When Atascocita Country Club opened in 1957 near the shores of newly constructed Lake Houston, it was in a forested swampland some would call “the boonies.” FM 1960 had just been paved as a single-lane road and the old “over-water crossing” of the San Jacinto River had just been replaced by the McKay Bridge over Lake Houston.

The nearby population was sparse. There was no Kingwood, no sprawling Atascocita suburbia and Humble was six miles away.

However, the area was destined to grow, and a syndicate including the families of local landowners W.M. Wheless and J.S. Abercrombie created a great golf course. The original course was designed by Ralph Plummer, one of the most famous golf course architects of the day. Ben Hogan is reported to have been a consultant to Plummer as the course was carved out of heavily wooded land full of deer, wild hogs and snakes.

Atascocita Country Club drew people from all over the Greater Houston area in spite of the long journey. Golfers, intrigued by its spreading reputation, came in droves to play the course. Families came to enjoy the lake and picnic areas. Large organizations, such as Texaco and the Houston Bar Association, rented the scenic facility for picnics and gatherings. As the population grew in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the club prospered. In the ‘70s, it became the home course for the University of Houston when Fred Couples and other PGA professionals were members of the team. Tom Kite, Ben Crenshaw, Andy North and many other collegiate and PGA stars played the course.

However, as time marched on, the club experienced good times and bad times, based largely on the general economic conditions in Houston. What grew with a booming oil industry shrank with a depressed oil industry. Atascocita Golf Club, in spite of the suburban growth around it, was no exception. In addition, other great golf facilities kept popping up to compete for the available market of golfers: Walden on Lake Houston, Tour 18 and even The Clubs of Kingwood once the West Lake Houston Bridge over the San Jacinto River connected the two areas in 1993, vied for the area’s golfers.

Ken Kirchhofer, Atascocita Golf Club’s dynamic director of operations.

In 1973, the club was sold to residential developers and a new clubhouse was built and opened in 1975. The emphasis seemed to be more on group social events rather than the quality of the golf. In 1980, a subsidiary of ClubCorp, based in Dallas, owned and ran the club until finally, in 2008, it closed. Club membership had declined from more than 400, in the late ‘80s, to less than 200 at the time of closing.

In 2009, it was sold to a local investment group, Pinehurst Trail Holdings, with the hope of reopening. The original recovery plan was to continue to keep the golf course open. An Austin-based company was tasked to reopen and oversee its operation. However, that effort failed and plans were made by a developer to place housing where there were once historic and beautiful fairways.

The community rallied to preserve the historic landmark facility as 240 home owners pledged their time, energy and finances to save the property. In 2012, Kevin Kilgore, a local private business owner, came forward to purchase the club and property with the intent of turning the club facilities into a beautiful special events venue and operate the golf course independently. The Overlook Event Center opened in May 2013.

The golf course also reopened, as a semi-private golf club, in 2013. Renamed the Golf Preserve of Atascocita, the golf course was managed by a group of investors.

While The Overlook, a stunning event center surrounded by enormous oak trees, a lake and an exuberant staff, prospered, the golf course wavered and never seemed to bounce back. In late 2016, a veteran, PGA-trained golf course professional, Kenneth Kirchhofer, was put in charge to make it work. Since then the turnaround has been spectacular.

“I came here on Oct. 1, 2016. The focus when we took over was to improve the golf course conditions and it is still our focus. You can’t get people to come play a course that doesn’t have good greens, good tee boxes and good fairways. It would have been easier to close it again for 30 or 60 days and then reopen the club than do what we did,” Kirchhofer said.

He explained that when upon arrival, the place was a mess, with uncut fairways, damaged tee boxes and poor greens. “It was like someone had cut the arteries,” he said.

An equally important focus for Kirchhofer has been the custom service provided by the club’s employees.

From left: Brad Dodson, assistant pro and tournament director, and Ken Kirchhofer, Atascocita Golf Club’s director of operations; together they are reviving a golfing tradition at Atascocita Golf Club. Photos by Bruce Olson

“Our motto here is three central things: ‘Smile, Be on Time and Keep it Clean.’ If you can’t do those things, you can’t work here,” Kirchhofer said.

Those principles are the core ideas of good customer service that he had learned through his own experience and through a formal Disney Institute program. “The staff here is excellent. I have been in a lot of clubs and the staff here continues to grow and grow better,” he said. Currently there are 33 employees, and as the club grows, so will the staff.

Kirchhofer explained that pricing the golf product is critical. “It’s affordable. It’s the best deal in town. There is nowhere around here you can play for $200 a month and be a member.”

He pointed out that memberships include the use of carts without additional fees. Non-members play golf for $45 and there are special discount days for different groups such as Ladies Day on Mondays for $20 and Hero Day on Tuesdays for veterans, firemen and others for $25. In addition, the club offers a player development program at $29.95 a month, where one can use practice facilities as much as they want to, play a round of golf for $20 seven days a week at 2 p.m. or later each day, and take advantage of golf clinics. He noted that Brad Dodson, his assistant pro, is his tournament director and plays a major role in developing the best deals in golf for the club’s future.

“We have had nice increases with the public and the course will do close to 45,000 rounds of golf this year. That’s a lot of golf,” Kirchhofer said.

He wants to see the membership grow to at least 300 soon and explained that there is a new fleet of 90 golf carts to be delivered in August. There will also be other significant improvements announced in the near future. Even with the new equipment and soon-to-be-announced service additions, Kirchhofer said, “We are going to keep it affordable: ‘The Best Deal In Town’.”

There are currently about 200 members and the course is becoming more and more popular with the general public. As a result of the leadership of Kirchhofer, the future for Atascocita Golf Club looks promising. He is a leader with professional experience gained over 18 years, including serving as the head professional at Walden on Lake Houston, the tour director at The Woodlands Country Club, and an assistant professional at Cypresswood Golf Club. He has trained at the PGA of America located near West Palm Beach, Fla. Right now he is probably the best deal for the Atascocita Golf Club itself and the community around it.

 

 

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Bruce Olson
Author: Bruce OlsonEmail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Columnist
I have been married since 1970 to Kerry, my best friend and a great Australian woman. I served and survived Vietnam in the U.S. Air Force. I fought forest fires in the summer while in college, where I earned a B.A. in economics from Oklahoma State University and an M.B.A. from the University of Texas. I retired from Continental Airlines. I have a son and two granddaughters in Kingwood, and a daughter and two grandsons on a farm near Mazabuka, Zambia. I am now enjoying life as a grandfather, Tribune correspondent and Humble ISD guest teacher when not traveling to Zambia or Australia.