Old Carolina turns corner under care of McKinley

January 25, 2011 

Grant McKinley just can't help himself. Cut the man open, and I'm convinced you'll find he bleeds green.

After seeing his own Executive Golf Course closed more than a year ago as a casualty of the Bluffton Parkway extension, McKinley is once again a proud owner of a nine-hole golf club in Bluffton. McKinley, a Michigan native who has been in the golf business seemingly his entire life, closed on the purchase of Old Carolina Golf Club earlier this month from CoastalStates Bank.

McKinley was brought in to manage Old Carolina a little more than a year ago, after it was foreclosed on by the bank. It was an opportunity both to study the operation and to move beyond the disappointment of seeing his beloved Executive Course, which he built himself and operated for more than two decades, closed due to forces beyond his control.

"This has been a very positive experience for me," McKinley said of the past year at Old Carolina. "I always told my kids that when God closes a door, he opens a window. When the Executive Course closed, that was very difficult for me. Then the good folks at CoastalStates Bank gave me this opportunity. I'm very grateful for that."

It's an opportunity McKinley and his son, Brandon, took full advantage of as the managers of the course last year, and they're continuing to do so as its owners. Since the McKinleys' arrival at Old Carolina, cart paths have been redone, bunkers have been rebuilt and refilled and the greens have been shown some much needed TLC.

Old Carolina may never return to its impressive roots as one of the area's finest 18-hole facilities, but as a nine-holer it will be a course McKinley and residents of the Traditions at Old Carolina community will be proud of.

"I'm not a developer; I'm a golf course operator. That is what I know, and that is what I'm going to do at Old Carolina," McKinley said. "It's going to be a slow march north, but I told our staff that every day I want to do at least one thing to make Old Carolina better than it was yesterday."

That's exactly the attitude and dedication that is needed at the Bluffton course. Once a proud 18-hole facility with more than its share of signature holes and stiff challenges, Old Carolina has endured a tumultuous couple of years -- and that is putting it mildly.

Lawsuits, closings, the loss of the back nine (save for the 18th hole), new development and eventually foreclosure; it's fair to say Old Carolina has in many ways been a microcosm of the golf industry itself during its recent struggles. Perhaps now, with a steady hand guiding the facility, which includes a bar and grill that will reopen under Brandon McKinley's direction in early February, better days are ahead for Old Carolina.

Two things golfers can fully expect at Old Carolina are a commitment to conditioning and customer service and no future residential or commercial development at the course. The McKinleys believe the reopening of The Pub at Old Carolina (formerly Chippers) will increase the community feel around the facility and make it a social gathering spot for golfers and non-golfers alike. In addition to a diverse menu, full bar and increased seating, the club will have three 60-inch high-definition televisions.

With Grant McKinley running the golf operations (aided by his wife, Debbie, in the pro shop) and Brandon McKinley overseeing the food and beverage program, Old Carolina is truly a family business -- perhaps something that is sorely missing in today's more corporate golf environment.

"Golf has always been a part of my family. I cut my first green when I was 9 years old," said McKinley, who opened two courses in Michigan before coming to the Lowcountry more than 25 years ago. "I wanted this as much for them as I did for me."

Having spent so much time in the region, McKinley is uniquely familiar with Old Carolina's past and knows how special a course it was before things turned sour the past several years. While he is in no position to make any promises given the current golf economy in these parts, McKinley envisions a day when at least six or seven of the holes that were lost from Old Carolina's back nine might be restored.

Even with the 10th and 11th holes now buried under an apartment complex, the back nine could be restructured to a par-34 sometime in the not-so-near future, and given that bleeding green thing, restoring Old Carolina to its past is just part of what McKinley can't help but want to do.

"My passion is to return the back nine close to what it was, but the current environment doesn't support that right now," McKinley said. "Hopefully in five or six years we can revisit that opportunity."

While that particular opportunity is optimistic and down the road a good way, the McKinleys see great things ahead for Old Carolina. Grant McKinley is committed to the future of the course in large part due to his respect for what it once was and those who built it. He remains friends with former owner David Staley and feels an obligation to steer Old Carolina toward better days.

"I consider David Staley the founder of the course and myself now the steward of what he started," McKinley said. "The course just needs love and attention to get it back to its roots."

If that's the case, the McKinley family is certainly one that is up to the task. I guess it's a good thing its patriarch just can't help himself when it comes to golf.

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