When Tony Withers and his four partners began developing Crooked Creek in southern Wake County in the 1990s, Withers saw it as his chance to fulfill a lifelong dream.
“My goal’s always been to do a golf course,” Withers, 61, said this week. “All I ever wanted to do was build a golf course, own a golf course and run a golf course.”
Withers has done just that for the past 20 years, trying to create a simple, advertising-free golfing environment.
“We always wanted to keep it less than 150 members because it’s a publicly played course,” Withers said of the 18-hole Crooked Creek Golf Club. “We never charged a lot for memberships. It’s just kind of a simple mom-and-pop operation. I wanted to keep it pure.”
But now Withers and his partners say the course has become a financial albatross. With plenty of land-hungry homebuilders eager to pay top dollar to convert the course into residential lots, they’ve decided to sell.
The decision has not been well received by some homeowners in the Crooked Creek community, which today includes hundreds of homes. Signs have been posted along the course protesting a possible sale, and a homeowners meeting has been scheduled for Friday to discuss possible options.
“I would like a white knight to come in and buy it from them and keep it going and put some money back into it,” said Randy Wells, who lives along the 5th hole and whose family was one of the first people to buy a lot in Crooked Creek in 1994. “Will they make money on it if they do that?”
Almost certainly not. The Crooked Creek course is worth three times as much as residential land, even when you factor in the likelihood that as much as a third of its roughly 165 acres won’t be able to be developed because the land is in a flood plain, a stream buffer or simply too steep.
Withers said he expects the land to fetch enough from a residential developer to pay off the debt on the property, pay back the partners for all the money they’ve invested over the years and walk away with a small profit.
While Withers’ group was involved in starting Crooked Creek, it hasn’t been involved in the residential construction of the community since it sold 29 lots when the first nine holes were being built. The partners later sold the remainder of their nongolf land to MacGregor Development to help finance the completion of the course.
The community has since been annexed by the town of Fuquay-Varina.
Crooked Creek Golf Club’s struggles reflect both the declining popularity of golf in the United States and the sheer number of courses Triangle golfers now have to choose from. The total number of rounds played in the United States last year declined 4.9 percent compared to 2012, according to the National Golf Foundation.
“The game is not growing,” Withers said. “Juniors just don’t play, the old guys are aging out.”
Compounding the problem has been that, by Withers’ count, 16 new courses have opened in the Triangle since Crooked Creek was completed.
“There’s been a lot of competition in our area, a lot of well-funded golf courses,” said Sam Ravenel, one of Withers’ partners.
Crooked Creek is also showing its age, particularly its greens, which need to be redone – an undertaking that would cost several hundred thousand dollars.
“We’ve borrowed all the money we can borrow,” Ravenel said. “We’ve done everything we can do.”
The covenants and restrictions for the Crooked Creek subdivision state that C.C. Partners, the company that the partners formed to develop the course, may eventually decide to sell it for single-family or multifamily residential use. Withers insists the plan was always to sell, just not so soon.
“Our exit strategy has always been to put a neighborhood in there when the time came,” he said. “I didn’t think it would be in my lifetime.”
Although Withers said several developers are eager to buy the land, the property is not yet under contract. Ravenel said the golf course would at least remain open through the end of this year.
As for Withers, his dream has turned somewhat bittersweet as he deals with angry homeowners unhappy with the decision to sell.
“When I play the course and see all these signs that say don’t close the golf course, I’m right there with them,” he said. “But when I see the signs that call us a liar, call us greedy ... that burns me up, absolutely just breaks my heart.”