History & Nostalgia

Right: Bryan Grady

Sugar Mountain Golf Club—A Tale of Survival After 50 Years

Special to CML

When George and Chessie MacRae launched their four-season resort on Sugar Mountain in 1969, winter sports and summer mountain living were the main drawing cards. Southern Ski pioneer Dr. Tom Brigham served as president of the enterprise, and snow making king Bob Ash was mountain manager. As those trailblazers before them—Bill Thalheimer’s Blowing Rock Ski Resort in 1962 (later rebranded Appalachian Ski Mountain); the Robbins Brothers’ four-season theme at Hound Ears and Beech Mountain; and the Reynolds syndicate at Seven Devils—Sugar Mountain promised the same southern-style Epicurean life of leisure in the Blue Ridge. Not since the introduction of the Maine seed potato to the Appalachian Mountains a century earlier, and the wholesale cultivation of Fraser fir trees in the sixties, had such a far-reaching socio-economic impact arrived in Northwest North Carolina.

While golf was notable at the George Cobb masterpiece at Hound Ears, and Beech Mountain’s ridge top layout by Willard Byrd that stood as Eastern America’s highest golf course, the summer past-time would finally arrive at Sugar in 1974. Now enjoying its 50th anniversary season, and still celebrating its 2019 auspicious ranking as America’s number two rated public short course by Golf Advisor respondents, Sugar Mountain Golf Club belies what can only be described as an inauspicious beginning a half century ago. In the beginning, the MacRaes and their partners overcame a myriad of challenges, not the least of which was to find a golf course architect.

The MacRae property was enormous, including the now incorporated Village of Sugar Mountain and the Flat Top Mountain property now known as Linville Ridge. But in the beginning, Sugar Mountain eyed a sixty-acre parcel in the valley below its towering ski mountain for phase one development of its own golf course, the Sugar Hollow Golf Club, known today simply as the Sugar Mountain Golf Club.

With some reluctance, Francis Duane, a twenty-year construction manager for Robert Trent Jones, Sr., the Dean of Modern Golf Course design, agreed to build the diminutive par-64 layout that stands today.  Duane’s work includes highly rated clubs such as Mariner Sands, Kapalua in Lahaina, Sea Pines in Hilton Head, Tanglewood in Clemmons, and Duke University G.C. Ground was broken at Sugar in 1973 where a half-century later the course is heralded as a brilliant use of land, streams, and forest.

Ernie Teague was named the Sugar Hollow Club’s first golf professional. A 1971 graduate of Appalachian State, he played on the golf team with NAIA All-American and PGA tour winner Sam Adams. Teague’s adventures post-graduation mirror the newborn four-seasons concept. A golf assistant at Blowing Rock C.C., and Forest Oaks in Greensboro, Teague returned to the mountains to take the golf director position at Seven Devils. In the winter he was a snowmaker for the Reynolds family.

“I was just trying to make my way,” Teague said after landing at Sugar in time to see Duane and his master shapers build his golf course. “That taught me more than I ever could have learned anywhere else.”

Teague remembers how the ground swallowed a large back-hoe while building the fourth fairway, the course’s number one handicap hole. “It’s still there, below the ground,” he said.

The MacRaes made another great hire bringing young Superintendent Paul Waycaster from Grandfather Golf and Country Club where he worked under the colorful Aylor Rogers.

“Ernie and I had a good time together,” Waycaster remembered. “When I took the job they had the front side roughed in and were working on the back side. None of the greens had been built. We both cut our teeth on the golf course at Sugar.”

But bigger obstacles lay ahead. A couple of back-to-back warm winters made snow making impossible. The 1973 Arab oil embargo made travel by car, even short trips, costly due to shortages as interest rates approached 20 percent and resort building screeched to a halt.

Beech and Sugar both fell into bankruptcy, just as golf at Sugar entered its second season. Dr. Brigham and Ash fell out. Brigham went to West Virginia in search of the perfect winter, and mountain manager Ash did, too. Teague, the golf pro, took over snowmaking at the ski resort as the new mountain manager.

