published Wednesday, July 31st, 2013

Valleybrook's past may be distant from its future

A sign announcing the auction of the Valleybrook Golf and Country Club is seen in this file photo.
A sign announcing the auction of the Valleybrook Golf and Country Club is seen in this file photo.
Photo by C. B. Schmelter.

World Golf Hall of Fame member Payne Stewart came within inches of winning a trophy at Valleybrook Golf Club.

But Phil Blackmar beat him there in Hixson — and in a different time for Chattanooga golf — in a playoff in 1988.

Hundreds, probably thousands, of golfers have claimed a prize on those same greens, ranging from a free cocktail to a PGA Tour paycheck.

But those grounds may never be the same.

They may no longer be a golf course.

A long legal dispute now in Davidson County Chancery Course among David Drake, Nancy Drake Donelson and Carolyn Drake Snider — all children of course founder Carl Drake — has forced the course to be put up for auction on Aug. 22 by the Potts Brothers Land and Auction Company.

“It’s very sad for me to see it go up for auction, and a lot of people who grew up with it feel the same way,” said Carlene Ryon, whose family were charter members when the course opened in 1962. “We remember what it used to be. And it’s sad to think it may not be a golf course, because I remember when it was so good.

“There were kids in the pool and it was packed. It’s very disappointing.”

Valleybrook is a course that in some ways time surpassed. The children grew up and moved out of the neighborhood. Golf equipment evolved, allowing players to hit the ball farther than ever.

And other Chattanooga-area courses have built roots, including The Honors in Ooltewah, WindStone at Ringgold, Council Fire in East Brainerd, the Bear Trace at Harrison and Black Creek in Lookout Valley.

“Valleybrook was the place to be when it was nice,” said former PGA Tour pro Gibby Gilbert, whose family leased and operated the property for about eight years until March of 2011. “Then all of the other courses came along and took members little by little.”

The course became lost in the era of the 1970s and ’80s when tee times were hard to find and playing in its Red Bud Invitational meant you were playing in one of Chattanooga’s greatest tournaments. But the Red Bud — much like the course, its clubhouse and pool that sat without water Monday afternoon — has deteriorated.

Tennessee Golf Hall of Famer Lew Oehmig shot a 6-under-par 65 in the 1967 version to win the tournament. More than 200 golfers played in the tournament back then, and Council-Fire based amateur Chris Schmidt remembers driving his application to the course as a teenager.

But only 47 players participated in 2010, just 26 signed up for the 2011 version, and the 2012 event never occurred.

“We had radio guys out there, we had TV guys out there, of course the newspaper guys, and one of the biggest heartbreaks of my life was losing to Richard [Keene],” Schmidt said. “That was the biggest event of the year, bar none.

“My hope now is that it just remains a golf course.”

The future of the course and the land it sits on beside Hixson Pike will be in the hands of whoever makes the largest bid at the auction.

The course and property could essentially remain the same with a small membership and daily-fee players as well. The greens could be razed with housing propery built on top. Or it could make a return to glory.

“It’s kind of sad,” said David McKenna, whose late father, Jack, ran free junior clinics at the course in the summertime. “I would like to see somebody take it over and make it like it was when I was a child.”

That may never happen.

And David Drake, who worked on the course in his childhood and assumed control a little more than two years ago, has accepted those facts. It will likely never be the same.

“I had a long history there,” Drake said. “My dad wouldn’t approve of all this [legal involvement] at all. I think the course is back on an uphill swing.”

The morning of Aug. 22 will rest in history as the date of a new owner for Valleybrook and a new day marking its future — and maybe for golfers, a day that moves it into the future as well.

“It will be better if somebody takes it and makes it what it could be,” Keene said. “I personally hope that somebody gets it and puts money into it. It’s always been a family-oriented place, and I hope they can make it work.

“Somebody needs to give it a little TLC, and it could take off.”

Contact David Uchiyama at duchiyama@timesfreepress.com or 423-618-0815. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/UchiyamaCTFP.

about David Uchiyama...

David Uchiyama is a sports writer at the Chattanooga Times Free Press who began his tenure here in May 2001. His primary beats are UTC athletics — specifically men’s basketball and athletic department administration — and golf, which includes coverage from the PGA Tour to youth events. He also covers other high school sports, outdoor adventures, and contributes to other sections of the newspaper when necessary. David grew up in Salinas, Calif., and began working ...

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