18 Classic Courses in S.C.

Thornblade: Serious golf for aspiring – and actual – pros

Growing cadre of PGA, Nationwide Tour players call Upstate course home

 bgillespie@thestate.comJune 18, 2011 

— A fierce storm that rolled through the Upstate this week knocked out electricity for thousands, toppling trees and scattering debris everywhere. But the winds and rain did not take down the banner.

If you pulled into the parking lot at Thornblade Club on Thursday morning, you saw the four-feet-tall by 15-feet-wide announcement hung between two poles: “Thornblade congratulates Kyle Thompson, the Rex Hospital Open winner.” The tribute was for the Easley native and former USC All-American, who practices at the club and who won the Nationwide Tour event in Raleigh the weekend before.

Thompson is hardly the first professional golfer to be so recognized. A month ago, Nationwide Tour players at the BMW Charity Pro-Am were greeted by a banner announcing Lucas Glover’s victory at the PGA Tour’s Wells-Fargo Championship in Charlotte. Glover, whose grandparents’ home is left of Thornblade’s 16th fairway, also received a banner for his 2009 U.S. Open win.

“Yeah, they do that for anyone who wins anything,” Glover said. “Jay (Haas, Thornblade’s honorary “director of golf”) or Bill (Haas, Jay’s son) or whoever. They do it to make sure everyone knows that the members are supporting the guys who are doing well and being successful.”

Kevin Schreel, Thornblade’s head pro since 2006, says the club “just wanted to acknowledge a hometown person doing something great. I don’t know if it started with Jay, but we also do it for members.”

When Crawford Reeves and Haley Stephens won the S.C. Junior Golf Association’s top awards in the same year, Schreel said, a banner acknowledging that feat went up.

Across town at Chanticleer, the more acclaimed of two 18-hole courses at Greenville Country Club, there are no banners for pro winners, but appreciation comes in other ways.

“We put a note in their locker, put out the word internally with members,” said Gregg Hobbs, the club’s general manager.

“They just welcome you, and give guys who need it a place to practice, and guys who are already established another option,” said Glover, who lives in Sea Island, Ga., but still visits both courses. “It’s fun when you’ve got a bunch of guys like that (because) you’ve always got a game or someone to hit balls with, check your alignment, stuff like that.”

Greenville is the epicenter of South Carolina’s burgeoning pro golf profile. Make that “centers,” since both Thornblade and Chanticleer are home to a growing roster of PGA and Nationwide Tour players.

Some of the bigger names, such as Glover, the Haases, Charles Warren and Matt Bettencourt, hold or have held memberships at both clubs. Other players further down the “food chain” — Chanticleer terms them “aspiring” pros who play the Hooters, eGolf and other minor-league tours — are granted free practice and playing privileges at one or both clubs.

“There’s probably close to a dozen (at Thornblade), and the club is just fantastic to us,” Bettencourt, a California native, said. “It’s a great practice facility, and they just renovated the course (in 2010). It’s in amazing condition.

“I’ve been fortunate to have won a few times on the Nationwide Tour and last year (Reno-Tahoe Open) on the PGA Tour, and whenever you come home, pull into the entrance to the club, there’s a huge banner there. Everyone treats you like family there.”

But there are other reasons for Greenville’s popularity with players, as Warren, a Columbia native and Chanticleer member, points out.

“If you look at demographics, a lot of us are Clemson guys,” the 1999 NCAA champion said. Warren, who switched memberships when he bought a home closer to Chanticleer, is a co-founder of the annual Tiger Golf Gathering fundraiser held each December at Thornblade. “And of course, Bill (Haas) grew up at Thornblade.

“Greenville is a great city for us. It’s easy to fly out of with Southwest Airlines, the weather’s good, always something to do, great places to eat. And if you join (either club), you have someone to play and practice with every day.”

Whatever a player’s reasons for calling the area home, all agree it started with Jay Haas. The 56-year-old St. Louis native married into a Greenville family as a young PGA Tour player in the 1970s, and has made Thornblade his base since the club opened in 1990.

“I don’t know if I had anything to do with it,” the famously modest Champions Tour star said. “But when I got here 30 years ago, it was me and (brother-in-law) Dillard Pruitt,” a former player and now PGA Tour rules official.

Meanwhile, less than an hour to the west, Clemson’s golf program in the 1990s was churning out future PGA Tour players: Warren, Jonathan Byrd, Glover, D.J. Trahan. The Tigers’ line continues, with Matt Hendrix, Brent Delahoussaye and most recently Kyle Stanley and Ben Martin.

Not all have made it to the big time, though. Players such as Hendrix and Delahoussaye, Robbie Biershenk, Philip Mollica, David May and others are early in their careers, some with little or no status on the PGA or Nationwide Tours — players who need a little help.

At Chanticleer, the board annually decides which of these “aspiring” pros — the number varies each year — to grant access. “They (have to be) full-time players, totally dedicated to becoming PGA Tour pros,” Hobbs said. “We look at the number of events they participated in, (but) success isn’t the only criteria.” Thornblade also grants players “honorary” memberships on a yearly basis.

What do the clubs get in return? Thornblade asks players to identify themselves with the club. “Some put (the name) on their golf bags, others can’t contractually,” Schreel said. Chanticleer does not seek such identifications.

What is most important, officials at both clubs say, is acknowledgement and gratitude.

“Members like when a (Tour player) gives a junior a pat on the back, or tells them, ‘We like coming here,’ ” said Eric Pederson, Chanticleer’s director of golf. “They come in, shake hands, sit and eat with members. And they conduct themselves well, take their caps off indoors. That’s a huge thing with the members.”

Heyward Sullivan, 74 and unofficial historian at Chanticleer, has been a Greenville CC member since 1961 and was greens chairman when Robert Trent Jones built Chanticleer in 1970. Sullivan is typical in more ways than one; his handicap is under 2.0, and Golf Digest recently ranked Chanticleer seventh nationally for strength of its best players’ games (a plus-2.06 index).

Rather than playing with a pro, though, Sullivan enjoys scenes such as he witnessed in 2010, when Glover was preparing to defend his Open title.

“The Friday before, he was out practicing,” Sullivan said. “Two of our juniors, Harry and Stephen Reynolds, 11 and 13, were going to play, and Lucas asked if he could join them. They played with him on his final warm-up for Pebble Beach. Imagine the stories they told their parents.”

In fact, both clubs enjoy their relationships with the game’s best players because the players seem enjoy those relationships, too.

“Some have local ties, but (mostly) it’s how they give back,” Schreel said. “Are they willing to help with The Blade (the club’s annual junior invitational)? Do they get involved with our pro-ams? Do they chat on the range, play with the members?

“There’s no one better in the country at that than Jay. He’s involved in so many aspects. If there’s anyone in the country who players should model themselves after, it’s him.”

Haas says it is about mutual respect.

“Guys (recognize) golf is a gentleman’s game,” Haas said. “The people (at Thornblade and Chanticleer) are all about that. We know it’s a nice thing they’re doing, and we don’t take advantage of that; we appreciate it immensely.

“Hopefully, the members like seeing us out here.”

The proof is hanging Thornblade’s parking lot.

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