After 57 years Bonnie Brae Golf Club is closing at the end of June. The decision was made this last weekend by course owner Sonny Willimon.
“I have been trying to decide what to do and this weekend it just became clear to me that it was time to close things down,” he said. “The most difficult thing I have had to do was tell my employees that we had to close down,” added Willimon.
The course near Donaldson Center was built by Willimon’s father who developed the course on family farm land. The first nine holes were built in 1961 and the final nine holes was built in 1964.
“My father designed and built the course back when there were not many courses in Greenville. There was Paris Mountain, HIllandale, Piedmont (Lakeview) and the private clubs, but this was a major undertaking when it was built,”‘ said Willimon.
The son of the builder remembers his father gathering up the eggs from the chickens on the farm and selling them to buy pipe and supplies to build the golf course.
Being one of the first courses that was not just for members the club enjoyed success. In the early 2000’s Bonnie Brae built a new modern clubhouse to replace an old farm building that acted as the center of the course for many years.
“My family lived on the course back when it was a farm. In fact my father grew up in a house that was on the second hole. This place has been special to everyone in our family for a long time,” said the owner.
When the great recession hit in 2008 it hit the golf business very hard. In the Bonnie Brae area four courses competed for a limited number of golfers. When the recession finally ended, not all the golfers came back.
“The golf business was very different after the recession. We did everything we could do to bring back golfers, but there were some players who just found other things to do,” he said.
The final blow to Wilimon’s hope of revitalizing the course came this past winter. Many courses suffered from severe winter kill, but it was particularly hard on the greens at the course and it has affected the number of rounds played at Bonnie Brae.
“Our greens are old fashioned and we thought about re-spriging the trouble spots or rebuilding parts of the greens. Our greens would have to be totally rebuilt and that would mean closing the course for almost a whole season. Economically that would have killed us. I just didn’t see any way we could get through this year,” Willimon said.
Willimon is not ruling out the possibility of someone buying the course and keep it operating as a golf club, but he is not optimistic. His immediate plans include selling off the clubs assets like course maintenance equipment and pro shop inventory.
“With all our family history here I would love to see someone come in and keep the course going. I have not made any decisions about the future of the property. Everyone knows that golf courses are now more valuable as property for development then they are for golf so that could be a possibility,” he said.
While Willimon considers options he hopes he can help find work for the club employees.
Club pro Dale Heflin is one of those employees who will be out of a job. Heflin came to the course when he was 18 years old and he has worked at Bonnie Brae for 28 years. Other employees have been with the club even longer.
“It came out of the blue and I am having trouble getting my head around it,” he said. “I have spent most of my life at this job and I sure wasn’t thinking about getting back into the job market now,” said Heflin.
Bonnie Brae’s closing is the second golf course in the area that has recently closed. Last year Donaldson Golf Course, just down the road, closed when the Donaldson Center did not renew the operators lease.
Golfers in the area still have Lakeside and Legacy Pines in the immediate area that are open to the public for daily fee play.
“I want all the golfers who have played here and supported our course to know how much we have appreciated them and they need to know how much we are going to miss seeing them,” concluded Willimon.