07/04/04 — Area golf course seeks new life in old links

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Area golf course seeks new life in old links

By David Williams
Published in Sports on July 4, 2004 7:23 AM

The story of Sleepy Creek Golf Course may well parallel the parable of the Little Engine That Could.

This oft-forgotten layout, tucked into the Sleepy Creek Community in southeastern Wayne County, has a lot of history hidden in its sandy slopes and pine-tree lined fairways.

The course developed some problems over the past several years, causing it to fall into disrepair and losing some of its devoted golfers to the many other neighboring courses around Wayne County.

And Hurricane Floyd almost killed the course.

But the Little Golf Course That Could has continued along its way, and over the past 70 days a renewal project has begun to take hold that should bring the course back to its glory days -- and bring back the golfers, as well.

The operators of the course want everyone to know that Sleepy Creek is alive and well -- and getting a little better every day.

The course actually began backwards to the common plan of a golfing development. Usually, a course is built and home sites are sold along its edges.

Sleepy Creek began in the opposite manner.

The Sleepy Creek Hunting and Fishing Club owns the land the course now sits on. One of the members, Ed Worley, decided he wanted to build a single par-3 hole to play on occasion. He did just that in the late 1950s -- right where Sleepy Creek's No. 10 hole is today.

In 1965 a group of Sleepy Creek residents -- headed up by Bobby Wilson, Duffy Lane, Randolph Gwaltney, Bryce Ficken and Bill Barnes -- took Worley's one-hole wonder and expanded it into a nine-hole par-3 course. Sleepy Creek was born -- making it the third-oldest golf course in Wayne County.

Goldsboro Golf Club pro Al Goodrich helped the group lay out the nine-hole course, tramping through the woods around the community to forge what is now the course's first nine holes. The group used its own equipment and labor.

In the early 1970s the course was expanded to 18 holes, and several of the longer par-3 holes were extended to create the course as it stands today. Again, the members of Sleepy Creek used their own time and materials.

In the late 1970s the club members decided to lease the operation of the course to outside operators, which went on for more than 30 years. In part, this decision led to the course's gradual decline.

The operator was paying the club a fee to run the course and paying his own expenses and salaries, which left little money to put back into the course for maintenance and upkeep.

The course took a devastating hit when Hurricane Floyd blew through in the late 1990s. Both dams at Sleepy Creek broke, leaving limited access to the course and no water for irrigation.

The golfers started to play other courses, and Sleepy Creek has not recovered since.

Two months ago, the club decided to take back control of the course. No fault was placed with the course operator, but the members wanted to get the course back to the status it had once enjoyed.

Dan Bowen is one of four Sleepy Creek members now responsible for the operation and upkeep of the course. The other members of the management group are George Lancaster, Tim Creech and Brent Marriner.

The group has invested nearly $40,000 in the last 60 days -- as well as a lot of sweat equity. Just as it was when the course was founded, the membership of Sleepy Creek is donating its time and efforts to putting the shine back on the course.

"Volunteers are managing the course and putting money into it," Bowen said.

The first order of business was to get more grass growing all over the 40-acre layout -- and take down some of the pine trees that blocked the needed sunlight.

"It's a must to grow grass," said Bowen.

So far, 20 trees have been removed from around the tee boxes and the greens. Bowen hopes to have cut down 50 trees when the project is done.

The course has received a lot of rain recently. Lime and other nutrients on the fairways have nurtured a good stand of grass on nearly all the fairways. New grass-cutting equipment has been purchased to enable the course to be properly maintained.

Sod has been trucked in and placed around the bare patches surrounding most of the greens. Ropes are up and course marshals are in place to prevent a long-standing Sleepy Creek tradition of golfers driving carts anywhere they choose instead of sticking to the paths.

"That's going to be a retraining of the golfers," said Bowen.

The group has hired a course superintendent. Carl Vander Vere began work last week. He is a graduate of Wayne Community College's turf management program who has worked at Charleston's Wild Dunes and the Camp Lejeune course in his native Jacksonville.

Vander Vere will spray chemicals to eliminate weeds and give the Bermuda grass a chance to really grow.

The greens are going to be one of Vander Vere's first projects. Most of the greens have responded to chemicals and watering, as well as improved sunlight. Vander Vere will be taking soil samples and creating a chemical mix that will revitalize the grass and eliminate a nagging algae problem that has haunted a few of the greens. At least one green will have to be re-sodded.

More projects are planned. On the horizon is an irrigation system for the front nine (the back nine has an irrigation system in place), redirection and reworking of the cart paths, elimination of the washed-out areas that dot Sleepy Creek's hilly terrain, and expansion of the greens to create more of a challenge on the short game.

Sleepy Creek currently plays at 5,800 yards. Bowen hopes that the course can be lengthened over the next two to three years to 6,500 yards, creating two more par-5 holes to add to the existing two and lengthening more of the 13 par-4s.

Work is planned to improve the waste area in front the green of No. 7. The water hole at No. 17 is to be improved by adding a bridge and sodding the existing paths around the pond.

"On a scale of 1 to 10, the course went from a 1 to a 4," Bowen said. "The objective is to use the summer to hold the course at a decent playing surface and plan for next year with more treatment and more preparation to make it better."

Bowen has no illusions of making Sleepy Creek the county's top course. He just wants it to be the top course in Sleepy Creek.

"Wayne County is a golfing mecca," he said. "There are six courses here. That's a competitive environment. We just want to provide a value for the money. The objective is not to be the best course - we don't have that kind of money. We want a decent course that's fun to play, is an asset to the community, and reflects fairly on the community."

Right now, Sleepy Creek is a value buy -- the cheapest round of golf in the county. Weekend play is $21 with a cart, and on Mondays golfers can get in a round for just $12.50, cart included. Associate course memberships are available for $300, with golfers playing for an average of $10 a round with a $75 quarterly fee.

Bowen said that no greens fees increases are planned, and said that every dime the course makes for the foreseeable future will be used to fund the many projects that are planned.

Sleepy Creek has a lot of positive attributes that don't get enough recognition. The course is naturally sloping, and the soil and undulating fairways are "just right for golf," according to Bowen. The course sheds rainwater quickly -- Bowen said that "it can rain three inches and you can be playing 30 minutes after that."

Bowen hopes the golfers that played Sleepy Creek in the past will return to try the course with its new facelift -- and stay to play again. He would like to see Sleepy Creek log 17,000 rounds of golf a year.

"It's another golfing option," he said. "On Saturday and Sunday anywhere else, you take your kid out at 10 a.m. and you're under the gun from other golfers. Everyone plays through you. This course is a learning course, and there's not that kind of pressure."