In 1955, Flint was a thriving factory town, and prosperity led to the Flint Country Club exceeding its membership limits. Demand led to opportunity, and on a winter Saturday, five golf enthusiasts met in a house on Blanchard Avenue to hash out the details of creating a second golf club to serve the Flint area. Chuck Kelly was the host, and guests were Homer Strahle, Bill Gregor, Ed Titus and Vic Ryden. Bob MacDonald, a lawyer, was there to advise. The small group put their heads together and came up with a list of potential investors. They succeeded in attracting 65 people who each invested $2,500 in the golf club venture, enabling the group to incorporate as Warwick Realty in 1956.
The next step was to find the perfect spot for an exceptional golf course with all the amenities – a generously sized, cleared piece of land in a great location. After investigating several options, they found all that and more in a 320-acre farm a few miles southeast of downtown Flint in Grand Blanc. And it happened to be up for development.
The property had belonged to German-born Arnold Lenz, a vice president of General Motors and general manager of the Pontiac Motor Division who had died in an automobile accident in 1952. It was still called the Lenz Farm. Most of the 65 stakeholders bought one lot apiece on the property from developer Pete Sharp. In addition to the lot price of $3,000, each of them pledged $1,620 for a membership in the burgeoning club. The property hadn’t yet been platted. When Bud Aikman of Gould Engineering divided the property, it came to light that some of the members wanted the same lots, so a lottery took place to portion them out.
Warwick Realty, Inc. hired acclaimed Pennsylvania golf course architect James Gilmore Harrison to design the course, and he worked diligently and finished the plans in two months. Overseeing the course building was Lauren Shook, in the position of club professional. The property was christened Warwick Hills Golf and Country Club. Building started in the summer of 1956 and a year later, the first foursome inaugurated the course with a tee-off at what eventually became the 10th hole. As Chuck Kelly remarked years later, “It may not have been one of the greatest courses, but it was a golf course.”
A large Tudor mansion had been home to the Lenz family for years. Since the property was a farm, there were accompanying stables. Both buildings lent themselves beautifully to serving the golf course – the home as the main structure and the stables as the Pro Shop, Pine Room dining area and locker rooms. Warwick Hills Golf and Country Club was born.
Despite the enthusiasm of the original stakeholders, in the following year membership sales decreased. The solution was to bring in public relations director Waldo McNaught of Buick Motor Company, a golf lover. It was his idea – inspired by watching the 1957 Carling Open at the Flint Golf Club – to sponsor a PGA tournament, which he offered to Buick as a partnership opportunity. Rather than fully sponsor the tournament, Buick said Warwick could use the company’s name to attract people – but not tread on its advertising territory. Because of McNaught’s success at recruiting new members, he was made the first president of Warwick Hills, served in that role from 1957 to 1959 and is now viewed as the club’s founding father.
Despite the lukewarm support from Buick and a snarky comment in a Detroit newspaper about the course being in “a swamp near Flint,” a meeting with PGA secretary Dan Carter led to the PGA choosing Warwick as a tournament site with a $52,000 purse – double the going rate at that time. (That’s $442,058.59 in today’s dollars. PGA star Billy Casper won the first prize of $9,000 – and the prize was up to $900,000 by 2008 with a $5 million purse).
With a keen eye toward generating revenue, the core group decided to charge $1 for admission to the tournament (equivalent to about $8.50 today). The low price brought a large audience. This proven success led to Buick’s upper echelons deciding to sponsor the Buick Open at Warwick for the next decade. The Open was Buick’s entry into professional golf sponsorship as well as the PGA Tour’s first time with a corporate sponsor, and this was the genesis of the custom of naming events after their supporters – something we take for granted today. The Buick Open became the first long-running professional golf sponsorship.
In 1967 and 1968, the course underwent a serious redesign and was completely transformed, with some of the holes being filled and others added, as well as incorporating some gently undulating hills to augment the course. The whole endeavor cost about $180,000 (or $1.5 million in today’s dollars), which was considered a sweet deal, according to current Warwick architect Joe Lee. However, another low point came in 1969, when Buick canceled the Open. Again Warwick had to adapt. They did so by restructuring into a stock corporation in 1972, after which a period of growth commenced. Golf memberships doubled during the early ’70s. The club introduced recreational and social memberships in 1976 and was thriving throughout the recession.
Just two years later, the Buick Open was resurrected and ran for another 31 years at Warwick, until General Motors dropped it again to focus on increasing auto sales. It was a boon to the area every year it was in existence, bringing consumer dollars into the county and showcasing golf stars like Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus. The event, over the years, raised nearly $10 million for charities, such as the American Red Cross, the American Lung Association, Easterseals, and the Whaley Children’s Center in Flint.
In 2008, the Michigan Golf Hall of Fame honored the Buick Open by inducting it for its commitment to golf and to community service and charity. The event received the first Special Award given by the Hall of Fame. The following year, the Buick Open and Warwick Hills Golf and Country Club received the Matthews Lifetime Achievement Award. And in 2013, the American Junior Golf Association awarded the Media Award to the organizers of the Randy Wise Junior Open, which took place at Warwick. The Randy Wise Junior Open also gives scholarship money to young golfers in the Flint area, leading to opportunities for them to play with some of golf’s leading luminaries.
The Grand Blanc High School golf team practices at the course weekly. Warwick’s Women’s Associates host a Breast Cancer Pink Par-Tee Party Tournament every year, donating to Genesys Hurley Cancer Institute. Also, Warwick Hills members donate to Toys for Tots each year. Warwick Hills members hosted a Super Bowl fundraiser this past February, donating to FISH of Grand Blanc, a pantry. Brody’s Golf Shop hosts a coat drive for the Old Newsboys of Flint each winter. Finally, many community fundraisers are held at Warwick Hills.
