Secret Golf's Steve Elkington visits Alma, Georgia, and meets the owner of Blueberry Plantation Golf and Country Club, and golfers who lived a life of an aspiring professional.
NARRATOR: On this episode of "The Rural Golfer," Steve Elkington rolls into the blueberry capital of the South.
TED: I call it the best-kept secret in Georgia.
STEVE: When you come to the South, mate, you've got to have a porch, dontcha?
NARRATOR: Alma, Georgia. Where the people loved golf so much, they built their own course.
-It's something that you wouldn't imagine would have happened.
NARRATOR: We meet some new characters.
-Look, my belt line's--
-A little lower. A little lower.
STEVE: You gonna come out and try to take money off of all-- all of us old guys, aren't you?
MARK: Oh, my. That'd be a dream.
NARRATOR: And get to know just how much golf means to this small town.
-It gives the people of Alma somewhere to go that's a little bit nicer.
NARRATOR: The Rural Golfer is headed your way.
THEME SONG: One, two, three, four! We got the Big Show ribbon, a ridin' round the map. Where we're going next, wait just you see. Grab 'em clubs, let's hit some balls. We're making friends and playing golf. The Rural Golfer's coming your way!
NARRATOR: Famed poet Robert Frost once wrote about two roads diverging in a yellow wood, and a fella taking the one less traveled by. But there's a place in south Georgia where those roads just rode on by, leaving the townspeople free to stay put.
TED: When 95 was built and 75 was built, everybody bypassed these little towns. This is like going back to the '60s. Insurance is a lot less. Taxes ARE less. The quality of living is very good here.
NARRATOR: Alma, Georgia. Population, 3,466. 5.8 square miles of dirt-- dirt the townspeople know well.
TED: It's a farming community with industry spattered in here and growing. It's the blueberry capital of, really, the world. A third of all blueberries are grown here. It's the dirt. We grow cotton here, peanuts here. Used to grow tobacco. And these are the only blueberries in the early spring in the world.
NARRATOR: Yes, the folks of Alma know how to carve a living out of the dirt. But they also know a thing or two about having fun with it. Unlikely, perhaps, but the community pulled together to carve out a golf course of their very own. And in the end, may prove to be the difference between surviving and thriving for this small, off-the-beaten-path town in an ever-changing world.
-You would never think, coming to a small town, people of the community had built it with their own tractors back in the early '90s. I mean, it's something that you wouldn't imagine would have happened.
-Seeing it grow into what it is now. It was built. It was a nice golf course. Probably wasn't exactly as they wanted it.
TED: I didn't really know how bad a shape it was. It looked OK. I didn't realize that the sprinklers needed fixing and the sand needed redoing. Once I got into it, I decided to make it the best golf course in the south.
TREVOR MOORE: To see something this big and to this scale survive and more or less thrive, it has been impressive. It gives the people of Alma somewhere to go that's a little bit nicer. When I was growing up, we went out of town if we wanted to go somewhere nice. Now we've got something like that here, and people come from out of town and come to us.
NARRATOR: Alma. A small town doing big things. Just a spot on the map. So the only way to get there is by taking the road less traveled by.
-You've been having a fair bit of difficulty out on those traps there, Ted? Is that that crushed granite you brought in for that, is it?
TED: No, that's, uh, crushed angular sand. Same as Augusta. There you go.
STEVE: Beautiful sand to hit out of. It's that-- it's a real, um, real tight sand. It's pretty-- it's pretty easy to hit out of. Some sand--
TED: Well, it's consistent now.
STEVE: Yeah, exactly.
TED: It wasn't before. There you go. There you go.
STEVE: That's nice.
NARRATOR: The charm of the Deep South is abundant at Blueberry Plantation Golf and Country Club in Alma, Georgia. And a large part of that came as a result of a Florida man and his search for a countryside retreat back in 2005.
-What brought me to Alma was I was looking for a farm to buy. About 200 acres, a half a drive from Jupiter, Florida. And I saw a golf course for sale, so I thought I'd look at it. And it knocked my socks off. I expected to see a piece of ground that went back and forth, back and forth through a cow pasture. But this wound through the trees and it was 200 acres. So I bought it.
