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April 2021

Forest Park Welcoming Fresh Faces

By Scott Kauffman

For much of the 20th century, Forest Park Country Club was one of the premier private golf and country clubs in Southwest Virginia, a symbol of success for the surrounding Martinsville-Henry County area that was world renowned for its furniture and textile/apparel manufacturing prowess.

After the North American Free Trade Agreement took effect in 1994, however, and globalization became a growing harsh reality in the new millennium, the region’s once-mighty furniture and apparel/textile industries were crippled by the manufacturing exodus brought on by these economic changes.

Consequently, Forest Park’s thriving membership began to dwindle in size much like the state of other historic clubs facing similar macro-economic challenges in places seemingly stuck in a bygone era.
Economic challenges notwithstanding, Forest Park not only remains member owned today – some 85 years after the Gene Hamm-designed 18-hole layout was originally built -- but the small club is on the path of positive growth once again. And the leadership behind the changing fortunes of this evolving 21st-century club is a list of longtime loyal members like club president George Kasey and one familiar face in new club manager/golf instructor Jay Dee Draper.

To be sure, what sparked the club’s comeback was the resurrection of the course itself after a pest infestation destroyed the greens more than three years ago. As Kasey and Draper describe it, with a team of club employees working tireless hours and numerous members volunteering and donating their own time, equipment and goods to collectively revive the course and overall club business, Forest Park grew the membership by an estimated “two-thirds in the last year” or some 135 overall members today, according to Kasey.

“There’s not one person responsible for (the turnaround),” says Kasey, who is in his 57th year of membership. “We’ve got a bunch of good people that want to see Forest Park become a success.”
For instance, one of the members who owns a concrete business and fleet of heavy equipment would often be seen on his company Bobcat or excavator “clearing all the debris out of the creeks and keeping our creek banks and creek bed” looking good,” Kasey adds.

“The state of our club’s business is good,” Kasey says. “We’re like a lot of other small clubs, though. We carry a lot of debt. But we have a bank that works with us extremely well. And we’re getting younger members. Those 25-to-40 year-olds with families are coming out to Forest Park and they’re playing golf or swimming in our Olympic-sized swimming pool.

And Draper, who grew up playing the course with his father and now lives behind the 13th green, couldn’t be happier seeing this prestigious club regain some of its past golf glory under his stewardship. Draper, 44, was hired by the club nearly two years ago and he remains optimistic about the future prospects of Forest Park, where Draper honed his golf game as a member of the Martinsville High School team he now coaches on the side.

“This was our Sedgefield in the day, our Greensboro Country Club,” says Draper, referring to a couple of acclaimed clubs in Greensboro, N.C., the nearby golf-rich city where Draper previously worked as a PGA apprentice at Rick Murphy Golf Academy and served as the site coordinator for First Tee of the Triad. “At one time, Forest Park was the equal of any course around and had about 400 golf members.
“This area is known for producing a lot of really good collegiate golfers. And some excellent amateur and pros. Today, we understand we’re a community club and we need to grow in different ways and attract different people than previous years.”

In other words, Forest Park is embracing an attitude that is more inclusive and forward thinking than ever for a club entrenched in the deep South and forced to change if it wants to be sustainable and see its 100th anniversary as a club. Kasey does not take these changes lightly, pointing out the club now has its first Black board member and the hiring of Draper, whose father was an area coaching legend, represents another wise and strategic decision by the club’s board.

“You have to have more social members these days and we’ve opened up for semi-private play like other clubs. … We had to,” Kasey says. “And the part of diversity, that’s one thing Jay Dee’s valuable for. With the racial climate today, we’re a small town. … I can’t help what happened 40 years ago. I didn’t make those decisions.

“But small private clubs today, you have to have the entire community support and that’s what I’m telling the board. We’ve got to have the Black community. You’ve got to have the Hispanic community, if there’s a Hispanic golfing community … and women and children. I’m not interested in all these voices; we don’t need to stand on a soapbox and talk real loud. I’m interested in the ideas. What do we need to do to attract all these people? And I know with Jay Dee here and others, we’re working in the right direction.”

Draper, who played collegiately at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte for two years, winning the National Minority Collegiate Championship his freshman year, and the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association conference championship his sophomore year, even has his teenage son playing the game. It marks the fourth generation of Draper golfers, who, in a few years, could very well wind up playing for his father at nearby Patrick Henry Community College, where Draper also coaches on the side.

There’s a theme to Draper’s passion and he says his No. 1 goal at Forest Park is simple: Get more juniors playing the game. So Draper is doing clinics around the clock and giving  lessons; coaching at the local high school, and now, helping junior golfers take their game to the next level collegiately.

“I applaud him,” Kasey says. “And he’s good at it. He’s been with First Tee for years so he understands how to do it and how to go about doing it.

“He’s bringing kids back into the club and you know where the kids go, the parents follow. That’s a pretty big coin to bring to the table.”

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