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NC trend: Equestrian investors take a shot at reviving a Foothills golf course

Like its rolling golf course in the foothills of North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, Cleghorn Golf and Sports Club in Rutherford County has experienced ups and downs through its half-century in business.

Despite its location on a major highway, about an hour from Charlotte, Asheville and Greenville, South Carolina, a variety of owners have struggled as Cleghorn battled for a niche in western North Carolina tourism. When Indiana golf pro Dave Long arrived in 2013 after his wife accepted a finance job nearby, the club had been closed for two years following the harsh recession of 2008-09.

“The course was overgrown, and it was a bit of a mess,” Long says. “It was really unfortunate. My wife and I used to come out and walk the course when we moved here because it was closed down. As we walked around, I couldn’t believe how spectacular the layout was. That’s kind of what got me here.”

Now, the tide may have turned amid surging interest in golf and second-home properties. 

In April 2016, Cleghorn was acquired by Tryon International Equestrian Center & Resort, which has attracted some of the world’s best riders since opening in Mill Spring in 2015. The group, led by Managing Partner Mark Bellissimo and President Sharon Decker, has invested more than $300 million at the Polk County site, about six miles from Cleghorn.

Cleghorn Golf sign

The equestrian center offers shuttles to the golf course, making it “a bit like going to The Greenbrier or The Homestead,” says Decker, referring to famous golf resorts in West Virginia and Virginia. attractions include Blue Ridge Parkway and Lake Lure. Decker is a former Duke Energy and Tanner Cos. executive. She also was secretary of the N.C. Department of Commerce.

Cleghorn dropped “plantation” from the resort’s name as part of a rebranding and increased the course’s maintenance budget and staff, including hiring Dan Fradley as turf director to restore the putting greens and fairways. “Dan has great pedigree, coming from Quail Hollow and Charlotte Country Club,” Long says. 

Last year, Cleghorn Golf and Sports Club enjoyed its most profitable season ever.

“We had a great opportunity and kind of a strange opportunity to come in and open the golf course back up,” says Long, who had been a general manager of a course in northern Indiana before moving south. “I wasn’t sure if I made the right decision at the time. But it has definitely become the right decision now.”

Colonial roots

It’s believed that England’s King George II gave a 2,000-acre “King’s Grant” at the site to a Scotsman named William Cleghorn in 1752. Cleghorn and his wife, Lettice, settled in Rutherfordton and developed a farm, planting corn, cotton and other crops. A subsequent owner built a manor house in 1837. Over the years, it was used as a primary residence, a clubhouse and a restaurant. It remains in disrepair, but Tryon Equestrian expects to restore it eventually.

In 1972, Cleghorn Plantation added a golf course with plans for adjacent housing, a project that received initial funding from lawyers, doctors and business people in Rutherfordton and Forest City. They hired golf architect George Cobb, whose 100-plus course designs include Charlotte’s Quail Hollow Club and the par-three course at Augusta National, home of the Masters. 

From its start, Cleghorn had financial problems, and ownership changed hands various times. About 75 homes dot the golf course, while about 125 lots are ready for development. 

Tryon officials expect the course’s appeal to spark greater interest, citing Cobb’s design that includes constant contouring and elevation changes offering a unique character to each of its 18 holes. Elevated tee boxes provide panoramic views of the surrounding countryside. The tree-lined fairways steer golfers toward heavily bunkered and undulating greens. Water hazards come into play on several holes. 

“It does have all the feel and look of a mountain golf course,” says Greenville golf course architect John LaFoy, who worked for Cobb and has helped restore some of Cleghorn’s characteristics. “The elevation is only around 1,000 feet, but Mr. Cobb created a lot of outstanding golf holes that play like a course in the mountains.” 

Three-time PGA Tour winner Scott McCarron, who lives near Charlotte, visits the resort and Cleghorn regularly with his wife, Jenny, a competitive equestrian rider. Cobb’s design forces golfers to use every club in their bag, he says.

“At (McCarron’s) level, it’s usually driver-wedge, driver-wedge, driver-wedge,” Long says. “Here we’ve got the long par-3s, the short par-4s, long par-5s — something for everybody.”

Decker notes that McCarron raves about the course. “He says it’s one of the horse shows he enjoys most, because he can play great golf while they’re here.”

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