September 7, 2015 – Ronnie Kelley’s golf course is crumbling around him.
The electricity has been shut off at River’s Bend Golf Club in Chester for weeks. As a result, Kelley, the owner, has been unable to pump water through the course’s irrigation system, and the putting greens have turned brown and started cracking and curling.
While he struggles to revive grass on the greens, it’s thriving on the fairways, where neighbors have filed complaints with Chesterfield County that it’s more than a foot high.
That hasn’t stopped Kelley from offering tee times, albeit at a reduced rate. But even $20 for 18 holes and a golf cart has been a tough sell, he says. Recent afternoons see no visits from golfers.
Meanwhile, he’s still dealing with the fallout from the foreclosure on his last golf course in Prince George County. His bank is trying to collect on an $800,000 judgment, and court records show it’s not the only legal claim for unpaid debts pending against him.
On top of it all, his wife is recovering from a battle with cancer. He says she told him recently she wants a divorce. That’s left him spending some nights on the couch in his darkened pro shop.
Through it all, he tries to remain upbeat. But on a recent evening as he drank a beer on a deck overlooking the deserted course, he seems more like the captain of a sinking ship content to go down with the vessel.
He laughs at the comparison.
“I’ve heard that before,” he says. “I’m struggling, but I’ll make it. I’m not going to give up. If there’s anybody who should give up, it would be me right now.”
Kelley is full of plans he hopes will resuscitate his course.
For years, the 63-year-old former golf pro talked about putting his land in a conservation easement, which he says could net him $6 million. But it’s never come through.
Neither have his plans to build a marina on his riverfront, which overlooks the Varina-Enon Bridge over the James River. Perhaps, he offers, he could develop a parcel or two into homes along the river to bring in some cash.
But for now, he says his best bet is to sell one of his mowers to raise the $4,500 he needs to get electricity restored. Then, he at least can start watering his greens again.
River’s Bend snakes through an upscale development of the same name, and the neighbors share none of Kelley’s optimism.
“It’s in a deplorable state,” said Esther Lee, president of the River’s Bend Community Association. “Being on the golf course is supposed to be an asset. Well it’s not. It’s a liability.”
About 100 homes abut the course. Lee said she’s fielded numerous complaints from residents upset over the conditions, which she said have gotten considerably worse this summer.
Likewise, the number of golfers has plummeted. In the past two weeks, a player abandoned a cart in the middle of a hole after it ran out of gas, Lee said. Eventually neighbors pushed it back to Kelley’s home, which also sits on the course.
A post about River’s Bend on a popular national golfing forum made the rounds in the neighborhood. Written three weeks ago, it ridiculed the course and included dozens of photos mocking the conditions.
One reader suggested the course should market itself as apocalypse golf.
The association consulted with its lawyer but has been told that because the course is a separate entity from the association, there’s nothing they can do.
Homes for sale in the neighborhood are listed at $300,000 to $400,000. Lee said at least one homeowner on the course has been struggling to sell his home because it’s next to the course.
“People don’t know if it’s coming or going or open or closed – you know, what’s happening with it,” Lee said.
Lee said she’s in the process of drafting a letter to the county seeking some kind of assistance.
Residents already have lodged a complaint about the height of the grass. David Goode, a county spokesman, said the code enforcement department conducted an inspection early last month and confirmed the grass was in violation of county ordinances.
“As this property is not a typical residential lot, we are currently exploring our legal options to obtain compliance,” he said.
Kelley acknowledges he’s cutting grass only straight down the fairways, leaving grass in the rough to grow more than 2 feet.
What of his plans to save his course? Lee and everyone else interviewed – most neighbors declined to comment publicly, referring questions to Lee – agreed that Kelley is a nice person with good intentions. But none expressed much faith in his ability to manage a golf course.
“I’m sure that Ronnie is trying,” Lee said. “The question is: Is he capable?”
Kelley grew up in the Richmond area and played golf from a young age. He did well, winning a host of local tournaments, as shown in yellowed newspaper clippings he keeps in his pro shop.
He worked as a golf pro at various area clubs before he bought his first club. He eventually amassed a portfolio of five clubs, including River’s Bend, which he purchased in 2004.
“Back in 1992, 1993, 1994 – we had so much cash coming in, we looked like the back room of a casino,” Kelley said. “It was awesome. We just kept adding golf courses, and every one of them just kept doing really good.”
That ended when the recession hit in 2008, which hurt the golf industry nationally.
Kelley’s portfolio dwindled to two courses: River’s Bend and Prince George Golf Course. He lost the latter in 2013 when his bank foreclosed on him.
Things went from bad to dire at River’s Bend in mid-July, when Kelley was arrested for failing to appear for a deposition related to a judgment against him.
Kelley said he never got the summons.
He said he was processed criminally and put in jail for the night. That meant he was unable to make a payment to Dominion Virginia Power on time. Because he already was on a payment plan and his account was considered delinquent, his power was cut off by the time he got out of jail.
No power meant no water for the greens, which at this
point look more like the surface of the moon than a suitable medium for putting. It also means the doors to the club’s bathrooms remain propped open with trash cans to let in light.
Kelley said that, as a former golf pro, he’s more than a little embarrassed by the situation. “I just suffer through it,” he said. “I try to smile and laugh. What else can I do?”
He said he warns players about the conditions before they play, and he’s been offering golfers a chance to come back and play a second round for free in a month or two, at which point he hopes to have his issues sorted out.
Last week, he said his plan was to cut temporary greens out of the fairways until he’s able to reseed his greens and restore water. “Golfers won’t mind that,” he said.
Asked if he thinks additional publicity will help or hurt his plight, Kelley was optimistic.
“I think it’ll help,” he said. “I want to let people know we’re still here and still trying to make it work. And I think we can.”