“Except for Sam and Zollie, the rest of us didn’t know a golf ball from a hen egg,” says one of Grandpa Massenburg’s daughters, Martha Sneed, who is in her mid-70s. “But we’re a family, and we’re gonna make this thing work.”
(P1) In the Bull Creek enterprise, the equity formula is simple. Each of the five landowner families controls shares in proportion to the acres they made available. In the same manner, each contributed a proportionate share of the development money.
Anyone who understands business dynamics will tell you one of the shortest roads to ruin is to have a bunch of relatives running an enterprise – let alone five families. Solomon works hard to keep harmony. “I have to watch the personalities at play and make sure they don’t clash, nothing that would jeopardize the project.” And he’s careful to keep the family members abreast of every step. “Everyone’s happier now that we are starting to see it bear some fruit.”
To save money, the families have managed the project themselves. As CEO, Solomon handles the business side while Warren Massenburg oversees construction and maintenance. Family members have provided much of the labor. “We’ve gotten a lot of satisfaction because we’ve done so much ourselves,” Solomon says. “We put in the drain tiles. We moved the stumps. We had help, but it was our hands that were in there lifting rocks and backing in the trucks.”
Inevitably, there have been hangups, some hinging around nostalgia. Fine old farm buildings – corn cribs, barns, smokehouses – had to be moved or demolished, though every log and creaky door was coated with 70 years of family memories.
Cousin Fredrick Bridges owned an old barn full of his daddy’s long-unused farm implements. It sat squarely in the middle of a planned fairway. He finally compromised and allowed workmen to truck his rusty relics to another barn down the road. Says Sneed, “I guess we all hated to see the buildings go, but this is a changing world, honey. And you’ve got to change right along with it or else you’re going to end up standing there by yourself.”
The toughest part was getting started. “I requested information from the state Department of Agriculture and the Parks and Recreation people, but they didn’t know much about how you get ready to build a golf course,” Solomon says. “Then I approached the Franklin County Planning Department, and they got me started.”
Solomon and Gill visited courses, beginning with Ironwood and Bradford Creek, another converted farm, in Greenville and Brevovfield in Wake Forest. “They gave us all the information we asked for and then some,” Solomon says. Later, an employee of the Country Club of Johnston County spent half a day at Bull Creek advising Massenburg on laying drain tiles into the greens.
“Every golf course we visited, it went the same way,” Gill says. “First they would look at us like we were crazy for even thinking about building a golf course. But once they decided we were serious, they did whatever they could to help us. The typical response was: ‘Here’s a golf cart – to take a look.'”
They soon learned that the selection of turf is crucial and affects maintenance costs and aesthetic appearance for decades to come. Solomon visited Charlotte Golf Links to examine its grass and how it was planted. “We went down to see their sprigging process,” he says, “but we got lucky and arrived while they were installing the irrigation system. We were like kids in a candy store.”
He also talked with grass specialists at Pennsylvania State University’s experimental seed-testing station in Roseville. At North Carolina State University, he found L.T. Lucas, a turf-grass expert who performed percolation tests on the site and formulated a mixture of sand, peat moss, and topsoil as nourishment for the bent-grass greens.
In his search for expertise, Solomon found Mack Little, a Raleigh architect who helped him design the course. “We couldn’t afford a golf architect, but Mack’s a thoroughly professional architect and a golfer as well,” he says. Working on a per-day fee basis, Little helped map the elevations, fairways, greens and tee boxes.
The rolling hills of the Bull Creek course are contoured for good drainage. Encouraged by the turf rows Zollie Massenburg dug decades ago, the land has supported a prosperous farm for three-quarters of a century. “If it rained an inch and a half tonight, we could play tomorrow,” Solomon says. “Nature gave us this golf course. All we had to do was build the tee boxes and greens.”
Early on in the project, Tony Beckham, an ambitious Franklin County earth mover, dropped by to ask how he could “help out.” Though Beckham’s fleet consisted only of a backhoe, a three-ton farm dump truck and an ancient mini-bulldozer, Massenburg liked his attitude and struck a deal for him to do much of the construction. Beckham subcontracted the bigger jobs, such as building tee boxes, to a firm with heavier equipment.
Though the work has followed Solomon’s timetable, there have been some surprises. “There have been a few things that were elevated a little bit beyond what I thought it would cost to get in place,” he admits. One was the foundations for the greens. “When the man starting bringing in eight to 10 loads of gravel per green, that kind of staggered me. I never knew it would take that much to cover it.” Especially at $225 a load.
A third of the way through, it was clear the project was going to take more than the $400,000 the families anteed up. They put their land up as collateral for a $500,000 loan. Armed with a detailed business plan, Solomon approached a large Raleigh bank. “They agreed to put up the money,” he says, refusing to name the institution, “but they also wanted to take over the project and use our money to hire their experts and run the show. We didn’t take too well to that approach.”