-And then you said, I like this so much that I'm gonna-- I'm gonna move my company down here. And you employed people here.
-That's correct. And, uh, George is a very friendly state. And Alma sits in the middle of 156,000 people. So you have a great labor market here. 30 minute drive each direction.
-Plenty of people to get to--
-Plenty of people and, uh--
-Get the job done.
-He went back and told all his employees at his plant-- I think this was, like, in maybe January he may have bought it. Told all his employees, you got till May 1st for find Alma, Georgia on the map, because we're moving. And testament to him, probably 95% of his employees came up here with him. Uprooted their lives and came up here with him.
-He will help you in any way he can. He's one of the most generous people. For where he's came from and what he has and everything else, you would, uh-- he's one of most generous people you'll ever meet.
CRAIG: It's been a blessing for Ted to have the course. There's no way anyone else could have done what he's done with it. Whatever they need to improve it, he's done it. And one thing about Ted, he surrounds himself with people that know how to do what he [INAUDIBLE]. It's-- it's a fine golf course now. It's a fine golf course.
STEVE: Tell you what, Ted. The greens are perfect.
NARRATOR: Ted's philanthropic efforts in his adopted hometown of Alma include giving the local golf team free access to the range and course. He is a true ambassador for the game. But his goal for this hidden gem is simple.
TED: I want a little mini-Augusta here.
STEVE: The signature of this course is small greens. And when the pros come here, the course never gets eaten up--
TED: Never eaten up.
NARRATOR: Because it's small greens, undulation.
-The big hitters have no--
-A lot of people ask me, why is Blueberry Plantation so hard? I don't know. It's-- it's just a hard golf course. It's nothing tricky. All the trouble's in front of you. You have to be a good ball tracker and have a great short game to be able to play around this course.
-There's a few holds that they look easy and they are easy, but at the same time they can jump up and you make a mental mistake, you make a double.
STEVE: You've built a lodge here. Like, I stayed there last night. It's like Pinehurst down here. If people come down here and they were lucky enough to fly in, you have an airport right there. And you told me that you'd pick me up in a golf cart and take me right to the first tee.
-Absolutely. If you stay at the inn, you play for nothing except cart fees.
NARRATOR: A consummate salesman, Ted crafted Blueberry Plantation after Augusta National, all the way down to the 800 tons of angular sand in the bunkers. But it's the charm of the people and Alma's quaint nature that really make this place feel like home.
TED: It takes a little bit and it goes a long way in these little towns. So why not help the people that are already there and let them expand? And that's what we're trying to do.
Par four, small green.
STEVE: You could probably drop this small greens. I think I've got that. You've told me that. I mean, every hole's a small green, isn't it?
TED: Some are smaller. This is really small.
STEVE: OK. This is a really small one.
TED: I didn't see it. Good?
STEVE: Yeah, good. Boy, you weren't kidding when you were talking about small green. How am I going to hit that? that's the smallest green I've ever seen. I've got to come in super high.
TED: Super high and just right. There you go. There you go.
STEVE: I'm pretty happy with that shot. Ted, mate. These greens are tiny. I think I should come here for a week and work on my wedge game.
TED: Thatta boy. Thatta boy!
STEVE: Ahh! Where's that been on the tour?
MARK: When I played my best, I played a little fade. But as I've gotten older, I've-- I've played more of a draw just trying to get some extra power.
NARRATOR: One of the more passionate characters we met in Alma also happens to hold the course record at Blueberry Plantation. And his plans now shift from lower scores to higher aspirations.
-You've played a lot of golf in your life and now you're my age. You're a little older than me already, aren't you?
-And, uh, you grew up in Georgia your whole life. Yeah. Started playing golf when I was two years old. My dad was into golf. He was a club professional in South Carolina and moved to a little town called Sylvania, Georgia. He would just take me out to the golf course with him. I think it was to get out of my mom's hair or something. But I've al-- I've loved it ever since.
-You've got that club face nice and stable up there. Looks good.
And then in junior college, I played at Chattahoochee Valley Community College. And I shot four under in my first tournament. And I won Regionals. And then I lost Nationals my first year in a playoff, and-- and then won Junior College Nationals my second year.
