A mountain miracle

Features - Spotlight

Course closures have been abundant since the Great Recession. How did the Colorado gem Cornerstone Club come back to life after seven long years?

Subscribe
October 30, 2019

© Dusenberry Golf Course Design

The end was near, and Jason Stroehlein knew the end was near, his staff whittled thinner than any sensible size, his days obviously numbered, and still he worked.

He hopped on “some cheap rental equipment” for basic mows. He worked for months without water. Just do what you can, he was told, to keep as much turf alive as possible. When winter arrived, he sprayed what little snow mold preventative fungicide remained in his maintenance facility, steering clear of fairways and not indulging at all in any aerification, and winterized an irrigation system that carried an $8 million price tag when it was installed less than a decade earlier. Blow it out. Shut it down.

“Two days later, they laid me off,” he says. “That was it.”

Stroehlein had worked for four glorious years as an assistant and later as the superintendent at Cornerstone Club, an incredible and ambitious course outside Montrose, Colorado — on the eastern edge of the Uncompahgre National Forest, about 30 miles north of Telluride and 300 miles west of Denver — laid out by Greg Norman Golf Course Design and bankrolled by Hunt Realty Investments. After opening back in 2008, Cornerstone was heralded as “the best new course in Colorado” by one magazine, “the best new private course in America” by another, and “easily the best high altitude course in the nation and quite possibly the world” by a third.

“We had a big checkbook,” Stroehlein says. “We had a ton of money and a promise that Hunt was going to develop other golf courses. We felt like we were a success and everything was great.”

And then everything wasn’t great. Not long after Hunt turned to KemperSports to manage the sprawling 6,000-plus-acre property, the dregs of the Great Recession seeped into Colorado and the rest of the Mountain West. Lot and membership sales had bottomed out and the oil and gas business appeared far more lucrative for Hunt. The course changed hands in 2011, then again in 2012. Financial problems plagued both groups and the course shut down in June 2012, the staff trimmed from 27 to seven.

Aisner

Stroehlein remained for another handful of months before that number dwindled to zero. The day he learned he was out of a dream job, he and his wife, Valerie, started to pack up their lives — their children were just 4 and 1 at the time — and wondered what was next.

“It was like having the rug pulled out from under us,” he says. “It was like, ‘Wow, what do you do?’ I was applying for jobs all over the Midwest and the Mountain West to try to find anything.” After heading back to southern Illinois, not far from home, Stroehlein worked for a couple local landscape companies before landing a position as a parks superintendent in suburban St. Louis. “We just decided it was time to get back closer to family and find something with some stability until the golf industry bounced back a little bit,” he says.

Stroehlein

The course, meanwhile, spiraled into a legal

miasma filled with lawsuits and court dates. It remained shuttered for the next seven years.

 

AROUND 200 COURSES SHUT DOWN every year around the United States, at least according to numbers released by the National Golf Foundation, just about all of them for one financial reason or another. Some will be cleared for new suburbs full of homes. Some will grow over and become fields, the hint of a course peeking up from under the weeds.

“If you’ve been in the golf industry long enough — and certainly if you’ve been in the golf industry from the late ’90s through the 2000s to now — and you didn’t have a project that got closed somewhere along the way, you just weren’t very active,” says Matt Dusenberry, who launched his Dusenberry Golf Course Design in 2014 after 16 years with Greg Norman. What isn’t common, of course, is the reverse. “I think it’s rare,” Dusenberry says, “that a project comes back.”

Cornerstone Club is today a part of that far smaller number because of its Owners Association. Spurred by its longtime president, Bob Aisner, the group sued the club’s owners in March 2013 for a breach of contract related to breaking up the property and selling it in packages. The case ended in a settlement and the land was deeded back during the last quarter of 2015.

Despite being shut down almost seven years, Cornerstone Club never turned into a jungle of weeds.
© Dusenberry Golf Course Design (2)

“We were really just focused on taking control back of the whole property,” says Aisner, who splits his time between the Dallas Metroplex and Cornerstone. “What was going to happen to the course was second to getting it back and under control in one unified ownership with a long-term vision.”

After sifting through more paperwork, Aisner and the Cornerstone Owners Association dived into the details of renovating the course — which had now lay dormant longer than it had welcomed golfers — and they called Stroehlein first, bringing him back as a consultant for a revival project that would have been funded by a prospective ownership group out of North Carolina.

“It was almost surreal just to be back, and it was just heartbreaking to see it in that condition after we had hit so many high peaks,” says Stroehlein, who walked the property for four days during that summer 2016 trip and then worked with Aisner for the next six to eight months to develop a revival plan. “All the fairways and roughs, all the bluegrass areas, were only about 6 inches tall and just very thin. That was surprising. We had a few weeds, dandelions and thistle, but nothing was overgrown or crazy. You couldn’t see fairway contours, but it was a golf course, wall to wall, right down to the edge of the grass limits. It took shape fairly quickly to determine what we were going to have to do.”

