ANNISTON, ALABAMA | It started as an almost off-handed question, half joking, but with just enough seriousness thrown in. For a decade Cory Etter had been running Pine Hill Golf Course, a semi-private club in Anniston, Alabama, for an absentee owner. It was his first head-pro job after playing collegiately at nearby Jacksonville State University and serving as an assistant five miles down the road at Cider Ridge Golf Club in Oxford. One afternoon, during his daily call with the Pine Hill owner, Allan Goodson, Etter said, “Allan, what would it take for you to sell me this golf course one day?”
Like most golf professionals, Etter was in no financial position to write a check for a course, even though he understood the business in that area better than anyone.
“I got my career started as an assistant golf pro at Cider Ridge in 2005 and 2006,” Etter said. “I had a chance to take over as the head professional at Pine Hill Country Club in the latter part of 2006. I was young, and really into the business, but it was good for the owner because he didn’t have to come down (from Tennessee). I had to get my feet wet right off the bat by doing it all. I was general manager, director of golf, the whole thing.
“The course was built in 1962 with push-up greens and common-Bermuda fairways. They were doing about 18,000 rounds a year when I first got here. But when I first got to Cider Ridge, they started out doing 16,000 a year and when I left, we were doing 25,000, so I knew it could be done. I’m good at customer service and I spend endless hours at it.”
So it was something of a pleasant surprise when Goodson answered Etter’s question by saying, “Well, you kind of do it all now anyway. I don’t know why we couldn’t work something out.”
That was the moment Cory Etter’s life changed. Just like that, he not only had to come up with a way to grow a business that had been around longer than he had been alive, he also had to figure out a way to finance the purchase.
He dove into both of those tasks with the kind of clear-eyed work ethic that had made him a successful golf professional.
“I’m in at seven in the morning and stay until 10 at night,” Etter said. “I work every day but Christmas. So I took that same mindset into financing and purchasing my first golf course.
“The process was twofold: The previous owner financed part of the course for me, which allowed me to go to a local small-town bank that was an upstart and trying to be aggressive in attracting local businesses. I knew the president of the bank and knew how good they were.”
So with the existing owner willing to finance a portion of the purchase, and with the help of the Small Business Administration, Etter was able to cobble together financing in a way that made sense.
As simple as that formula sounds, it was nothing short of a parting-the-Red-Sea miracle back in 2017. Golf professionals have a history of being a loan risk. In the old days when pros owned the golf shops at most clubs, the foreclosure and bankruptcy rate exceeded that of real estate developers and used car lots. By the recession of the early 1990s, it had gotten so bad that most pros couldn’t get a golf shop loan unless the club secured the note. For that reason and others, pros who own shops have become unicorns in the industry.
Etter found the perfect storm of a willing seller, a hungry, upstart banker and a golf course with enough upside potential to make the whole thing work.
“(The banker) knew what I could do and trusted that I could pull it off,” Etter said. “I owned (the course) and managed it. I have a good staff that I keep small. The year I bought (Pine Hill) we had already increased the rounds to 24,000. Then I met a gentleman here in town that had worked at Augusta National as an assistant superintendent. He was in his early 50s, and I approached him about being our superintendent.
“Together, we transformed the club. Last year we did 38,500 rounds.”
That success did not go unnoticed in his part of the world. Central Alabama is also the home of one of the clubs on the Alabama Robert Trent Jones Trail, arguably the hardest 27-hole facility in the country. Any combination of the three nines tips out at 7,800 yards with elevated approaches and mounding that seems to ricochet balls toward water. The RTJ at Oxmoor Valley courses attracted golfers to the area only to beat them up.
That presented an opportunity for an innovator like Etter.
“In September 2020, the management group that had Cider Ridge had their contract come up and the mayor of Oxford called and asked me if I’d be interested in buying that course, too,” Etter said. “It’s the best piece of property in Calhoun County, bar none. It’s beautiful. The mayor asked what it would take for me to come in and take it over.”
Etter ran the numbers and realized that, with a little renovation, some TLC and an aggressive program with local hotels to sell stay-and-play packages, the club where he started his career as an assistant could be turned into the crown jewel of East Alabama.
“We entered into a lease-purchase agreement for two years,” Etter said of his deal with the city. “At the moment, the city owns the dirt, and I own the business.
“The day we came in they did 14,400 rounds. We almost immediately upped that to 18,500 in eight months.
“One of my conditions was that the greens had to be rebuilt at the city’s expense. My staff oversaw that renovation. So that was tough. It took about 16 weeks and that was a struggle, but now they are Tift Eagle, and they are perfect.
“The day I took over Cider Ridge, there were 36 members, down from 409 when I left in 2006. I came back and now we have 165 members, and we haven’t even had a full year of operations after the renovations. So I’m really optimistic about where we can take this.”
Etter is a relentless promoter. Even with the course down during the height of the season, he sold 30 events at Cider Ridge last year and has booked more than that for 2023. Being an hour from Atlanta and an hour from Birmingham – the perfect place to break up a trip to a college football game – has worked in his favor. And keeping his courses in good shape while reasonably priced has made a world of difference.
“You can pay $1,000 up front and play both courses,” Etter said of his most attractive membership package. “But I’m always asking the question: What can we do to get you to spend the day with us? When you think of golf, we want to be the people you think of. We want you to buy clubs from us. We ship clubs worldwide. On a good week we ship 100 pieces, so it’s a full-service business.
“I am the PGA professional at Pine Hill, and I have two assistants that work for us at Cider Ridge. I don’t want to micro-manage, but I do want to walk the property every day and thank everyone for coming out. If I can be the last person you see when you leave one of our properties, I want you to remember my smile.
“We’re now working on our F&B menus. Our stay-and-play packages work well because we do all the legwork for the hotels. You pay us a flat rate, and we book your stay and pay the hotels, so they’re thrilled. And we are about to open up an 18-hole real-turf putting course. There are only a few places that have that. Pebble Beach and Pinehurst are two of them. You can come out with your buddies, have a drink and enjoy a quick putting round.
“We’re doing whatever we can to enhance every part of the golf experience. That takes work. But my family supports me. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”