Cramer Mountain Country Club Comes Alive in Cramerton
CRAMERTON, NC Graham Bell is the founder of the Cramer Mountain Country Club, located in this sleepy Piedmont dale just 16 miles west of Charlotte. Fifteen years ago, the man with the famous name had a great notion: find a unique piece of land and build a golf course on it that would rival some of the poshest country clubs that the big city to the east had to offer.
Bell knew what he wanted, and he knew where he wanted it. Snuggled between the Cramer and Berry mountains (and in North Carolina, the term mountain is used to define any higher than a church steeple) was a piece of land that was unlike any other in Gaston or Mecklenburg counties.
It was here that he would design a golf course that would attract a portion of the region's landed gentry, and provide them with a country club experience fit for a king. It was here that he would stake his claim in North Carolina golf history, a state as steeped in the game's lore as any in the union.
One problem. He needed someone to design the course.
Bell was not about to hold his dream course to a shoestring budget, and golf course architects from around the southeast took notice of his request for design services. One after another, they presented Bell with proposal after proposal, budget after budget.
Until Dan Maples arrived, topographic map in hand. Maples didn't care about price, at least not from the get go. The son of legendary golf course designer Ellis Maples wanted to get to know the property, get to know Bell, and produce exactly the kind of layout that would lure members from around the western Piedmont.
"Dan took ten to 12 hours to walk the property with me," Bell said. "We identified trees and streams when all the other designers wanted to talk about was money. I just gave the property to Dan to design the course, then we laid out the development."
For Maples, winning the design contract for Cramer Mountain Country Club was a homecoming of sorts. He attended grade school in neighboring Gastonia for two years while his father designed the Gaston Country Club.
"The memory I have is from the fourth grade when I found a mayonnaise jar full of marbles in an old building on the golf course property," Maples said. "I didn't have to worry about winning many marbles at recess for a while."
Maples is perhaps best known for his work at the beach, where his design credits include Marsh Harbor, Oyster Bay, and the Maples Course at Sea Trail. However, the man who could pass as a Dan Reeves look-a-like has also made his presence known in North Carolina through designs like Rocky River in Concord and The Pit near Pinehurst.
Cramer Mountain appealed to Maples because the property was unlike anything he had ever seen in the gentle, rolling hills of the Piedmont. In most central North Carolina towns, the church steeples and barbeque signs overshadow the miniscule hills and dales.
Not so at Cramer Mountain.
"You have to go 150 miles west to find something like this," Maples said. "This is a mountain golf course. No one realizes it is here."
The club's anonymity has its pros and cons. From a player standpoint, its all fun and games. Three-hour rounds are the norm and not the exception. Greens hold their form and bunkers are always raked. But in a region that boats more than 70 golf courses, being a hidden gem is a double-edged sword for ownership and management.
In order to attract new members on this, the club's 15th anniversary, Cramer Mountain is conducting one of the largest membership drives in the short history of the facility. Bell said that the goal of the drive is to bring 75 new members into the club while exposing the club to the growing number of discerning, high-income golfers in the Charlotte area.
"We've been the best kept secret in the Charlotte area for a long time and it's time to change that," said Cramer Mountain vice president Patrick Bell. "No other facility in this area offers the same package. We're behind a private security gate, we're in a mountain setting that makes you feel you're miles away from Charlotte, and we've got a very good golf course."
Prospective members will find a host of memorable holes, including the 458-yard par 5 16th. Maples and Bell had originally planned to build a dam at the end of the hole, but at the last second they decided to retain the hole's natural streams.
"We decided the streams were too pretty to cover up," Maples said. "We were sitting down in the water of one of the creeks to cool off and decided right there not to build the dam."
Feeling that the topography would provide skilled players with enough of a challenge, Maples did not make Cramer Mountain a long course. The course plays to 6456 yards from the blue tees, and a very manageable 5908 from the member tees.
"You don't have to be long to play this course," Maples said. "But you have to be accurate. It is not as tight as the Pit, but it will test your shotmaking."
And speaking of testing your shotmaking one of Maples favorite holes is the 141-yard par 3 17th.
"This is one of the coolest, neatest golf holes I have ever seen," Maples said. "There is a big place to the left to hit your ball, and there is an hourglass green to the right only used for hotshot golfers."
Unlike some golf course architects that layout an entire course before they begin shaping, both Dan and Ellis route one hole at a time, and will not move onto the next hole until the previous one is completely designed. Maples said that the 145-yard par 3 15th was on hole that almost threw off the design of the course's final four holes.
"They test bored the clubhouse area and said there was no rock," Maples said. "I told Graham if we hit rock on this hole, we'll just make it a par 3. If it was a par 4, it would have been the most hated hole (in the state) because you would be driving right into a rock wall."
All new golf members who pay the $20,000 initiation fee and join before Sept. 26 will have their names put in a drawing to win their choice of two new automobiles valued at $45,000, provided by McKenney Family Dealerships and Sale Auto Mall, or a $100,000 savings bond. Also, new golf members and spouses will receive free lockers, bag storage and unlimited range access their first year.
New dining members who pay the $1,000 initiation fee and new athlete (non-golf) members who pay the $3,500 initiation fee will have their names put in a drawing for their choice of two new cars valued at $25,000, or a $50,000 savings bond, while current members who sponsor a new member will have a chance at four round-trip airline tickets anywhere in the U.S., along with other incentives.
To attract younger members who might be a few years away from footing the bill for a full membership, Cramer Mountain has instituted a junior membership category. Junior memberships are available to people under the age of 38, and require only half the initiation fee $10,000 for golf, $1,750 for athlete and $500 for dining of regular membership. Junior members also pay half of regular dues until the age of 38, when they must pay the remaining 50% of their initiation fees and begin paying full dues.
A corporate membership option is available as well, and corporate members have full access to all facilities, including the golf course. The primary corporate designee pays a $20,000 initiation fee, with additional designees (up to four) from the company paying initiation fees of $5,000 each. Cramer Mountain is a non-equity club. It's owned privately, therefore all capital expenditures are absorbed by ownership and not the membership.
On the Rebound
Cramer Mountain is about one year away from being were it should be in terms of conditioning, said Bell. Bell and his family have been involved in a legal battle to regain control of the course's operations from Granite Management
Granite managed and/or leased around 40 golf courses nationwide, but over the past two years, that roster shrank to less than 15. It became apparent that Cramer Mountain was headed down the wrong path with Granite, prompting the Bell family to take legal action and regain control of Cramer Mountain in early 2000.
A judgment against Granite was awarded to Cramer Mountain in early 2001. Since the Bells regained control, the course has returned to its usual excellent condition, with the exception of a few rough edges and damaged greens.
Most of the credit of the course's re-emergence is due to the work of superintendent Steve Olliff, who was brought back to Cramer Mountain after a few years away from the property. Graham Bell has also put a good bit of money back into the club for capital improvements, and he now hopes this membership push will open the eyes of the general public and restore his original vision for the facility.
"We had that little hiccup with the lease and we've recovered from that," Bell said. "I think the future is even brighter than the past has been. We're quite excited," Bell said.