The hills are alive again

Features - Cover Story

How superintendent grit and a group of determined homeowners gave an Alabama course a second life.

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May 8, 2018
Guy Cipriano
After seven years of sitting idle, Heatherwood Hills Country Club held a soft reopening in October 2016.
© photos courtesy of chad Burke

Birmingham, Alabama. June 2016. Days above 90 degrees: 21. Average daily high temperature: 91.4. Employees working at Heatherwood Hills Country Club: one.

Chad Burke runs marathons. Reaching mile 26.2 means enduring grueling solitude. No shortcuts are involved in completing a marathon. Step after step. Mile after mile. Day after day. Blister after blister.

Perhaps somebody with a different background wilts when temperatures approach triple digits and the reopening of a golf course depends on your ability to handle solitude. The history is messy – yet not atypical for a course built around homes – and a group of determined members waded through a legal process to return Heatherwood Hills to a functioning amenity.

A trim marathoner with Midwest roots, Burke arrived June 4, 2016 determined to give residents the views and lifestyle they envisioned. Here, in a hilly development with street names such as Oakmont Road, Greenbrier Way and Spyglass Lane inside the southern limits of Alabama’s biggest city, Burke performed an instinctive act on his first day: he headed straight for the pump station. Turf, after all, can’t become playable without an operating irrigation system.

Before agreeing to become the superintendent responsible for reopening Heatherwood Hills, Burke had worked as a service technician for Jeff Pate Turf & Irrigation, meaning he possessed the expertise and connections to return an irrigation system nobody operated for more than seven years into working condition. Heatherwood Hills’ first incarnation as a private course ended in May 2009.

The condensed history …

Based on public records, United States Steel started selling lots in the Heatherwood development in 1984, followed by the 1986 opening of Heatherwood Golf Club. Formed by homeowners and members, Heatherwood Golf Club, Inc. purchased the course from USX in 1999. HGC owned the course for less than a year. A deed transferred the golf course property from HGC to Heatherwood Holdings. Renovations, which included installing a double-row irrigation system, widening fairways, and constructing new greens and bunkers, commenced immediately after Heatherwood Holdings acquired the property. Heatherwood Holdings reopened the course in October 2001.

Chad Burke arrived as superintendent at Heatherwood Hills Country Club on June 4, 2016.

Court records showed the club reported a positive net income in 2001 because of an increase in membership income, but the financial situation turned gloomy as the Great Recession approached. Heatherwood Holdings ceased operating the course on Dec. 31, 2008 and filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on Jan. 6, 2009.

A group of homeowner members banded together to block the sale of the property for non-golf uses. A bankruptcy judge ruled in 2011 the property couldn’t be sold for any reason other than to be kept as a golf course. The group’s objective included returning the property to a golf course. However, obtaining the proper deed and securing the necessary funding represented a “long process,” says board member Mary Anna Raburn.

Relying on personal and business connections, the group worked with sub-contractors to prepare multiple parts of Heatherwood, including a clubhouse damaged by vandalism, for a reopening. The group hired Cypress Golf Management to operate the facility.

But those moves, Raburn says, only “represent part of the story.” The group, which she describes as around 100 “core people,” contributed funds to purchase the course out of bankruptcy and to reopen the club and course. For seven years, the tight-knit group maintained the empty course, preventing former – and hopefully, they imagined, future – playing surfaces from becoming nuisance land. “We had people pitching in, getting work done where it needed to be done,” Raburn says.

The purchase of the deed was completed in fall 2015, and the new owners started plotting a soft opening, which Raburn retroactively calls Grand Opening 1.0, for fall 2016. Seven years of dreaming and discussing started becoming real when homeowners looked outside their windows and noticed Burke examining and fixing irrigation heads by himself.

Burke graduated from Southern Illinois in 1998 and moved to Alabama to work for family friend Mark Langner, a widely respected superintendent who now works for AQUA-AID. Burke’s first two jobs at Birmingham Country Club and Limestone Springs Golf Club introduced him to a variety of situations. At Limestone Springs, an upscale public course 30 minutes northeast of Birmingham that opened in 1999, Burke helped Langner with a tricky grow-in. Burke left Limestone Springs in 2008 for a landscape and grounds manager position at the University of Alabama. He was working for Jerry Pate Turf & Irrigation when he rekindled his zest for golf course maintenance.

