VOL. 132 | NO. 133 | Thursday, July 6, 2017
Owners Invest $1.6 Million to Revive Memphis National Golf Club
By Don Wade
Jon Kitchen, general manager of Memphis National Golf Club, in the main dining room overlooking one of the course’s 36 fairways. Kitchen says one of the biggest reasons for the club’s success over the years is membership retention. (Daily News/Houston Cofield)
A golf club is not unlike a garden. It needs tending. Fairways, greens, bunkers – they all need attention. But so do the members, who have many choices throughout the Memphis area and want to feel like their presence matters no matter how low – or high – of a score they shoot.
“You’ve got to have a quality golf course,” said Jon Kitchen, general manager at Memphis National Golf Club in Collierville. “The members first join because the golf experience is a good one. The reason why people really stay is because of how they feel when they come here every week or every day.
“Are their friends here? The tavern is the real retention part of the club. Coming in and seeing your friends, even if you don’t play with them. You want people to know who you are, the whole `Cheers’ thing where everybody knows your name.’”
And yet those personal connections are not enough to overcome a golf course with problems. While returning to the original family ownership, Memphis National has made $1.6 million in course improvements.
It was time. By 2011, membership had dropped from almost 600 members to 385. Membership currently sits at 588 and enhancements to the course, which included substantial bunker work, a revamped drainage system, pruning of trees and renovations to the clubhouse, have reinvigorated Memphis National.
“I can’t tell you how much the golf course has improved,” said Dave Carpenter, 70, who has been a member for about three years and plays at least three days a week. “The course drains better, is in the best shape I’ve seen.”
The property was purchased more than 50 years ago by the great-grandfather of Sam Gassaway III, Robert J. Billings.
“They had an old house here, and a big old cattle barn up on the hill,” Gassaway said. “Probably around 100 acres or so.”
His grandfather, Jack T. Billings Sr., turned it into a golf course – Houston Levee Golf Club – in the early 1970s. In the 1980s, an additional 50 acres of land were acquired east of Sanders Creek. At one point the course had 45 holes.
In June of 1997 Billings-Gassaway, L.P. was formed and purchased the golf club from the Billings heirs and X-L Service, Inc. That same year, 36 holes of the course were leased to the original Arnold Palmer Golf Management Company. Renovations to the course were made and the name was changed to Memphis National Golf Club.
Richie Nelms, a member of Memphis National Golf Club, tees off. The owners invested $1.6 million on course upgrades. (Daily News/Houston Cofield)
In March of 2015, Billings-Gassaway, L.P. took back the operations of the golf course while retaining Century Golf Partners (out of Dallas and owner of Arnold Palmer Golf Management) as its management group.
“The course went through a tough time with the economy, ownership changes of the lease, and that’s why we chose to take it back over,” Gassaway said.
When they did, they realized there was real work to be done.
“The old bunkers were probably the No. 1 reason for loss of members,” he said.
“The drainage was locked up,” Kitchen said. “There would be a pool out there for three or four days after a rain. These bunkers now are playable within 20 minutes after a downpour.”
Last month, the course was the site of the 85th Tennessee Women’s Amateur Championship. With two 18-hole courses, it’s possible to run a tournament and still have a place for members to play, too. And that’s big.
“You’re looking for accessibility,” Carpenter said. “Even if you don’t have a tee time, they’ll get you on.”
Memphis National also has a new head golf pro, Brian Wood, and course superintendent, Casey Nerren. There are various membership options, including young executive and weekday memberships, and programs for both serious and social golfers, plus beginner’s clinics.
There is not, however, a pool or tennis courts.
“This is a golf club, not a country club,” Gassaway said.
Kitchen notes that there was no assessment to members for all the improvements to the club and says Memphis National will accept a one-year commitment in lieu of an initiation fee, adding, “That’s just a barrier to joining.”
Gassaway plays a little golf himself, but takes his satisfaction from the way the course now looks and plays, not how he plays.
“I’m horrible,” he said, adding with a laugh, “I’d rather be on a tractor.”