drysdale to his daughter and son-in-law, Betty Anne and Frank Todd.
Etowah Valley Golf & Resort
Location: Etowah, N.C.
Drysdale owned the brick corporation and conceived of the golf course as a way to reward his former employees. The Todds, who built the facility and ran it for decades, added another nine-hole layout to Etowah Valley in the late 1980s, to expand it into a 27-hole, stay-and-play resort.
Golfers played more than 60,000 rounds annually at Etowah Valley during the 1990s. But like many golf course facilities nationwide, the property suffered during the recessionary years of the early and mid-2000s.
The facility made a comeback, however, by the time it was ready to celebrate its golden anniversary. A new 14-partner ownership group, which took over the semi-private property at the end of 2014, invested about $2 million in improvements to return the entire operation to the majesty of its youth.
“The investment group was made up entirely of local investors in the Asheville area,” says Managing Partner Tim Rice, who was a consultant to the previous owners for five-plus years. “We all grew up playing golf at Etowah Valley, and while the golf course business can be questionable these days, it’s Etowah, so we’re all in. We were attracted to the challenge of it.”
The new ownership group held roundtable discussions and open forums with members to hear their vision for the property, while also helping them “rethink [the] possible” by educating them on what it takes to renovate a golf property, from redoing bunker drainage to putting in a new tee box.
In less than three years, the new ownership group renovated all 65 lodging rooms at Etowah Valley, upgraded its on-site restaurant, and rebranded a smokehouse on the edge of the resort. To improve golf course operations, the partners purchased a new fleet of golf cars and course maintenance equipment, and installed a new irrigation system on the South Nine.
“The original owners were pioneers, starting the project in a remote area,” notes Rice. “We wanted to prove to the membership base we were putting action behind our words.”
Reaching the Full Potential
One of the first—and perhaps best—decisions the new owners made was to hire Steven Neuliep, CGCS, as Etowah Valley’s Director of Golf Course Operations.
“Steven really knows his business. He has taken a track that needed some tender loving care and put his heart and soul back into it,” says Rice. “He is the first agronomist we have had at Etowah Valley.”
Etowah Valley is now in the fourth year of a five-year renovation plan to enhance golf course conditions based on the needs and input of the customer base. “I had to match long- and short-range plans with their desires,” says Neuliep, who arrived at Etowah Valley in January 2015.
Neuliep, who already lived in the area, was attracted to the position at Etowah Valley because of the new ownership group and the promise of the facilities. His mission from the start has been to help the golf courses reach their full potential and exceed members’ expectations. He also wanted to implement renovations that would allow the grounds crew to take a proactive approach to maintenance.
Steven Neuliep, CGCS
Title: Director of Golf Course Operations
When Neuliep arrived, little maintenance had been done on the three layouts in recent years. Drainage pipes were rusted and undersized, and none of the aging infrastructure on the golf courses had ever been replaced. The irrigation systems on the South and West courses, which were installed in the 1960s, and the North course, which was installed in the 1980s, had exceeded their 30-year lifespan.
The property also had no tree-maintenance program. In fact, the only tree work that had been done, Neuliep reports, consisted of planting more trees, and the newer ones were not placed in the correct positions. Neuliep has since initiated a proactive tree-removal program, during which 300 to 400 trees have been taken down in-house.
Etowah Valley has worked systematically to renovate its courses, Ryan says. The property started with its South Nine and then moved to the West Nine. The South Nine is the property’s original layout, which is flatter than the other courses and most loved by the members. The West Nine is hillier and has more picturesque views of the mountains. The North Nine, the newest layout, is more mountainous than the other two courses, and has smaller greens and higher elevation swings.
Neuliep, who oversees the project-management aspects of the renovations, has approached the upgrades from two perspectives: day-to-day maintenance and infrastructure improvements.
“One of the first things we did was to put together an equipment-replacement program,” he says. “If you don’t have the equipment to maintain the facility, it’s not going to reach its potential. We had to have a sound equipment-replacement plan, to operate the golf courses more efficiently and effectively.”
Although the property owns some tractors and utility vehicles, it now leases about 75% of its equipment fleet. Most of the leased equipment consists of mowers, which wear out more quickly than other machinery, because they get the most use. They are also the costliest pieces of equipment to maintain after four or five years of operation.
Etowah Valley has put in all new drainage and irrigation systems on the South course, and some drainage work has been performed on the West course as well. No large capital projects have taken place yet on the North course, however.
In addition to addressing irrigation and drainage issues, the property has re-seeded about 12 sparsely covered tees on all three nines with zoysia grass. To date, Etowah Valley, which is in the transition zone, has also converted about nine fairways on the South and West courses from a combination of grasses to warm-season, Bermuda grass fairways.