Heatherwood presented a challenge few superintendents ever faced. For starters, the maintenance facility had been vandalized dozens of times during the closing. “It was turned into a skate park,” Raburn says. The facility lacked air conditioning and running water, and Burke brought a cooler filled with ice and bottled water to the course each morning. Running also teaches the value of hydrating, something Burke did constantly as he inspected an irrigation system that included more than 100 heads zapped by lightning during the closing. At least Burke could easily find those heads. He needed a metal detector and pitchfork probe to locate 50 heads that grass had grown over. Burke didn’t receive his first co-worker until the club hired assistant superintendent Mike Sweatt on July 5, 2016.

Friends and industry peers visited Burke during his first month at Heatherwood. Their conversations ranged from technical – preparing greenside irrigation to provide uniformly distributed was Burke’s first agronomic goal – to motivational. The list of superintendents who have attempted to reawaken a zombie course alone in stifling conditions is shorter than the list of college football teams capable of toppling the University of Alabama.

“I would equate it, in my mind, to a visual of being thrown in solitude or something to that extent,” says Langner, who visited Burke multiple times. “Hot. No relief from it. Nobody to talk to but yourself. Nobody to bounce things off but yourself. I have never been in solitude. I think a lot of people would say, ‘Being alone sucks.’ Sometimes we desire that – but it’s for short periods. For him to go through it, hours upon hours, day in, day out, week in, week out, month in, month out, had to be difficult.”

In humble superintendent and runner fashion, Burke downplays the daunting scope of the project. He says he prioritized daily tasks and quickly realized one person can’t fully tend to a golf property alone. He kept consistent hours, working 6:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays and 6:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. weekends. Seeing residents walking dogs or playing in their backyards energized him throughout the suffocating summer.

Greens at Heatherwood Hills Country Club were sprigged with TifEagle Bermudagrass.

“I took a lot of pride in the fact that at the end of each day you were definitely leaving it better than you found it,” Burke says. “Mary Anna always kept the ball going forward and stuck with me. There was nothing that I didn’t expect because I live close by and I always drive through that neighborhood. Even before the job became a possibility, my wife and I took a drive through there, and I mentioned that it would be a fun project to get a chance to work on. I knew what I was getting into. It’s been the best of both worlds, getting a chance to maintain something again and be part of renovation.”

The course reopened as a semi-private facility in October 2016, although Burke, Raburn and other stakeholders viewed last summer as the official reopening. Alabamans are distracted in the fall by other pursuits such as football, hunting and school-related activities, and the soft opening allowed them to assess where the course needed additional work. A soggy May pushed Grand Opening 2.0 to last June.

Greens were sprigged with TifEagle Bermudagrass; fairways are 419 and Celebration Bermudagrass. Burke and his small team – the crew includes Sweatt, a mechanic, three full-time hourly employees and a part-time worker – trimmed trees and improved bunkers this past winter. The narrow course plays under 6,400 yards from the back tees and includes just 60 maintained acres. Expanding corridors is a major goal as the course, renamed Heatherwood Hills Country Club, begins its second life, albeit this time as one of Alabama’s 148 facilities offering public access.

General manager Ben Osteen says Heatherwood Hills fills a gap in a Birmingham market that includes multiple pricey and budget public options, but a dearth of middle-tier courses. Heatherwood Hills charges $30 Monday-Thursday and $40 Friday-Sunday for 18 holes with a cart.

“We’re hoping to take baby steps,” Osteen says. “We’re not expecting 60,000 to 70,000 rounds a year right off the bat. That’s a goal of mine and that would be awesome. We obviously want to be profitable. Right now, our goals are pretty basic: having a full crew of people in the pro shop, in the kitchen, on the wait staff and on the maintenance team going in the same direction. We’re proud of what we’re doing.”

Once financial stability is established, Raburn envisions expanding services, thus creating an “active, vibrant country club and golf course.” Burke simply wants to experience the morning hustle again. “I would be tickled if the tee sheet is covered and we can collectively show off what we have done,” he says. “I want to have that greater sense of urgency to get out of the shop and stay ahead of play. I want that nervous anxiety back.”

When the marathon of reopening a shuttered course becomes a daily maintenance sprint, there’s little doubt Heatherwood Hills will have right person overseeing its agronomics.

“Even though he ventured away from being a golf course superintendent, Chad’s heart really kept pulling him back to it,” Langner says. “When he said, ‘We’re going to reopen Heatherwood Hills,’ I never doubted that Chad could accomplish it. The one thing that concerned me was that it’s a long road and you have to be patient to get there. If there’s any one guy who could be patient, he’s the one. His temperament is perfect for what he took on.”