-But you have a lot of records and you've done a lot of things. You have of course record here or something. 63?
-63 or 64.
-You gonna come out and try to take money off all-- all of us old guys, aren't you?
-Oh, my. That'd be a dream.
When I came along, it was back in the late '80s, early '90s. And there just wasn't very much money out there. I played what they called the Jordan tour, which is the Hooters tour now. And they had this new thing coming out called the Ben Hogan tour, wanting to start a second tour. And I talked to my backers down in Savannah and it was $1,000 to try it. And so they said, yeah, let's give it a try. You know.
So I went to, uh-- the first, first stage was out in Dallas, Texas. And the first day I teed it up in an actual qualifying tournament, it was eight degrees windchill factor. And it's one the best rounds I think I've ever played in competition. Because I shot 76. Which doesn't sound that great, but the way the wind blows out there. But-- but yeah. It was, uh-- I ended up coming back to Florida and finished 13th out of 1,000 players. So it's was a good accomplishment.
And, and then I had some good tournaments on the Hogan tour. Finished in the top 10 several times, and, and that was a lot of-- a lot of fun.
-And you want to come back out on the Champions tour?
-Yeah, that's my aspirations. Getting in my car and traveling somewhere different each week. I mean, what could be greater?
I feel like I can play with anybody at any given time. It's just a matter of getting back out and getting in shape and, and getting worked out again, loose. I'd love to play a few on that tour. Go out there with Steve and-- that'd be really fun.
-You like that feel? I like that. I like these clubs. These--
-They're nice clubs. You didn't think you were gonna pick up a set of wrenches in my bag that weren't gonna look good, did you? I'm old school. You know that.
-Now, we're on the 10th tee here. What do you got here? Par four?
-Watch this shot.
-I'm biting off some of that water, Ted. That's got to be good.
-That's goo-- that's-- that's fine. It might hit the rough, but--
-It's still all right.
-OK. All right. Fair enough. You own the place. You know-- you know where I'm going. I've hit a pretty good drive here, Ted, and I've still got a little shot to a very small target over there, with that pin tucked there. But I'm going to see what I can do with it.
-It looks good. Carry, carry. OK.
-All right. What's the par here?
-The par's 72. Course record, I think, is 64.
-I could come here, and I don't know if I could break the record ever.
-As I said before, there's some easy holes and there's some hard holes. And it's easy to make double bogey. Hit it!
-OK. Alma. I'm in Alma. I never thought I'd say "Alma."
-Never thought you'd be in Alma either, right?
-Come on, Too Tall.
NARRATOR: Craig "Too Tall" Barnes-- small man with a big swing. At only five foot four, he is still one of the best golfers around, in spite of his size.
-That's why I have a flat swing.
-You gotta have a flat swing. You gotta.
-Of course, Mom made my dad take me on a Sunday afternoon with his friends, and he used to not let me play on the course. He wanted me to stay on the driving range and hit golf balls. Finally, one of their partners could not show up, so he, uh, let me play with him. And I beat every one of 'em.
-You play the mini-tours, et cetera?
CRAIG: Someone suggested, said, why don't you go on tour? And one thing led to another. We got some people together for a little sponsorship, and so I tried it. I wouldn't take anything in the world for it, but it didn't take me long to know it just wasn't my calling.
NARRATOR: Too Tall left the tour, but not the game. Back in Georgia, as a club professional, he found a new calling-- inspiring the next generation.
-That was at that point that I was starting to play a little bit of tournament golf. And, and um, so I'd, "Mr. Craig, Mr. Craig, Mr. Craig," all the time. And I remember specifically, one time he said, go make 50 putts in a row and don't come back in till you do. I think it took me three days on that putting green to make 50 putts in a row. And I was so excited. And I come in and I say, Mr. Craig, Mr. Craig! He said, what is it? I said, I made 50 putts in a row. He says, well, that's good. That's real good. You know, I was excited. He said, well go make 50 more.
NARRATOR: And that she did. For Ashley, golf became anything but a pastime. Mom and Dad took me to a tournament when I was a kid. We were walking around, and I watched about three holes. She said, what do you think? You know, she was wanting to see if she wanted to put me in some golf tournaments. I said, I'm ready to go home. I said, I'm not going to go and watch. If I'm going to go, I'm going to go and play.
