Park For The Course

GRAND RAPIDS — Sometime between midnight and 1:30 a.m. on Monday, July 11, a group of vandals armed with garden implements made their way onto the third green of the White Course at Grand Rapids Country Club. They parked their car in a wooded area off the road, crossed private property, wound their way through a gap between two towering spruce trees and commenced to royally mess up Tom Leamon’s handiwork.

The next morning Leamon discovered the damage. Shovels and rotary cultivators had been thrust into the previously smooth putting surface. The “outright malicious vandalism” would cost Leamon thousands of dollars.

This was an aggravation — and an expense — he could have done without.

“They wanted to do something to hurt us and this does,” he said. Although he doesn’t think the vandalism has any personal or political motivation, it is an unwelcome burden for the fledgling course.

As of this spring, Leamon is in charge of what is now called Grand Rapids Country Club on Leonard Street NE. He is leasing the grounds from the Meijer Foundation, which purchased the course in 2003. Responding to the foundation’s desire to donate the land to Kent County for use as a wildlife park, the owners of the erstwhile Grand Rapids Golf Club sold off nearly every piece of golf-related equipment on the site.

“They sold the yardarm markers. They sold the tee markers, the cups, the flags, the mowers,” said Leamon. “Some things that were nailed down got sold.”

But the future of the proposed wildlife park turned bleak when a healthy majority of Kent County citizens voted down the millage that would have funded the creation of the park’s infrastructure and paid for the relocation of the John Ball Zoo. What was left was a golf course stripped of all remnants of golf.

Leamon decided to take a shot at getting the club back up and running. Early this year, he signed an open-ended lease with the Meijer Foundation and began the laborious and expensive process of replacing the golf paraphernalia throughout the renamed Grand Rapids Country Club. Leamon would not disclose the details of the lease. Asked whether it was a good deal for him, he replied, “Oh, it’s an opportunity — for me and the community. I consider myself a caretaker of this valued property of the community.”

That opportunity means one more course in one of the nation’s most heavily golf-laden regions. On the other hand, Leamon points out, it also means a chance to preserve open, green space. He said that had his plan to resuscitate the golf course failed, the alternative may have been a residential development on the site.

“There may someday be that,” he said. “But right now they want to keep it a golf course. As long as people support it, it will stay.”

That, in the competitive golf business, is the challenge. Fortunately for Leamon, he is certainly not cutting his teeth on the West Michigan golf scene. He has worked in the local golf business for over 40 years. He used to own a course in St. Joseph. He is a Professional Golf Association teaching pro. He owns the Cascade Golf Center. He even served as the course pro and general manager for 25 years at the course he now runs. He said that his community connections help, but it’s a challenge to get golfers on the course.

Leagues often provide the dependable bread-and-butter revenue for golf courses. Grand Rapids Country Club does not — and will not — play host to leagues. That means the course must rely strictly on regular walk-on traffic. Leamon has no advertising budget and depends on referrals from players and the students he teaches at Cascade Golf Center.

In order to stay competitive and to build up volume, Leamon said he has set the rates as low as they were in 1980. That is not entirely a choice on his part. The competition in the business has driven rates down for golf courses across the region.

The prices are attractive, but the course is far from full. Even on sunny Friday afternoons only a few foursomes dot the landscape.

Leamon recognizes the course as a work in progress. He said he “didn’t go into this year even thinking about making a profit.” Only 18 of the course’s 27 holes are currently open. Leamon plans to open a short “walking executive nine” course by August. While working on that project, he has also been rebuilding sections of the course’s 35-year-old watering system. Even after the repairs, the system is not nearly as extensive as those found on new courses. The sprinklers do not reach the rough, leaving the areas outside the fairways a fluffy tangle that plays host to hundreds of lost balls.

Although some players have complained about the shaggy rough, Leamon said there is nothing he can do. He can’t cut the grass shorter without expanding the irrigation system. He can’t expand the irrigation system without more money. He can’t get more money without more players on the course. He can’t get more players on the course without an advertising budget, and so on.

“We need to build up open play,” he said. “It’s really a nice little golf course. We just need people to know we’re here — to know we’re open.”

Even if Leamon’s course succeeds, it may not prevent future development of the site. What does the Meijer Foundation have in mind for the site?

“We don’t know, to be perfectly candid,” said Rob VerHeulen, the foundation’s attorney. He said the foundation is considering a number of options, including proposals for residential development. Using the site to expand the nearby Meijer Gardens has been ruled out as a possibility. Fortunately for Leamon and the golfing community, having the Grand Rapids Country Club operating on the site prevents the foundation from rushing to choose the land’s future.

“Having it used like this allows us to take our time in making a long-term decision,” said VerHeulen.    

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