Paul Waycaster was hired to maintain the golf course and did for the next five years.

“Duane did a good job, but he never thought the course panned out,” Waycaster said. “I don’t think he liked the way things went. I did what I had to do to get the course playable.”

“Duane was a nice man,” Teague recalled, “but response from the golfing public was negative. Fifty years ago an executive course just wasn’t what people expected. George’s wife, Chessie, was a dominant character for sure. And in spite of all that happened, we had a wonderful crew.”

The Best Laid Plans of Mice and Men

1975 proved a chaotic year as bank regulators tried to keep a handle on a resort in limbo. The Sugar Mountain Homeowners Association formed and did all they could to keep the ship afloat. But it was new leadership at the ski resort that would provide the lifeboat for the golf course that wasn’t yet two years old. Entrepreneur Dale Stancil visited Sugar Mountain to assess the viability of the ski mountain’s infrastructure. Along with him was a young engineering student named Gunther Jochl, who was a ski instructor at Stancil’s ski operation at Blue Knob, Virginia. Jochl, at the time a student at the University of Munich, was tasked with assessing Sugar Mountain’s lift and snowmaking systems. Jochl gave Stancil the thumbs up and they entered a lease-purchase agreement with the bank. Under their direction, the winter of 1976 proved a money maker, and Stancil exercised his option to buy the mountain with 1,200 vertical feet of ski terrain, putting the boom back into southern skiing. Fifty years later Jochl would own the successful operation lock, stock, and barrel. Subsequent winters grew more profitable while the golf course property was rudderless. Incorporation of the town-to-be was nine years away, but Stancil and Jochl wanted to preserve the four-seasons concept and retained Waycaster to keep the grass growing.

It would prove a strange decade for the golf course that had yet to establish an identity.

“We never wanted the property to be anything but a golf course,” Jochl said.

The rub was that Alex Andrews, one of the MacRaes’ principals in the failed resort, had secured an option to buy the sixty acres upon which the 18-hole par 64 layout sat. Andrews would entertain a number of opportunities to sell, or even repurpose the course for residential development. One rumor circulated that ex-PGA tour winners Chip Beck and Davis Love III eyed the property. One plan called for rerouting a nine-hole course from the original 18 with the balance of the property used for condominium development.

The late Andrews was patient, however, as the inevitable incorporation of Sugar Mountain finally arrived in 1985. One of the town’s first actions was to zone the distressed property for recreation purposes only.  A bond referendum was passed, strangely enough on a second effort, to buy the course. That development would secure the four-season village first envisioned by MacRae and company.

“Sugar is one of the most unique courses,” Waycaster said, who left in 1981 to oversee the construction of what is now Linville Ridge, a property which was initially ‘phase two’ of the original tract owned by the MacRaes. “If you weren’t hitting your irons perfect you were in trouble. Any hole out there could put you in a nasty fix.”

A Turning Point

It was 1987 when the town hired Morganton native Bryan Grady, who put the swagger never realized in Duane’s brilliant design. The self-confident superintendent brought his own brand of course maintenance with the fundamental turf grass management missing in the previous five years. The spongey, thatch-laden greens were aerified and sanded, and using homemade, cement-filled PVC rollers, Grady mowed and rolled the Poa annua putting surfaces at the same time. Before long, the little public track surrounded by the finest private golf clubs in the south, gained respect. PGA professional Rex Ohl of St. Petersburg gave the operation its first pro since Ernie Teague in 1974. Still a work in progress, and operating out of a steel cart barn, Sugar Mountain Golf was on its way.  

“The course had not been maintained and was in bad shape—I was not on board until late May of ’87 and the weeds had a head start on us,” Grady remembered. “We had a tractor, one greens mower, an old Scag rotary mower and a sand rake machine that was in about three locations, its parts spread out between the maintenance building and public works department. The fairway gang mower unit was left out on the course and it took a few days to find it because the grass was so tall. It took a tractor to pull it from the high grass.”

