Heritage Oaks Golf Club head professional Harry Kicklighter is hearing the accolades all the way over on Jekyll Island.
Kicklighter was working his other part-time job as a realtor with Jekyll Realty on March 9 and everywhere he went, it seemed people were complimenting him about the changes taking place at Heritage Oaks, the residential golf course on Oak Grove Island off U.S. 341.
“I must have had four people tell me that day they had recently played there,” Kicklighter said. “Play has definitely boomed. I think course conditions have a lot to do with it. (Play has been up) a lot more than it has been in recent years.”
Heritage Oaks course owner Steve Dawson said the course, in fact, is nearly at capacity most days with about 150 players per day. “We’ve turned the corner,” Dawson said. “People aren’t starting to come back. They are back.”
Heritage Oaks experienced a slow recovery from the economy’s recession, but Dawson set forth a plan over an indefinite amount of time to g et his course back into pristine condition. It’s been a long road, Dawson said, and one he almost never got started down. In 2012, he tried to sell the course. “We put it on the market for a very reasonable price and even offered to subsidize it,” he said.
But the course just wasn’t making enough money, and no buyers were drawn to Dawson’s offer. Dawson said he was afraid of closing because of what it might do to the property values of the residents around the course. “It was either run it or close it. I wasn’t going to close it because of the people in the neighborhood and our employees.”
It has cost Dawson nearly $3 million in renovations, but the owner is resting easier now that progress is finally being made. Renovations were finally put into motion in early 2014, and the goal was to make the course more playable. That meant clearing out the majority of the Spartina cordgrass that ran along water hazards and bunkers, which had been a complaint from many players.
Kicklighter said the water hazards are more visible, which gives the holes more character. “The lakes are visible again,” he said. “That’s what a lot of people have noticed.”
There were also Spartina clusters on or near fairways, and they didn’t guarantee the safety of a golf ball, even on good shots. “There’s no penalty for hitting a good shot anymore,” Kicklighter said.
Removing the Spartina was only the beginning. Dawson said the shape of Heritage has been taken to another level because of his November hiring of golf course superintendent Travis Crosby. Crosby was formerly the assistant superintendent at Ocean Forest Golf Club on Sea Island, and he studied under Sea Island Golf Club’s Director of Golf Maintenance Berry Collett, the man responsible for getting Sea Island’s Seaside course ready for the PGA Tour’s McGladrey Classic.
“I sat down with Travis, and he only had two conditions for coming here: his salary, which was reasonable, and a new irrigation system,” Dawson said.
Under Crosby’s supervision, the greens at Heritage Oaks have gone from soft and slow to slick and speedy. Crosby has been watering the greens less and relying almost solely on natural rain.
“We’ve over-seeded everything to help out with the aesthetics of the green,” Crosby said. “We’ve managed the water and fertilizer. That’s the biggest part. We’ve cut the water back, and they’ve firmed up on their own.”
Among other changes Crosby is implementing are:
• Hole No. 1: The canal hugged by Spartina that cuts across the first fairway is being completely removed and filled in with sod, and Crosby has plans to build a higher tee box so the fairway is more visible.
• Hole No. 10: While all other greens are comprised of Tift Dwarf grass, the compact green on the short par-4 10th hole is an “experimental” green made of Champion Dwarf Bermudagrass.
• Hole No. 12: It took a few months, but a pond on the right side has been completely emptied and filled in with sod.
• Hole No. 14: An elevated tee box, which Dawson said may be the highest point in Glynn County, sits on the 14th hole and provides a thrilling experience. The new tee box accommodates only the white tees, and Kicklighter said many players have foregone playing the other sets of tees in order to play from the whites.
The new tee box, which sits on an open area to the right of the 13th green, was Dawson’s idea. “(Dawson) always wanted to do something with this corner,” Kicklighter said. “It was empty. He thought about a gazebo or a halfway house, but this was perfect.”
Crosby isn’t sure of his timetable for finishing the renovations at Heritage. He knows once one item gets checked off the list, there will always be another right below it.
“It’s a day-by-day thing,” he said. “There are new challenges you have to go through. “I’ve enjoyed being able to come out here and try different things to improve the course. I’ve always been one of those type of guys who loves projects — working on them and getting them done. It was intriguing for me to come out to a different course and improve it all the way across.”
Dawson said Crosby has been a crucial part of his team of employees, and he expects business to continue to grow as the spring and summer seasons approach.
“We’re going to have a resort course at value prices,” Dawson said. “We’ve built our team, and now we’re winning.”
Sports reporter Nathan Deen writes about local sports.
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