In 2009, Southern Hills Golf Course in Danville, Virginia, became a National Golf Foundation statistic – it was one of about 150 golf courses to close that year as part of an industrywide correction, with courses shutting down because of an overbuilt industry and a sour economy.
I’m sure Southern Hills’ demise wasn’t difficult to accept by the community. The course, after all, had become a victim of the Great Recession and was a shadow of itself. After more than 40 years, it had become unsustainable and was no longer viable.
Besides, golf courses were closing left and right throughout the U.S. because of supply and demand issues. They still are. Pundits will tell you the industry needs to drain itself of such bad blood.
But then there are people like Mark Hopkins who will tell you otherwise. Hopkins saw something in Southern Hills that others didn’t. And, because of him, the course is open and on its way to being viable again.
Hopkins, a PGA professional, purchased Southern Hills in 2011 from the bank that foreclosed on it for $290,000. He reopened the course in 2012. It wasn’t that easy, of course.
Hopkins’ story is one of perseverance, dedication and risk. But his commitment proves that new life is possible even for golf courses that have been left for dead.
Hopkins had an emotional attachment to Southern Hills – he grew up 5 miles from the course and hit his first golf ball there when he was 12. Hopkins also worked as the general manager at Southern Hills in the 1990s, when it was a private club and known by a different name.
Hopkins, who began working in the industry when he was 20, wasn’t stoked purely by emotion to purchase Southern Hills. He knew he had to make it work financially.
“I saw a lot of upside in it,” he told me.
After buying the course in October, Hopkins went to work cleaning it up. Having been closed for two years, the course resembled an overgrown field.
“There were weeds as tall as me everywhere, including on the greens,” Hopkins notes. “We spent the first three months bushhogging the course.”
The greens were dreadful on the surface, but Hopkins discovered their soil was healthy. He reseeded them with Penncross creeping bentgrass.
When he purchased Southern Hills, Hopkins’ intention was to hire a superintendent, but he’s not financially able to do that yet.
So, in addition to being the course’s owner, Hopkins is also the superintendent, pro, general manager, spray tech and mechanic. He also takes out the trash on occasion.
Hopkins hasn’t had any formal training in agronomy, but he knows a thing or two about the subject. When he began working in the industry, he learned as much as he could about all facets, knowing such information could come in handy some day. He formed good relationships with the superintendents he worked with and paid attention to what they were doing.
“When they did something on the course, I asked them why they did it,” Hopkins says.
While Hopkins oversees a staff of two, he also has four daughters, ranging in age from 22 to 18, who work as needed at the course.
“They can get on any piece of equipment and operate it as well as me,” Hopkins says, noting that his wife, Vera, manages the books.
Business is slowly returning to Southern Hills. Hopkins went into this knowing it would be difficult to get the course’s former loyal golfers to return because they had taken their game to other courses. But they’re coming back.
The golf industry will close more golf courses this year than it will open. Rinse and repeat next year.
Unfortunately, there aren’t people like Hopkins in every community where a golf course closes. They’re out there, though. Maybe the industry needs to find them instead of being content with letting more courses close as part of a correction. I realize that some golf courses can’t be saved, but some can, and Hopkins has proved it.
What Hopkins has done should get us thinking. If there’s a will, there’s a way.