He turned to First Citizens’ branch in Louisburg, which he had done business with before. “We got the half-million. And they never mandated anything to us.”
Going from grains to greens is a gamble for the Bull Creek families, but to Solomon, that’s, er, par for the course. “I would be gambling just as hard if I had 200 acres of tobacco. Then I’m gambling with the weather, I’m gambling with getting help to get it into the house. If those things don’t work in my favor, I stand to lose just like I stand to lose with a golf course.”
Bull Creek is a member of an exclusive group. According to the Minority Golf Association of America, there are probably no more than five or six black-owned golf courses in the country – although Bull Creek isn’t the first in North Carolina. Meadowbrook Country Club in Garner was established in 1959 by black entrepreneurs.
As you make the six-mile trek east from Louisburg to Bull Creek Golf and Country Club in Mapleville, you pass acres of farmland, then woods that open up only once you’ve arrived at the course. Can a golf course survive in such a remote location?
“A man playing golf doesn’t mind riding 40 to 50 miles for a round,” Solomon says, adding that Raleigh, Durham, Rocky Mount and Henderson fall within that distance. “Down in Raleigh you have to make your tee-time reservation four days in advance and then play on a crowded course,” Gill adds. “You know they’ll drive 25 miles to play in a beautiful, quiet setting.”
Actually, Raleigh is more like 35 miles, but Gill may be right in concept. Raleigh golf architect Kurt Sandness, who has two courses underway in North Carolina and one in Alabama, says, “There definitely is an undersupply of golf courses in Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill. People will drive 30 miles or more to play a quality course. Look at the courses that are doing well in Fuquay and Clayton.”
What does he think of Bull Creek’s do-it-yourself approach? “They certainly have enough land for 18 holes. The two important things about course design are quality maintenance and aesthetic appeal. The greens and fairways have to be maintained very well. If the course looks like a cow pasture, fewer people will play it. Second, a course needs variety in design, from an aesthetic standpoint. Landscaping, flowers, vegetation, left and right doglegs – the landscape that rolls instead of looking flat. Those are the things that keep people returning to a golf course.”
At Bull Creek these days, golfers are putting and pitching their way around a par-72, 6,500-yard course that boasts big greens. Four lakes add to the challenge, but for now, there are no sand traps. “We think it will be better if we ‘play the traps in’ – that is, install them after we get a feel for the way the course is going to play,” Solomon says. Surrounded by woods, there are few trees on the course itself. Solomon plans to plant more to better define some of the fairways.
For now, with no bunkers and only scattered trees, the rolling, open terrain still looks a bit like, well, farmland. Tobacco runs right up to the fourth tee box. But the rustic charm is part of the appeal, Solomon says. He once asked one of his customers from Raleigh why he routinely made the trip. “He said, ‘Out here, you don’t have the hustle, you don’t have the bustle. You’re out here with nature. You don’t have the noise.'”
In some cases, the bucolic surroundings provide what Solomon calls “subtle challenges” for golfers. On the fourth fairway, for example, four old barns serve as a barrier for the dogleg. “This guy a month ago was trying to take a shortcut by going over and around the barns,” Solomon says. “He’d hit the side of a barn, he’d hit the top of a barn, and he kept falling short of the fairway. He shot 18.”
Soon after it opened, the course was drawing as many as 50 golfers a day. That cooled off with the weather. Anticipating the club will log about 25,000 rounds this year, Solomon has hired a golf pro, a course superintendent, and a maintenance worker. He expects the course to be earning enough by this summer to support what’s in place.
Across the road from the front nine, there’s a snack bar and pro shop in a trailer that serves as the temporary clubhouse. A sign over the snack bar advertises weekday greens fees of $6 for nine holes and $12 for twice around. Golf carts are $3 extra.
Across from the trailer, there’s a driving range where you can whack ’em all day for $2 a bucket. Stretched out behind, there’s the roughly landscaped site of the back nine. It’s slated to be ready by spring 1998. The long-range plan calls for a swimming pool, tennis courts, bowling on the green and a clubhouse with pro shop, dining facilities, and a ballroom. Eventually, Bull Creek will offer country-club memberships.
Mirena Strickland, 80, one of Zollie Massenburg’s daughters, sits at her window and watches the golf carts buzz around. She recalls a young Mirenia bending in the hot sun alongside her 13 brothers and sisters. “We feel right about this investment because we’ve worked so hard all of our lives priming tobacco, putting potatoes in the barn and picking cotton. It makes me feel good to think that my children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren won’t have to work like that but they’ll get some benefit from what we’ve done.”