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The Rebirth of The Legends

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The bad news came in late January in the form of a letter from Patricia Natoli to the membership of the Country Club at The Legends. (Natoli is the daughter of the former owner of The Legends, the late Carmelo Natoli, who passed away in November,2012.)  Following their customary January closing—“the Club will not open Feb 1, 2013 as previously scheduled.”  The Natoli family was not going to continue making up for revenue shortfalls at the facility.  A friend called me with the news. He said,  “Can you believe The Legends is closing? A Robert Trent Jones Sr. designed golf course that is closed? That’s got to be a first.”

Fast forward to July when I ran into old friend (and member at The Legends) Don Dupske at a tournament. He said, before driving off in his “rules” cart, “We’re re-opening in a couple of weeks! The Legends is back.”

Pride and passion—coupled with a large dose of “been there, done that” professionalism typifies the vibe at The Legends these days. Local businessman and Legends member Matt Iovaldi is the new majority owner. He put together an investment group and bought the place. Matt and his wife Sue fell in love with the place and built a home at The Legends in 2003. He said, “Sue has really been a major driving force behind the purchase. The women at the Club, Sue and her friends, are passionate about The Legends.” But Matt is “all in” as well—and it shows. He knows they have a great facility: 27 holes of golf, good practice facilities, and an attractive clubhouse and pool. His point was proven when roughly 150 former members rejoined the Club when word came it had reopened under new management. Add another 100+ new members who’ve joined since late July and one can see why things are already looking up.  Matt and Sue Iovaldi would say The Legends has been “reborn” under new ownership and management.

One of Matt’s first acts after the purchase closed was to bring in Jeff Whitfield as “General Manager”—though that title doesn’t do justice to all that Jeff knows about building/fixing/ running a first class golf facility.  Jeff played a key early role in the planning and construction of Persimmon Woods Golf Club and The Club at Old Hawthorne in Columbia, and in the recent changes and improvements made at The Quarry at Crystal Springs. Jeff is a PGA Professional and an accomplished player. More importantly, he is a professional manager with a broad and deep skill set in the various aspects of golf facility management. Need some new turf equipment? He can tell you what to buy—and why. Got a problem with a sprinkler controller? Yup, he can diagnose the problem. Have a question related to the pro shop budget and financials? He’s your guy.

Soon after coming on as GM Jeff hired Brett Moomey, an Assistant Professional for the past 10 years at Bellerive, as the new Head Professional at The Legends. Brett is one of the best players in the Gateway Section and an excellent teacher. He was named the Gateway PGA Assistant Professional of the Year in 2009 and 2012. The pro shop and golf operations are in good hands.

What about the golf course(s)? Membership Director Allison Fanger’s eyes twinkled when she posed this rhetorical question: “Did you know The Legends is one of three Robert Trent Jones Sr. courses in St. Louis and one of four in the state? Answering her own question, she said, “Yes, Bellerive, Old Warson, The Cove Course at The Lodge of Four Seasons—and The Legends!” And there is another 9 at The Legends and it will play a role in the new management group’s plans for the Club. It’s a Gary Kern design that opened in early 1996, 7 years after the Trent Jones Sr. course opened.

Robert Trent Jones Sr. has been called “the father of modern golf course architecture.” Born in England in 1906, Jones immigrated to the States with his parents three years later and grew up in Rochester, NY. A scratch golfer by his early teens, he had dropped out of high school and was working as a draftsman when his life changed and golf course architecture became an all-consuming passion. Donald Ross had come to Rochester and Jones watched in fascination as Ross laid out what has become one of the preeminent tournament courses in the world-the East course at Oak Hill CC, which opened for play in 1926. Jones convinced the administrators at Cornell University to grant him a “special entry” (that did not result in the awarding of a degree) so he could design his own curriculum and take classes in subjects such as horticulture, landscape architecture, agronomy, surveying, and hydraulics  that would prepare him for his chosen career. Jones spent several years at Cornell immersed in his studies before striking a design partnership in the early 30s with Canadian architect Stanley Thompson. He struck out on his own at the end of the decade.

Jones became the best known practitioner of what has come to be called the “heroic” design philosophy that employs a risk/reward decision whenever practical and possible. Jones aptly summarized this philosophy with his comment that “every hole should be a hard par but an easy bogey.” The cult of the golf course architect was born, and Jones’ fame grew markedly when a Herbert Warren Wind piece appeared in The New Yorker on Jones, Ben Hogan, and the 1951 US Open. Jones had remodeled Oakland Hills for that Open. Hogan won the Championship and was famously quoted as having “brought that monster to its knees.” That “monster” had Jones’ fingerprints all over it, and his fame and reputation as an architect skyrocketed.

His first work in St. Louis came at Old Warson CC in 1955. He returned in 1959 to begin work at the new location for the Bellerive CC course in Town & Country, MO. and lived in a house on the property that would become part of The Legends some 30 years later. He was known to have said that that land was as fine a piece of property for building a golf course as he’d had the pleasure of working on. Robert Trent Jones Sr, in a career that spanned nearly 70 years, designed or remodeled over 400 courses in 45 states and 35 countries.

The leadership at The Legends has a simple, logical, and transparent plan to continue their positive momentum. But they also understand that their Club already has a core group who love the place, love playing golf and socializing together—and at the end of the day we know any club is more about the members and less about the facilities. “The members. That’s what makes this place now and will make it in the future,” says Iovaldi.

Back to their basic goals and what will be different under their watch…There are roughly 900 homes surrounding the property. Club management, particularly Membership Director Fanger, are reaching out to those homeowners, reintroducing those not familiar with the Club, involving themselves in the larger community that is The Legends. They’re also putting a greater emphasis on families and on the social aspect. They offer a “junior” membership for families where the head of household is 39 or under. And they offer a very well-priced social membership for Legends residents who don’t play golf and thus will use the pool, dining, and attend Club sponsored events. Moreover, they offer an inexpensive “Third 9” membership for their holes 19-27 that includes pool and clubhouse access. Whitfield points out that this option should be very popular for those with young children just beginning to play golf or others who simply want to play the occasional 9 holes and wouldn’t use the 18 hole course.

So, they know they’ve got a gem of a Trent Jones Sr layout in all its glory. Large, undulating greens with a myriad of possible hole locations, huge teeing grounds, lots of water with its attendant risk/reward component, and a course that fits beautifully and naturally into its surroundings.  Couple that with an expansive clubhouse and pro shop and a membership that’s passionate about the place, and you’ve got a recipe for success.

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The Missouri Golf Post is a monthly digital magazine that “celebrates the people who play the game.” Each monthly issue contains several “feature” stories on golfers, golf courses, and/or major tournaments of interest statewide. Each issue contains a number of regular departments on topics such as Tournament Summaries, Fitness, “The Superintendent’s Corner,” Instruction, and Rules.

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