Grady’s passion would forge that missing identity producing lightning fast putting surfaces and quality turf over the entire playing field.

After a decade, Grady and the town parted ways, reportedly under less than desirable circumstances, but the Morganton man went on to make his mark in Hawaii, where he’s been superintendent of the Ewa Beach Golf, just a Tiger Woods two-iron from Hickham Field of Pearl Harbor fame, for three decades. Two of his Sugar hires went on to great things after turning Sugar Mountain around. David Wrenn went to Forest Oaks in Greensboro before being named superintendent at the iconic Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte. Robert Arrington went on to the Donald Ross design at Catawba Country Club where he’s been for more than two decades.

Two other carry-overs, Bill Daniels and Sam Trivett, would spend the next 27 years building on Grady’s revival of Frank Duane’s design.

Daniels brought the perfect skill set, and a hometown loyalty to Sugar Mountain.

A Linville native, his great grandfather, Arl Greene, Sr., was the first superintendent at the Linville Golf Club. Another great uncle, John Forbes, was the construction manager hired to build Donald Ross’s mountain masterpiece. Daniels’ fate was sealed when his family moved to a home overlooking the 14th green at Sugar Mountain, a circumstance that would forge a passionate relationship between an underappreciated golf course and a young man destined to grow grass.

“Since I was 13, I played many rounds at Sugar, usually with my grandfather Floyd Greene,” he said, adding, “I would putt ‘til dark on the 14th green. Bryan (Grady) always kept the greens in great condition and I learned what these greens needed from him. This was my big break and my turn to make an impact.”

Daniels points to mentors Ernie Hayes and his son Mike Hayes for preparing him for the job.

“From them I learned that the little things can make the biggest difference,” he said. “Stick to the basics and the grass will ‘listen’ to you.”

In 2000, head pro Rex Ohl returned to St. Petersburg. Tom McAuliffe, owner of Tom’s Custom Golf in Foscoe, was named golf director by town manager Derron Geouque, who told the bewildered golf club mechanic, “We want you to move your shop to the Sugar Mountain Golf Club.”

 With his hiring, McAuliffe brought Carolina Golf Hall of Fame nominee Ken Worthington and another lifetime PGA member, David Liddle, to enhance instruction of the game on Sugar Mountain. Newland man John Gantt and retired Bank of America executive Tom Peterson kept Ohl’s pro shop atmosphere intact while helping to build a reputation as a friendly place for all to play and enjoy.

“I was given an opportunity to play cheerleader for a public golf course that was growing in popularity because two guys, Bryan Grady and Bill Daniels, loved this place,” said McAuliffe. “They knew what we had and knew how to make it better each year. Twenty-four years later the course is unrecognizable from fifty years ago.” He added, “Sugar Mountain is held in high esteem, not only by the public golfer, but by the many fine golf professionals in the High Country and beyond who have come to see what all the fanfare was about.”

Today, the Ole Esval Municipal Golf Course at Sugar Mountain celebrates 50 years. Esval earned the distinction as perhaps the most important member of the Sugar Mountain community during its darkest hour. The golf course was named in his honor shortly after the successful incorporation of the town. Few remember Esval, but Jochl does. “He was so determined to see the golf course preserved,” Jochl said of Esval’s effort to unite a newly formed community.

The village declaration reads, “He gave freely of himself, his time, his energy, his expertise, and his love for the development of the community.”

Since George and Chessie MacRae transformed a vision from drawing board to reality, there have been countless other “Ole Esvals” over the last half century campaigning for the village. From the ashes of 1975 burns an affinity for Sugar Mountain and all it offers to the public golfer and winter sports enthusiasts.

For a resort that many felt would never “pan out,” it’s doing alright.

“Our hope is you will see the natural beauty of Sugar when you turn into town,” Daniels concluded. Healthy, beautiful turf is our calling card. You won’t find the conditions any different here than our private club neighbors. We’re off to the races and not looking back.” What a difference fifty years can make.

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