Hillandale: Century-old Durham icon getting facelift

By KURT DUSTERBERG

As the director of golf at Hillandale Golf Course, Karl Kimball often surveys the course and asks: “What will this look like 20 years from now?”

In recent years, he didn’t like the answers.

With that in mind, the Durham landmark is taking a break this summer. The 101-year old course is closed for a much-needed facelift. Hillandale will re-open Aug. 2.

“Our putting surfaces haven’t really had anything done to them,” Kimball said. “The tee boxes are 50 years old, they settle, they become unlevel. It just wasn’t a very good experience for our customers.”

And that wasn’t good enough for Kimball, who came to Hillandale in 2007. Back then, Hillandale kept pace with newer venues, in part, by relying on a foundation that was set up specifically to subsidize the public course. But when the economy took a turn for the worse in 2008, the course began to suffer. “The fund was being hit too frequently and too heavily,” he said.

“The telltale sign for me was a couple years ago when we had that really hot summer. We were off about 18 percent in our play, while everyone around us was off from 4 to 6 percent. That was telling me our product was not up to par.”

Hillandale nearly closed its doors – possibly for good – last October when no buyer made a suitable offer for the course. Facing the inevitable, Kimball took a position at Bright’s Creek Golf Club, a private Tom Fazio design in Western North Carolina. Then came a solution that made sense for everyone. With the course in the hands of Sun Trust Bank, Hillandale was gifted to the city of Durham. Kimball formed a management team and returned to operate the course after just two months in the mountains.

That’s when he made the decision to embark on all the heavy lifting.

“The Bermuda that was on our bent grass greens was going to continue to proliferate,” he said. “It was consuming large areas of the playing surfaces. We’ve got a plan; we know what’s in front of us. We’re not going into this blind by any measure.”

Beginning in late May, Kimball assembled various specialists to start the overhaul, reshaping five greens, plus the tee boxes at No. 8 and 15. Crews are building an entirely new tee on No. 3, which will add length to the hole. Other projects include additional drainage, clearing weeds and adding new turf on the putting surfaces.

The greens, in particular, will receive a great deal of attention. Once the old turf is eradicated, the soil is replenished with nutrients and the greens are top dressed. Every 40 minutes the new surface will receive 10 minutes of water.

“It’s going to be smooth and fast,” he said. “This material thrives in the heat. It’s just a good move for the golf course and our customers.”

It’s no coincidence that Kimball is so mindful of the paying customer. Hillandale hosts more than 40,000 rounds each year.

“We recognize there is a tremendous responsibility to the Durham community,” he said. “This 100-year-old icon represents a lot of things to a lot of people. For some, it’s a place where people first learned to play golf in the 1940s and 50s. I spoke to a woman the other day who told me she learned to play golf at Hillandale in a junior camp 20 years ago.”

For Laura Christensen, Hillandale was a must-find. After moving from Southern California five years ago, she needed somewhere to work on her game and play a weekly round.

“When you walk in the door, it’s very professional, but it has a family-type feeling,” said Christensen, a retired chiropractor. “I love the challenge. It isn’t easy, but it’s not outrageously difficult. Every hole is different.

“It’s obvious how much Karl Kimball loves that place. I was thrilled when he came back. I knew he would make a good course great.”

To that end, Kimball is getting his hands dirty – and so is everybody else.

“I had my 12-year-old son Chase out there,” he said with a laugh. “We were cutting sod and laying it. It’s kind of an all-hands-on-deck project.”

That goes for the instructors, too.

“I had never mowed a blade of grass on a golf course in my life, and I spent eight hours out here mowing one day,” said Joe May, Hillandale’s head golf professional. “It’s a cool process and I’m learning a lot. I can’t wait to roll some putts out here.”

The new putting surfaces will receive careful scrutiny from Kimball. No longer will they pose an unreasonable challenge for the average golfer.

“The greens were too steep from back to front. The ball wouldn’t stay on the green,” said Kimball, adding that the improved drainage will enhance the experience, too. “If you have heavy rain, you don’t want to have what we call birdbaths. The water has to keep moving on the putting surface, so you give it several places to exit.”

For now, Hillandale’s regulars still have a place to practice. The driving range and golf shop will remain open through the summer. The staff will also run clinics.

Kimball hasn’t overlooked much, tweaking many of the little amenities that improve the experience at an old course in a new era. Niblick’s Grille, for example, now has seating for 28. And when you pass through the golf shop, you can keep up with the rest of the sports world on three wide-screen TVs.

“During baseball season, we will have a couple games on, and the same thing in football season,” says Kimball, before remembering the course’s bread-and-butter. “And of course, the Golf Channel is always on one of them.”

Those little perks may not be on the same scale with the course upgrades, but Kimball figures its all part of the big picture. “We want our customers to feel like they have gained value when they play Hillandale in the future,” he says.