When Barron Connell hopped onto his Ford tractor and carved his family’s eastern Mecklenburg County dairy farm into a golf course 60 years ago, the nine-hole Larkhaven Golf Club was one of the few daily fee courses Charlotteans could play.
Since then, the course has grown to 18 holes, founded a four-ball tournament that’s run since 1972, served countless hot dogs from the clubhouse grill and endeared itself to golfers with a family feel that’s the opposite of country club stuffiness. Larkhaven is the oldest public, 18-hole course operating in Charlotte. But this is almost certain to be Larkhaven’s final year: The club has agreed to sell itself to Meritage Homes, which plans to build 350 houses on the 140-acre property tucked away off Camp Stewart Road.
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Larkhaven isn’t the only daily fee course in Charlotte deciding that its land can be used more profitably for something besides golf. Charlotte Golf Links, on Providence Road, closed in 2014, and developer Lincoln Harris is in the midst of transforming the 187-acre site into a massive, mixed-use development with shops, hundreds of apartments and homes, 500,000 square feet of office space, a new school and a gym.
And the owners of Ballantyne Corporate Park are weighing how and whether to someday redevelop their golf club, which totals almost 200 acres of valuable land in the middle of a development that sold for $1.2 billion last year. Ballantyne’s proposal to Amazon for the company’s second headquarters showed the internet company’s buildings replacing the 18-hole course.
Courses are feeling the pressure for two big reasons: There are a lot more golf options in Charlotte than when they opened, and golf has continued to struggle with a shrinking number of players. When you look at a map of golf courses in Charlotte now, Larkhaven president Ken Jamison quipped, “It looks like someone’s got the measles, there’s so many red dots.”
“Thirty years ago, all you had to do was open the gates, and you had players,” said Jamison. “It’s a lot more competitive now than it used to be. All the courses are in better shape.”
Like many longtime players, Jamison’s roots at Larkhaven go deep. His father took him to play Larkhaven as a 12-year-old when the course opened in 1958. Fees to play started at $2.50. (They start at $20 now.) Jamison worked the course in the summers and played there with the East Mecklenburg High School golf team during the school year.
Now, the signs of encroaching development are all around, and Larkhaven golfers have been girding themselves for the club’s expected closure. Cresswind, an age-restricted development for senior citizens, is under construction on the adjoining property – 850 new houses on land that was recently a forest. Novant Health is building a medical center next door. Charlotte Water crews are installing a sewer pipe through the golf course that could open up even more of the surrounding land to new development.
“It’s heart-wrenching. It broke our hearts,” said Perry Stokes, talking with his longtime friend John Carriker on Friday. They stood in the Larkhaven clubhouse, facing the no-frills grill pumping out sandwiches and fries. Carriker, 65, said he started golfing at Larkhaven more than 50 years ago. The two reminisced about warming their feet on the old clubhouse’s wood-burning stove and playing into the night by the light of golf cart headlights, once the club got carts.
“Part of us will go with this,” Stokes said, looking out over the rolling course.
A golf crisis?
Golf’s struggles have been well-documented over the past decade. According to the National Golf Foundation, 23.8 million people played on a golf course in the U.S. during 2016, the most recent year available, down from 25.7 million the year before. That’s about a 21 percent drop from the peak of 30 million players in 2005.
Changing cultural expectations have played a role, Jamison said. He recalled decades ago when it was common for wives to be homemakers and men to golf during the workday, or take a weekend day for golf. Now, more families have two parents working full-time, and the expectation that they’ll split parenting duties more equally. The culture of many workplaces has changed too, with cell phones tying workers to the office at all times and making it harder to slip away for a round.
Other Charlotte golf courses have met the same fate. In 2007, a homebuilder bought the 164-acre Pawtuckett Golf Club at Interstates 85 and 485 for $2.1 million, and is now building hundreds of houses on the land. Some back-of-the-envelope math shows how much money such deals can make a homebuilder: If the 350 houses Meritage wants to build at Larkhaven sell for an average of $300,000, that’s $105 million of potential value to be extracted from land that’s now selling $20 rounds of golf.