COURSE & GROUNDS PROFILE
Etowah Valley Golf & Resort
Annual Maintenance Budget: $760,000 (includes equipment leases as well)
The maintenance staff also reestablished the bank along a creek that runs the entire length of the South Course’s third hole, because it was eroding and cutting into the fairway.
Long-range plans, Neuliep says, include rebuilding the bunkers and replacing the irrigation systems on the West and North courses.
Rice, who is on site every day, says he has been happy to let his department heads thrive in their areas of expertise. “Controlling budgets is very important to me, but I default to my executive team to give me their input,” he says. “I let them take ownership of their departments and protect their interests, employees, and revenue streams.”
Improved Maintenance, Improved Playability
With the golf course renovations, the grounds staff has been able to adjust some of its maintenance practices as well. To work around play, Neuliep delays opening each nine one day a week for extensive maintenance that cannot be done when golfers are on the course. While he is dedicated to running maintenance operations more efficiently from a labor perspective, he also keeps pace of play in mind—which is a challenge when maintaining three golf courses on a vast property of almost 250 acres.
“How play is sent out has a lot to do with it,” Neuliep says of how maintenance efforts are organized and controlled. “It would be like maintaining a 54-hole complex if they started at the same time. We have to know how to best maximize labor resources and balance, in terms of creating revenue.”
Since the renovations began at Etowah Valley, the maintenance staff has started hand-ranking bunkers, instead of using mechanical rakes. The bunkers are raked with the “Aussie method,” which minimizes the sand disturbance of the bunker faces while raking the bottoms of the bunkers in traditional fashion. This method not only reduces the amount of time spent raking bunkers, it creates firmer bunker faces and reduces the possibility of “fried egg” lies.
“The rake isn’t stirring up all the soil around the bunkers,” Neuliep adds. In addition, he says, the compacted areas encourage golf balls to run toward the bottom of the bunkers and eliminate washouts on steep slope faces. Previously, he says, “After a quarter-inch rainfall, everything washed out.”
The tree-removal program has had a favorable effect on maintenance as well. When the property used to have a lot of trees around greens, the greens would hold frost as a result. Now, with fewer trees, the greens have fewer shaded areas.
The removal of trees also has encouraged the growth of the property’s new Bermuda grass. Where possible, Neuliep explains, the staff has been able to move away from overseeding, which weakens the Bermuda each year in the transition zone.
Because the courses were built on top of a brick mine, the terrain complicates drainage, particularly on the South Nine and part of the West Nine. “The topsoil was removed, so the better elements of the clay were removed,” reports Neuliep.
Since the renovations, however, Neuliep says the pushup, bentgrass greens on all 27 holes–which have surface, but not internal, drainage—drain better because of new aerification methods, and the increased use of different types of wetting agents. Extra aerifications and more verticutting have improved the condition of the greens as well.
The grounds crew also uses a process in which sand is injected into the soil profile to help drainage, break up thatch, and create a smoother surface. Etowah Valley, which is pursuing Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary certification, is reviewing its fertilizer and fungicide programs as well as its watering practices. “We need to satisfy the needs of the plant, but we don’t want the clay soil to get too wet,” Neuliep explains.
In addition, he reports, “We have stronger stands of Bermuda grass in the fairways now. The consistency of the grass is much better.”
The renovations have affected the playability of the Etowah Valley golf courses “dramatically,” Neuliep says, and golfers have noticed. Head Golf Professional Rick Merrick, who has been at Etowah Valley for 27 years, agrees.
“Each year, we get glowing reviews,” says Merrick. “We have lodge guests who have been coming for 30 years. Hopefully, they’re spreading the good news that Etowah is getting back to the way it used to be.”
Etowah Valley’s playability has to accommodate different types of golfers—members, stay-and-play golfers who come as part of a resort package, and people from the general public. “We are catering to three different clienteles. It’s a busy golf course,” notes Merrick. “It’s a lot to coordinate. The lodge guests book tee times ahead of time.”
With its length, Etowah Valley can accommodate everyone from scratch golfers to high-handicap players. Merrick also finds that older players haven’t lost much distance, because golf balls go much farther now. In addition, the property holds about 40 tournaments a year. “We love having the 27-hole option to do charitable events,” Rice says.
“You can create a lot of play with 27 holes,” adds Merrick. “It is good for outings.”
Where “Golf is King”
“Golf is king at Etowah,” says Rice. “None of our other improvements or services would be available without golf. Golf is our main draw.”
In addition, he notes, “Folks who value the dollar play here.” And optimal course conditions are seen as the key to making sure golfers get a good return on their investment.
“We want golfers to have an enjoyable experience from the minute they set foot on the property to the minute they leave,” says Merrick. “It’s a laid-back atmosphere where we make sure we treat everybody like they’re special, so they leave with a good impression and can’t wait to tell someone about it.”