The financial end of the deal unraveled in early 2017 and the Owners Association opted to fund it internally. Again, Stroehlein received the first call — this time to revive not only the course but his old superintendent position.

“We were lucky Jason was willing to come back,” Aisner says. “He had always loved the course and there was nothing more important than getting him back. He had great relationships with contractors, subcontractors. There was never an issue.”

“Even as the assistant superintendent, I was involved in everything, not just the golf course,” Stroehlein says. “All the amenities, the real estate, everything.”

Dusenberry received the next call — almost a decade after he first arrived on the property to participate in the design of the course during his days with Norman. How often is an architect afforded an opportunity to edit their work on such a scale?

“The only areas that were really in poor condition, which is amazing, were just the areas that had sand,” says Dusenberry, who worked on the project with his design partner James McKenna. “There’s a sand profile under the tees, there’s a sand profile under the approaches and greens, and those areas were all desiccated and had very limited turf on them. There were a few cracks from the years, but it was really all there, almost like it was preserved. Bizarre. Even the bluegrass — if you were to go to an overgrown course in the Midwest, the grass would all be a foot high. Here, it was like it had maintained itself. It looked like you could darn near go play golf.”

Perhaps the grass stunted because of a relative lack of water. Because Cornerstone sits in essentially a high desert environment, the course enjoys what Stroehlein calls “even decent growing conditions” for no more than five months every year. Couple that with an irrigation system that had been turned off for almost five years and the recipe is right for short grasses rather than tall.

Oh, and about that irrigation system. When Stroehlein turned it back on, all but about 1 percent of the 3,200 or so Rain Bird heads worked perfectly. Thank that last blowout back in 2012.

“We didn’t know if we were going to be replacing three-fourths of the heads, or if plumbing was going to be blown up, or if pump stations were going to be completely shot,” Stroehlein says. “I walked in the first day and turned the pumps on and they lit up like I’d left them yesterday and we charged everything back up in three days. It was unbelievable.”

Cornerstone Club reopened for good on July 13 with new national members targeted as a potential growth area.
© Dusenberry Golf Course Design (2)

Instead of spending millions more, Stroehlein needed about $50,000 to tune up an elaborate system of pipes and sprinkler heads.

“We got very lucky,” Aisner says. “If we had had to tear up all the fairways and start from scratch with an irrigation system, who knows what the result would have been.”

Aisner also called John McNeely, the founder of Diamond Creek Golf Club in Banner Elk, North Carolina, and managing partner at Congaree in Ridgeland, South Carolina, to help restart operations. He focused more on the macro than the micro, providing big-picture perspective. “We had a spectacular team,” Aisner says. “Nobody had an ego and the free flow of ideas was just terrific.”

Cornerstone opened in spurts, with 21 acres filled with a practice facility and a short course opening June 1, 2018, the first eight holes of the course opening September 8, 2018, and the full course opening for good July 13. A western drought last year helped the renovation wrap up on time, with work rolling on every day from April 13 through October 5. The elk that moved into the bunkers have been evicted back to an even more natural habitat and the primary avenue for growth is to bring in as many as 75 new national members, a number Aisner says “we think we can easily reach.”

Stroehlein is working with a bigger crew than before, 35 in the summer and 10 in the winter, with snow removal in the winter and summer lawn care maintenance for homeowners a part of the schedule.

© Dusenberry Golf Course Design (2)

“It’s been a crazy two years and we’re just killing it right now,” he says. “Great year agronomically, great year with members. We feel like it’s been a pretty amazing process.”

The differences between then and now are stark, but not lost to memory.

“It gives you much more of a sense of purpose and you’re much more grateful,” Stroehlein says. “Not that we weren’t grateful the first time around, but gosh, all the work that was put into it and then to have it closed down and then have an opportunity to come back. I looked at it as the ultimate opportunity. We get to tweak it until it’s to where we think it’s perfect.

“In 2012, I was pretty down about it. I could have just walked away. I could have not blown out the irrigation system. I pushed and fought hard to spray fungicides and do all the things that we were trying to do, just in case. I saved records. I had all the information I needed in the event that the following year or two years later, if somebody wanted to get things back going again, I would have all that. I put myself in the best position if I was the guy coming back. You never know. Put it to bed as if you’re going to open it next year.

“I couldn’t imagine if I hadn’t done all those things, coming back, what I’d be in for. If we had walked out there and the pump station was dead, if the pumps were all frozen up, if we had plumbing issues, they would have pulled the plug. They wouldn’t have ever even gone through with it.”

No story has a real beginning, or a middle, or an end. We all just pick random moments from our experience to look back — and to look ahead.