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Crace savors golf industry’s myriad challenges

Even though no one in Nathan Crace’s family played golf, he picked up the game at age 10 by emulating Jack Nicklaus’ movements and devouring Nicklaus’ “Golf My Way” books.

By age 11, Crace had designed his first golf course, using three acres of family land in Indiana to lay out a working three-hole course with contoured fairways and sand bunkers. The son of a general contractor, he even drew up construction drawings for the pals who helped him build the course. By the time he made the varsity golf team in his freshman year of high school, he knew he wanted a career on the links.

“My parents were surprised, but supportive, when I enrolled in Mississippi State University’s PGA-sanctioned Professional Golf Management program instead of earning my degree in Bloomington or Muncie,” said Crace, with a laugh. “I fell in love with Mississippi, and then I fell in love with a Mississippi girl.”

Two days after college, Crace married his “Mississippi girl,” Michelle. He worked as an assistant golf professional at Diamondhead Country Club and joined Jackson-based Maxwell Golf Group, a design and management firm where he and Frank “Max” Maxwell designed golf courses across the South. Then Maxwell closed the business.

“When Maxwell shut the doors in 2002, I was still trying to decide what to do, and my wife said why don’t we start a company and take over management of The Refuge in Flowood? We worked out details with Frank, but at the time, we were only guaranteed a nine-month contract. Anything beyond that would be based on our ability to make the course profitable,” said Crace.

The Refuge, a city-owned public golf course in Flowood, opened to great acclaim in 1998, but when the perception spread that the Florida architect-designed course was too tight, interest waned.

“You can get away with a design like that in Florida, which has a high golf participation rate,” said Crace. “But if a guy loses four or five balls here because he misses the fairways, he tells his buddies, who tell their buddies. Also, it’s short and you don’t need to grab your driver. I’ve hit one maybe four times total. So we went into the wetlands areas that were not federally protected and thinned out spots and widened fairways, which made a huge difference. It’s now known as the ‘Best Purely Public Golf Course’ in Mississippi.”

The Craces created two Magee-based companies: Paradigm Golf Management for management and consultation work, and Watermark Golf for new and renovation golf course design, land planning and residential development planning services. “The thought being that if The Refuge didn’t renew, we could fall back on the other company,” explained Crace, “but in the last three years, both companies have done delightfully well.”

The Craces have capitalized on clever marketing strategies, such as the two-month promotional campaign that began October 1, in which Paradigm Golf Management increased the number of annual passholders at The Refuge by giving away new Apple iPod Nanos with individual and family annual passes.

“We’d already had some interest stirred up just by test marketing the idea with golfers at the course,” said Crace. “The iPod Nano is the newest offering in the iPod line, and it really is a technological marvel when you consider how many songs you can store and play on the Nano given that it’s only 3.5 inches tall and a quarter of an inch thick.”

Within the last 10 to 12 years, Crace has followed the minimalist trend in golf course design. “Huge earth-moving projects of the 1980s sometimes called for moving 400 to 500 million yards for a golf course,” he said. “The minimalism movement calls for less severe mounding that flows better with the surroundings. There will always be a place for courses like the TPC at Sawgrass — a wild ride for golfers — and also for those that blend in better and are easier for everyday players. Somewhere in between is the balance we have to find.”

After the big buildup of golf courses in the 1980s and 1990s led to oversupply, older golf courses initiated massive reconstruction projects. “I saw that at Maxwell Golf Group with the Hattiesburg Country Club,” said Crace. “There was a fear — with Canebrake just opening, Timberton adding nine new holes, the Shadow Ridge course talked about being built — that if they didn’t do anything, this great course that had been such a huge part of golf history in Mississippi was going to have problems. When it reopened, there was a waiting list for the first time in 10 years.”

Now, golfers have turned their attention to the resort courses along the Mississippi Gulf Coast that were battered by Hurricane Katrina. Only three-fourths of those courses are expected to reopen by year-end, with several courses on the “to be determined” list.

Pat Fandel, golf course superintendent at Great Southern Golf Club, said he was optimistic about reopening part of the course by January 1. “We have to get all new electric golf carts, a place to store them, a trailer for a pro shop,” he rattled off. “We had tremendous tree damage and the two greens closest to the water — No. 4 and No. 18 — were completely wiped out.” Great Southern had completed a renovation project in 1999.

Crace has received numerous calls from investors eyeing golf course reconstruction in the beach/casino market.

“These groups are enticed by the incentives being offered and are talking about golf course and residential developments,” he said. “If done the right way, and I think the governor has done a really good job of putting together a group of people from different disciplines to do it the right way. We have a chance to turn something horrible into something really good.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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