“I think a big role that Warwick plays in our community is providing an elegant and sophisticated venue for outside events,” says administrative assistant Jamie Denison. “Now that the Buick Open is no longer around, business meetings, parties, and weddings are part of what we do as well as serving our membership. I think Warwick Hills will continue to evolve as the years progress. We’ve been seeing a lot of younger families joining, so I think the future looks bright.”
Source: Warwick Hills’s Club History page, www.warwickhills.org/Club-History
A Conversation with Warwick Hills Golf & Country Club’s New General Manager, John “JC” Carlson, M.Ed.
By Michael G. Thodoroff
Photos by // Jessica Hatter Photography
Championing with encouragement, JC is focused and wholeheartedly set out to define Warwick’s next chapter.
On October 1, 2016, the venerable Warwick Hills Golf and Country Club confidently ushered in a new adventure through the hiring of its new general manager, John “JC” Carlson, M.Ed. Coming from a previous 17-year successful career, his first priority was to place an astute handwritten sticky note in prominent sight in his office stating, “Take Warwick Hills from being good, to being GREAT!” With that encouragement, JC focused and wholeheartedly set out to define Warwick’s next chapter.
After hosting the Buick Open, the popular Professional Golfers Association (PGA) golf tournament from 1958 to 2009, Warwick Hills seemed to have lost its identity after the successful tournament was not renewed by Buick or the PGA due to deflating economic conditions. Warwick’s leadership recognized this situation and after a few years of discussion decided to reach out in a different direction for its general manager. They wanted a local person firmly established in the community, a person who is well versed in building relationships within that community and a family-oriented person with high values. Enter JC.
“It’s a good thing they didn’t look at my golf game!” he says with a hearty laugh. “But this truly is an honor and I’m going to treat this place with the reverence it deserves.” Carlson was asked to create an environment post Buick Open. “Danny Brady (2016 Warwick president) encouraged me to dream and then let’s see what happens,” Carlson recalls.
To formulate his strategy, JC’s first priority was to meet with all the employees at the same time, in the same room. With three distinct departments totaling over 50 people, this was not an easy task. But Carlson turned this challenge into an opportunity. All the employees appreciated having a voice heard over all departments as the feedback fueled Carlson’s formulation of a model for member and service excellence (see sidebar), which was soundly sanctioned by Warwick’s nine-member board of directors.
“This will set the tone for the entire organization, no matter the position of responsibility,” Carlson says with confidence. Along with the excellence model, Warwick’s mission, vision and philosophy were defined too.
THE OFFICIAL REOPENING OF THE CHAMPIONS CLUB
Carlson admitted Warwick has always been known for weddings, special events, and of course, world-class golf but initially went after a fresh approach to the culinary environment. In January of this year, Chef Anthony Guiett, Warwick’s new executive chef, and JC worked in tandem to initialize a total revitalization of the long-standing President’s Club restaurant. The complete and modern makeover included changing the eatery’s name to the Champions Club in reverence to the Buick Open while the menu was completely revised to emulate the trending gastropub movement. A gastropub venue combines imaginative, upscale cooking techniques, including a farm-to-table concept, with the casual dining experience of a traditional pub.
“Our menu is short and sweet but always changing and evolving on a monthly basis,” Carlson adds. To his point, records show the number of covers (food orders from the menu) is up 60% this year from January through March as compared to the same period last year. And once renovation plans to bolster the fine dining experience for the adjacent Member Grille are put into action, members will appreciate two distinct culinary experiences.
At the official reopening of the Champions Club, Carlson shared a personal story of some guidance his late father gave him. His dad advised him “to live your life with blurred lines, not with sharp corners. There is a sheer joy to live life with blurred lines that not even a photograph can capture,” Carlson recalls. “What I was trying to say is regardless of why you are a part of a country club, it is about relationships,” he states. “Remember the blurred lines are why we do what we do.” According to Carlson, this created hours of conversation among the membership because they could honestly relate.
CUSTOMER SERVICE, CULTURE & COMMUNITY
Carlson subscribes to Steve Jobs’s (legendary cofounder of Apple) philosophy that says, “Identify what your customers want before they know it.” To that end and as part of forming a fresh culture, Carlson has, for example, formed a partnership with The Whiting and is working with a wine purveyor for pairing events along with working with professional instructors to hold dance classes in Warwick’s ballroom. “We will still maintain our traditional events but will continue to pursue other unique events too,” he adds.
Regardless of why you are a part of a country club, it is about relationships.”
– John “JC” Carlson
Carlson says he will continue to work with Warwick’s amazing staff to freshen the overall membership value by offering members and their guests a new summer enrichment program for children called Camp Warwick. Further developments include a specific smartphone app so that members can preorder items from the menu along with a new high-tech point of sale system. A redesigned website is also in the works. And the members seem to be responding favorably. With the average age of members now hovering around 46, more families are joining for the entire family experience. “We still have the passionate golfer but with our distinct social and recreational memberships, there is more to offer a family. And you don’t have to be a golfer to be a member,” he notes.
As JC Carlson reflects on his and Warwick Hills’ new adventure, he affirms, “I made a commitment to myself to lead with my values and I will not sway from those values. Any person I bring in to be a part of our team will be the best as they can be and will have similar values as far as work ethic, resolve and strength of character. Above all, we will do things the right way. After all, I want to make Warwick Hills Golf and Country Club the best part of your day!”