PORT ARTHUR —
If you are planning on a weekend round of golf at Belle Oaks, it might be wise to call for a tee time. Pretty much on life support late in 2012, with co-owner Jerry Braxton tired of losing money and searching for potential buyers, the former Port Arthur Country Club is completing one of its busiest-ever Januarys.
And that’s despite a miserable, rainy stretch of weather in the middle of the month.
Head pro/general manager Bryan Jackson gleefully reports that he did over 620 rounds during a recent eight-day stretch. More often than not these days, when Braxton pulls into the parking lot, he sees the number of cars and trucks normally present only when tournaments are being held.
“Jerry’s been grinning ear to ear,” said Jackson. “I’m really happy for him and (co-owner) Brian Phelps. “They spent over $375,000 to get the doors open after Hurricane Ike and they weren’t seeing much in return. We were making money maybe four months out of the year and taking a pretty serious hit the rest of the time. They deserve it to be like this. Hopefully, it will stay this way.”
So what’s turned things around for a course which has always been limited by location? Basically, there have been two catalysts. Jackson has the golf course, especially the greens, in terrific shape. But that’s not unusual. Bryan, who is fighting a second bout with cancer, has long been acknowledged as the best greens superintendent in Southeast Texas.
The real key has been a steady influx of players who decided to make Belle Oaks their second golfing home after the Dec. 30 closing of The Patch. Regular games that were played on Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday have been relocated to the layout in Taylor Landing.
“I hate what happened to The Patch, because I know what it meant to the guys who played there, but it’s been a blessing for us,” Jackson said. “Before it closed, they had a traveling Friday game they would bring out here on occasion. Based on what they’ve been telling me, they are really impressed with the greens in particular and the overall golf course.”
Although the action from The Patch is known as “The Walsh Game”, in deference to Dennis Walsh, the namesake says Roddy Weatherly has more to do with creating the special games than he does. The Walsh Game, or whatever you want to call it, has a core of roughly 30 players, with anywhere from 15 to 35 turning out on a given day.
“What they do is a lot of fun and it’s open to anybody,” says Jackson. “Everybody puts in $25, their name goes up on a scoreboard, captains pick teams and they compete in a two-ball format without handicaps. They have five different bets going.”
“Bryan deserves a lot of credit for the way he’s bent over backward to make people feel welcome,” Walsh said. “He even fixed up a room next to the golf shop where we can settle up the bets, have a beer and relax. People like going there. The only downside is the driving time. But our group is going to keep going there because of the golf course and Bryan’s hospitality.”
While the regulars from The Patch have helped Belle Oaks business boom, the overall numbers suggest they aren’t the only ones finding their way out Hwy. 73 or down LaBelle Rd. Indeed, Jackson had so many players on Saturday that he ran out of carts by 10 a.m. and had to turn people away.
“That was a sick feeling,” he said. “But the increased revenue has enabled me to buy new batteries for some of our carts that were down and needed some work. There wasn’t an urgency to do that before, because running out of carts wasn’t a problem. I’ll have more carts up this weekend and more the following weekend.”
Because of demand, Jackson is imposing a requirement that golfers double up on carts. In the past, you might see a foursome going out in four different carts. No more. At least not as long as golfers continue to pay the very reasonable fees of $22 during the week and $27 on weekend for 18 holes and a cart. For seniors, the rates are $18 and $23.
Also under consideration is having a course marshall or marshals on the weekends to speed up play, and hiring what is known in the business as “cart girls” to sell beer and soft drinks on the course. Savvy cart girls with big personalities can do wonders for business and earn some serious tip money.
On a regular basis, Jackson is also now offering links and sandwiches in the golf shop.
“This is how I’ve always hoped it could be out here,” he said of the steady flow of golfers. “I know we’re a little bit out of the way, so I want to make it the kind of experience that leads people to say it was worth the trip. I want them to go back and tell their friends about the greens, the golf course and what a good time they had.”
Sports editor Bob West can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org