More than a dozen country clubs remain nestled in Charlotte’s wealthier enclaves, many of them built during the 1990s to anchor upscale neighborhoods such as Ballantyne Country Club and The Peninsula Club at Lake Norman. Some of them have had their share of troubles as well. In 2015, Firethorne Country Club in Union County was sold to ClubCorp, a Dallas-based company that also owns TPC Piper Glen, after falling into bankruptcy in 2010.
The closures and potential redevelopments have hit daily fee courses the hardest. But despite sporadic course closures, golf in Charlotte isn’t approaching a crisis, analysts say.
The redevelopment of golf courses is largely a response to a wave of overbuilding that happened in the 1990s and early 2000s, as the number of golf courses nationwide shot up more than 40 percent. Gregory Nathan, chief business officer at the National Golf Foundation, said the Charlotte region saw a major surge that mirrored the nationwide trend.
In 1987, the Charlotte region had 50 golf courses, as measured in 18-hole equivalents. Now, there are 70, a 40 percent jump.
“(Larkhaven) has been operating in an increasingly competitive golf environment,” said Nathan. “Larkhaven’s closure is a continuation of that natural correction toward equilibrium.”
And while young people might not be as inclined to spend three or four hours at a traditional golf course, they’ve flocked to a new concept: Topgolf. The driving range-like game, where a tracking system scores players on their aim as they hit balls toward glowing, multicolored targets, has drawn big crowds and long waits at Steele Creek, where it opened last year. Topgolf is gearing up to open its second Charlotte location in University City.
Topgolf promotes its food, music and drinks almost as much as the golf-like game, drawing millennials willing to wait hours to play. Counting Topgolf and other similar establishments, the NGF says an additional 8.2 million people played golf last year outside of traditional courses.
Also last year, Charlotte shot to the top of the golf world with the PGA Championship hosted at Quail Hollow Club, an event that drew a national TV audience and tens of thousands of spectators.
And not all daily fee courses are struggling. Ned Curran, president of Ballantyne owner Northwood Office, said golfers played more than 34,000 rounds on the office park-ensconced course last year, the most ever. That course dates to 1996, when Ballantyne was still fields and forests past the fringes of Charlotte.
“It continues to be part of a successful model,” Curran said of the Golf Club at Ballantyne, where fees start at $62. But Northwood is developing a new master plan for Ballantyne, and Curran acknowledged the course could someday change to accommodate more development – perhaps shortened to nine holes, or replaced by new buildings altogether, as in the hypothetical plan they pitched to Amazon.
“It’s something we’ll grow into,” said Curran. “We’re honest with people from a leasing perspective, saying it may not always be golf, but it will always have a lot of green space.”
Celebrating 60 years, waiting for change
Larkhaven is in its third generation of family ownership. The club’s history covers the walls near the entrance, where a players are greeted by a picture of Barron Connell, a Linotype operator who wrote to the U.S. Golf Association for instructional books on how to design a course when he was figuring out what to build in the 1950s.
His son, Butch Connell, who helped build the course, is also commemorated on a plaque. The winners of the annual four-ball tournament are listed, back to first in 1972, on a board that sits under a framed “championship belt” that the pros and some regulars used to pass around for laughs.
“In a city that loves its own sparkle, Larkhaven is a grassroots reminder of how Charlotte used to be and how golf, for most of us, will always be,” former Observer columnist Ron Green Jr. wrote in a 2008 story on the course’s 50th anniversary. “It is not a country club and has never tried to be one.”
Charlotte City Council will consider Meritage Homes’ application to rezone the golf course for residential development in the coming months. Assuming the plans are approved, the sale to Meritage would close after that, possibly late this year or in early 2019.
Jamison, the club president, said Larkhaven is still planning commemorative events to mark its 60th anniversary this year. And he’s optimistic about the future of golf, pointing to the younger generation of stars on the PGA Tour.
But he knows change is coming to Larkhaven, and soon.
“Change happens,” said Jamison. “There’s a time for everything.”