Thom Morgan, one of Haywood County’s most successful self-made businessmen, has come out of retirement to undertake the most monumental undertaking of his career: ensuring that the legacy of the Laurel Ridge Country Club survives the next generation.
When Laurel Ridge was put up for sale a few years ago, the golf community got nervous. Laurel Ridge is one of WNC’s top mountain courses, an ace in the hole for Waynesville, and an anchor in the golf landscape and venues scene.
But many golf courses have landed in the rough in recent years, struggling to afford the huge premium for well-maintained greens. The fear: out-of-town investors looking to make a profit would downsize the scenic course to make way for condos, or, due to lack of funds, let it gradually fall into disrepair.
Morgan would eventually emerge as the right man, at the right time, with the right heart.
Morgan has spent the better part of four decades playing golf at Laurel Ridge, since the course’s inception in the mid-1980s. Just a mile and a half from his home, it was his haven to unwind after a long day. in the office.
“I didn’t want to see anything bad happen to Laurel Ridge. It is my vision that Laurel Ridge will come full circle as a golf course and event center that supports the community,” said Morgan. “I want to make sure it remains an asset to the community.”
Laurel Ridge is the third golf course to change ownership in Haywood County in the past four years. Springdale sold in 2018 and Waynesville Inn and Golf Club sold in 2021, both to private investor groups, with some overlapping partners.
Laurel Ridge’s position, however, is unique. Morgan is the sole investor with a 100% majority stake.
This time, a year ago, a different buyer was in the cards for Laurel Ridge – a group of investors that included some of the same players who bought what is now Waynesville Inn and Golf Club. But the deal fell through, and that’s when Morgan stepped in off the tee.
“My desire is to keep Laurel Ridge local and to operate the club in a way that not only benefits the members, but also the community,” Morgan said.
Laurel Ridge plays a vital role as an event venue, hosting receptions and galas for the Haywood County Schools Foundation, Haywood Healthcare Foundation, Haywood Christian Ministry and many others.
“There are a lot of non-profit organizations that hold their major fundraising events here. I want to be able to support them,” Morgan said.
As for the owners of Laurel Ridge? They can rest easy now knowing that the golf course itself will not be reduced to make way for a housing development.
“I assure you that as long as I own it, I will do things that will maintain or enhance the real estate value of the Laurel Ridge community and private residences,” Morgan said.
However, making any golf course financially viable these days isn’t exactly a walk down the fairway. Golf courses are expensive to maintain, with daily manicure regimens.
“Turf management is constant,” Morgan said. “You need a whole crew of people mowing it, conditioning it, fertilizing it, spraying it, and continually replanting the grass.”
Golf revenue alone will not be enough to sustain a course out of the bunker, but must be subsidized by hosting events from weddings to receptions.
“It’s got to be profitable for both of those revenue streams,” Morgan said.
Laurel Ridge has experienced a significant drop in event revenue, indoor dining, and staffing issues during COVID. These, along with a desire to focus on other areas of interest in their lives, contributed to the previous owners’ decision to sell.
Haywood County has five golf courses, making it a golfer’s paradise, but also making it harder to compete between courses.
For completely private courses, Morgan said the “magic number” financially is 350 full golf members.
“But being in a county that has five golf courses, each having that many members seems elusive,” he said.
Waynesville Inn and Golf Club plans to be completely private — allowing no outdoor play — once it reopens after renovations. At the other end of the spectrum, the Junaluska Lake Golf Course is totally public.
Meanwhile, Laurel Ridge has found its footing as a semi-private club. The pool, dining room, clubhouse, fitness center, and tennis courts are members-only — with the option of a social membership for non-golfers. On the course, members have preference, but outside players are accepted if open tee times are available.
“One of the challenges of running a country club is that you have members with varying financial means. Some would be happy to pay $25,000 a year for a totally private club. Then you have other members who don’t fit that profile,” Morgan said. “You try to live between there.”
Unlike some golf course communities that require owners to be dues-paying members, Laurel Ridge Country Club does not receive a dime in ownership or owners fees from the surrounding residential community.
It wasn’t built into the alliances when Laurel Ridge was created in 1986 and has been a liability over the years.
Laurel Ridge started as a business of local golfers who pooled their financial resources to get it off the ground.
“It was going to be an exclusive place for some wealthy Floridians who couldn’t get the tee times they wanted at Waynesville Country Club. They came up with the idea of building Laurel Ridge,” Morgan said. “The country club went bankrupt twice in its early years, taking members’ stock with it, eventually leading to private ownership of Laurel Ridge.”
Although buying Laurel Ridge was a labor of love for Morgan, he still had financial realities to consider.
“I thought, ‘Is there a viable future in Laurel Ridge? ‘” Morgan said.
He realized the answer was yes.
“The dining room and clubhouse are second to none,” Morgan said. “I felt like Laurel Ridge had a great base to build on.”
As for the course, it is known for its scenic mountain views and changing elevations to keep the game interesting.
“Laurel Ridge is truly a gem in the mountains of Waynesville. Amenities, climate, beauty and location combine to provide exponential opportunities for future growth,” said Morgan.
Morgan’s future challenge will be to add new equipment and facilities to help diversify revenue.
“Having more than one source of income is essential to keeping membership dues reasonable, while funding improvements without special assessments,” Morgan said.
Morgan plans to explore the idea of building a boutique inn on or near the property to accommodate weddings and golf groups. There are also property upgrades in the maps, from the creation of additional parking, the improvement of golf cart paths and the purchase of a new fleet of golf carts with electronic screens of footage and course maps.
In the meantime, Morgan is grappling with inflation and labor shortages like every other American business right now.
“Competition for quality personnel is intense. Securing staff is an ongoing priority,” Morgan said. “There has also been an increase in costs in everything related to the maintenance and equipment of golf courses. But we’ll work through that.
As the owner of a premier 18-hole golf course on 150 acres, Morgan has come a long way since his first set of clubs: a Montgomery Ward Special he bought off the shelf.
“I didn’t know golf existed in my growing years,” Morgan said.
The middle child of a family of five, Morgan spent his youth on military bases from Texas to Germany. His father was from Cruso, his mother from Buncombe County. Morgan would eventually find his way back to his roots, but not until adulthood.
He first walked onto a golf course in his late twenties in Michigan when a friend invited him to play one day.
“I said, ‘I don’t know anything about golf.’ He said, “Go buy a set of Montgomery Ward clubs and go to the golf course tomorrow,” Morgan recalled.
It was the beginning of a long love affair with golf.
“Any golfer knows that you learn a lot on the course about life and friendships and character, and all kinds of things that have nothing to do with golf,” Morgan said.
Now Morgan wants to share that love affair with Haywood County.
“I will continue to work to make Laurel Ridge Country Club the place people want to spend their time,” he said.