By BECKY GILLETTE
For 98 years, the Hattiesburg Country Club has been owned by member stockholders. Those stockholders recently voted for a new lease on life for the club by selling it to Carter Callaway, a former professional golfer who has been building homes in Hattiesburg since after Katrina, and Paul Maholm, a retired professional baseball player originally from Holly Springs.
Like many golf clubs across the country, the HCC has faced challenging times in recent years.
“The club is down 300 to 400 members from what it used to be,” said Callaway, who grew up in Jackson as the son of professional golfer Charlie Calloway, who later opened the Calloway Golf Center driving range in Jackson. “As a member for 12 years, I saw the course take a slow downtick. Every year we were losing about 10 percent of the membership. I love the Hattiesburg Country Club. I love the golf course. We have three small children and that it where we like to spend our time playing golf, tennis and swimming. I was concerned about the future of the club.”
Callaway said when he and Maholm went to the board of directors a few months ago, the board members were ready to listen to any and all options.
“Golf clubs all over country have seen a downtick starting with the 2008 market crash,” Callaway said. “The first thing someone is going to do when the economy is bad is stop spending money on luxury times like country club memberships.”
But he also read about golf courses making comebacks. A common theme was diversifying to provide more family-based activities instead of just focusing on golf.
“I saw examples of that strategy being used to turn around a failing club and be successful,” Callaway said. Hattiesburg Country Club, in my opinion, is one of best courses in Mississippi even with having gone through some tough times. It is a beautiful place with a great design and great tradition. There is opportunity here for somebody with the right vision.”
Callaway, who is the new general manager of the HCC, said he realized he couldn’t do the project alone and so approached Maholm as a potential partner. Callaway had coached Maholm’s son in Little League baseball. Maholm was also keen on the challenge of revitalizing the HCC.
“We’re hoping, obviously, to turn it around and make it what it was 20 years ago when it was at its peak,” Maholm said. “We want to grow the membership, add more families, and grow the junior tennis and golf programs. During the summer, we will have cool activities for the families so they want to be out there. We want to create an atmosphere where people enjoy bringing the family out for dinner. And now it is football season, we want people to think of us first as a place to watch the game.”
Maholm said the golf course is in good shape and sells itself. But he said the clubhouse needs updating. By engendering more of a family atmosphere, they hope to attract younger members.
“Hattiesburg is growing and we’re a hometown full-service country club having tennis, golf, pool and a restaurant to make it where you want to be,” said Maholm, a graduate of Mississippi State University. “I’ve always had a passion for golf. I grew playing a small nine-hole golf course at Holly Springs Country Club. I have experienced the smallest golf courses and played some of the three or four top courses in the country. I have experienced all you can experience in a golf course. Hopefully, that experience will help us.”
Maholm said one of their biggest efforts will be focusing on the “comfort factor.” When people get out of the car, they want them to feel welcomed and get everything they need to have a great experience.
“It’s Southern thing making sure people feel welcome,” said Maholm, who said he had always dreamed of owning a golf course.
Callaway, like his father, played professional golf for several years. After a torn rotator cuff ended his professional golf career, he ran a real estate investment company in Jackson before moving to Hattiesburg two weeks after Hurricane Katrina planning to buy and sell homes. But with the housing shortage, he instead decided to build new homes. After finishing several homes he is working on at present, he plans to put all his effort into running the HCC.
“The way I look at it, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Callaway said. “This is the kind of job that doesn’t feel like working. It is just a passion for me. I’m finally doing something I have always dreamed of doing. I’m going to give it all I have. I’ve probably worked 16 hours per day since we closed on the property. It is hard work. We have a lot to do. But it is something I’m real excited about.”
Callaway said they started renovating the clubhouse as soon as the purchase contract was signed Sept. 29. The project is getting expert help from his wife, Kathrine Kuykendall Callaway, who works for her parent’s business, Commercial Business Interiors.
“We are doing some major remodels to make it look like 2017 instead of being stuck back in the 1980s,” Callaway said. “The structure is solid, just dated. With my experience and my wife’s company, we are going to be able to get in here and make some major improvements.”
The sale offer had the support of 99 percent of the stockholders.
“We have had overwhelming support,” Callaway said. “The members who are left love the Hattiesburg Country Club. They are pure gold. They just want to make sure they can keep their country club and saw us as the best opportunity for that to happen.”
Callaway said their greenskeeper, Frank Ogletree, has managed to keep the course one of the nicest in the state even while not having the budget needed.
“It can get better and Frank is excited about us coming on to give him better equipment and materials to spend money wisely on the right places on the course to improve it more,” Callaway said. “
The buyers were represented by the law firm of Watkins & Eager PLLC, with offices in Jackson, Hattiesburg and Birmingham.