Every club suffers through the valleys, pushing on toward the promise of the peaks to come. Champions Club suffered and pushed more than most.
There was the owner who filed for bankruptcy and turned over control of the club to a series of banks. There was the other owner who managed finances so tightly that the maintenance crew more than once forked over their own cash for the equipment and supplies needed to finish a job. There was the fleet of not-so-gently used equipment, often ordered direct from eBay, motors shuffling from machine to machine because only so many of them actually turned over. There was the Thanksgiving morning when a septic line ruptured, flooding the 18th green in sewage.
Finally, in December 2018, a little more than two decades after Champions Club opened in the Chattanooga suburb of Ooltewah, a group of homeowners frustrated with the state of the course and how it affected their property values provided a glimmer of hope. Jim Brunjak, Bill Cronin, John McCormick and Derek Steele purchased the course for $2.1 million, more than three times the course’s appraised value. They charged in, changed what they could, started the revival.
And then, less than five months later, Brunjak, the ringleader, the emotional heart and the passionate spokesperson of the group, died suddenly, just 62.
“I tell you,” Cronin says. “We buy the place and we didn’t really, truly understand what we were getting into.”
Does any course owner ever really, truly understand what exactly they are getting into? Buckle up. The valleys in this revival story dip low.
Champions Club opened not long before the turn of the century, right at the height of the golf boom, a nine-hole retreat tucked among developing subdivisions, less than seven miles north of the revered Honors Course. Just six years later, market demand doubled its footprint to a standard 18 holes and more than 7,100 yards, the new course laid out by Jay Morrish and Associates. Those were some good times.
The real problems started during the Great Recession. Toby McKenzie owned the club at the time, his fame focused on the payday loan company National Cash Advance, which he founded in 1994 and sold five years later, his fortune tethered to so much real estate development around southeast Tennessee. McKenzie filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in December 2008, his debts more than $150 million. Champions Club changed hands to one bank, then another, before Henry Luken, who built up a television broadcasting company that included The Family Channel and Heartland, took control.
Luken collected area courses, eventually owning seven and providing access to all of them as part of a package. Unfortunately, according to both Cronin and Champions Club superintendent Jason Lundey, the course “looked horrible.”
“Oh my god,” says Cronin, who was a member before he joined the current ownership group. “It was very unkept, there were weeds, they hadn’t put down fertilizer or overseeded for four years to save money. It got in such a state of disrepair. The greens were just overrun with intrusive species, so much so that the locals started calling it crentgrass — half crabgrass and half bentgrass. It was embarrassing to even bring people by the course.”
“It’s crazy to even say it, but there were plenty of times I was at work, wondering, ‘What in the heck are you doing here, man?’” says Lundey, who moved to the Chattanooga area almost two decades ago and wandered into the golf industry about 11 years ago, when he started caddying at the Honors Course, then moved over to maintenance. “Under the old ownership, I was used to day to day. ‘Let’s get through Thursday without a mower catching on fire.’”
And that was always a possibility when most machines were ordered secondhand (or, who knows, third- or even fourth-hand) on eBay. “It would come out of a field and it might have been sitting there for two years,” Lundey says. “So, first, the mechanic’s got to get it to run and then you take it out and wait for that first hydraulic line to blow, which happens usually in about seven days, and then you bring it in and you either have to replace that or … It was a nightmare. We couldn’t plan a week in advance because we worried about what was going to happen in an hour. Every day, something happened.”
The single worst day was probably that Thanksgiving shower on the 18th green, which happened a little more than a year before the club changed hands.
“Hamilton County let the material condition of their septic system go and when it did, one of their high-pressure septic lines ruptured,” Cronin says. “Think of a fountain of shit coming out of the green. It was just blowing it up into the air and everything it came in contact with died because the township didn’t get out there for days. They shut the sewage down right away, but they didn’t get out there to remediate it and put lime on it for probably five days because of the holiday weekend.”
The problems spread to the 17th hole, too, where a forwarding pump failed and flooded the green and fairway with raw sewage, “killing everything over there,” Cronin says. “All of 2018, it was out of service. They had to come in and cut up all the grass and recontour the earth and put new dirt and sand in. It was just … it was ugly. We had a 16-hole golf course for a year and a half.”
“Kind of hard to sell a 16-hole golf course,” Lundey says. “Fewer strokes, though. Really helps the score.”
Brunjak, Cronin, McCormick and Steele stepped in in late 2018, putting down a little more than $600,000, leaving a note of $1.4 million, then pouring in $1 million after purchasing the club. That initial investment covered “windows, doors, roofs, carpets, a complete renovation of the clubhouse and all of our equipment,” Cronin says. And while the clubhouse has received the most attention, it’s the equipment, no surprise, that has made the biggest difference for Lundey, now in his sixth year at Champions Club.
“We have a fleet of equipment, one of everything we needed, brand new, Toro,” he says. “As far as appearance goes, just keeping up with weeds, keeping weeds sprayed out, and cutting — everybody said, ‘You’ve done wonders on the greens!’ No! They bought us a brand-new mower and it cuts flat. Before, every other reel would be a different height. Just adding the new equipment made it seem like we were doing more. Having the right chemicals to put down and treat everything, it goes a long way.”
The most important accomplishment of the first year under new ownership, though, was the greens overhaul on the back nine — especially those two greens swamped in sewage — replaced for the first time since the course opened and now featuring TifEagle Bermudagrass. “That’s grown in and it’s awesome.” The front nine is still bentgrass and scheduled to be replaced this year.
Or maybe the most important accomplishment was just keeping the club at all, especially after Brunjak’s sudden death in April. Over in Harrison, Tennessee, less than a dozen miles west of Champions Club, another Luken-owned course named Eagle Bluff Golf Club shuttered in July after the homeowners association there hired an attorney to ensure new home lots not replace the course. The two clubs provide a stark contrast in how to keep courses alive in what remain challenging times for golf.
HOAs in similar situations “need to make sure they have the support of the community,” Cronin says. “We have it now, but when we first did this, we didn’t have the support like we thought we did. A lot of people said, ‘I’m going to support you, I’m going to support you,’ and then when the rubber hit the road and we started putting money down, they didn’t support like they said were going to support. You think about Eagle Bluff, they’re in the same situation we were in and Henry shut the golf course down. He’s going to develop it and those people are trying to get a group together to buy it and maintain their property values. It’s no different than where we were at two years ago.”
Lundey said he feels like the ownership and the maintenance storms have passed. “I really feel like we worked through it,” he says. “We have very open communication now and I feel like they’re honest with me. There are a lot of things that need to be tackled, and they’re still on the plate. The irrigation, I could work here for 15 more years and we might get it done — short of dumping all the money into it, and I don’t think that’s an option. … Bunkers are a big complaint. We’ve got too many, and we’ve been filling some that are unnecessary. We filled probably five or six (last) year, we filled five or six (the) year (before), and we’re still sitting at probably 50 bunkers on the course. More than we need.
“I feel more optimistic about it when I assess the last 10 months compared to the previous 60. I like the challenges, the ability to be able to do what you said you could do, and to bring something back to what it should be. And I have a great crew” — seven total, six of them full-timers — “that sees it that way, too. I’ve had 40 guys work for me in the last six years. The guys I’ve got now are all vested, too, and willing to do what it takes, and that makes it to me like I’ve got 14 guys instead of seven.”
Agronomic fortunes are turning. The peaks seem nearer than ever, and they could be glorious.