-She was state-- state champ, wasn't she?
MARK: Three years in a row.
MARK: State champ for class 2A and went to Arkansas on full scholarship. And she was the real deal.
NARRATOR: As she won the pride of her hometown, she was just hitting her stride. Next stop-- the pros.
ASHLEY: I played a few really small tournaments in Florida. Qualified the first year, got conditional status. And Mr. Ted said, well, why don't you come be the professional at the course? And when you need to go play professional on the tour, you can. Help you out while you're out there, and that type of thing.
NARRATOR: Golf was the common thread throughout her life. A way to keep a young kid busy. It made the dream of higher education a reality. And now it appeared to be a real way to make a living. Golf's always so important to me, so it was-- you know, things-- God [INAUDIBLE] put things in my-- my life for me to play golf.
-All right, what do we got here? Par three. Another interesting thing about this hole is you're playing against the farm, which is right over here, which used to be Hoss Cartwright's farm, who was Dan Blocker from "Bonanza."
-The Cartwrights-- this is their land?
-You've got to give me a little slack here. I'm Australian, and we didn't get the show "Bonanza." Give me a little bit more history of that, please.
-We had [INAUDIBLE] was an actor in there, and Michael Landon. It was a fun Western.
-Only-- only in Alma. Aw, I couldn't make a hole in one, could I, Ted?
-That could be good. Oh, that's beautiful.
-That was a good shot.
-You must be a pro.
-That was a good shot. That was a bonanza. The bonanza hole.
-A bonanza hold.
-That was a bonanza! I'm going to see if I can get me another bird. Hey.
TED: You're kidding me.
-No. That's two in a row.
TED: Man, you better save those for the tour.
NARRATOR: Back in Alma, with her sights on the pros, Ashley enlisted the help of an old friend.
CRAIG: Kind of wanted me to help her with her game a little bit more. And so we did. And she asked me to caddie for her when she went on tour.
ASHLEY: It's not the eight-to-five job that people think it is, or the fun, let's go play on the weekend and come back home. And I realized he knew that more than anybody. And so we'd play and he'd caddie and we just became best friends.
CRAIG: I got her to go out with me by letting her beat me in the club championship.
-At the time, I didn't realize he liked me. I beat him at the club championship. First time I'd beat him, and I was really excited. But I was afraid he'd be mad at me at the same time
-She was bragging about it. I said, the only reason I done that is so you'd go out with me. And to this day, she still don't believe it. But I'm sticking to it.
ASHLEY: He began having feelings for me. And one day he says, can I kiss you? And something in me just was yelling, yes, yes, yes. And from that moment on, I knew.
-I found my soul mate, my best friend.
CRAIG: I, Craig.
-Take thee, Ashley.
CRAIG: Take thee, Ashley.
-To be my wedded wife.
CRAIG: To be my wedded wife.
It was a dream wedding. It really was.
-You may kiss your man.
NARRATOR: A dream come true for both. Although the prospect of a career on tour may now be a thing of the past for Ashley, her dedication and love for the game helped pave the way to her future.
ASHLEY: And that's one of the reasons I play golf, is so I can be with him. I grew up, and I knew him, and we could fall in love the way we did. I thought maybe it was to play professional, but now I'm beginning to think it was to be happy.
-Ted, I want to thank you. And I can't think of anything more appropriate than sitting on a porch in Georgia, having an iced tea. We've had a game of golf ball on your course, and I've enjoyed meeting you and being in your lodge.
-Well, please come back. And next time, we'll go fishing after golf.
-You got it. There is one thing that I gotta do before I leave, though.
-Hey, welcome to Poppa Tee's. I'm Poppa. Can I help you?
-Yes sir, you can. I would like some fried gizzards. I would like some fried chicken. I would like some fried livers. And for my sides, I want some-- do you have okra?
-We've got okra.
-Don't forget the hush puppies.
-All right. Anything else?
-No, sir. That's it.
-All right. Have it for you in just a moment.
-Thank you, sir.
NARRATOR: On the next episode of "The Rural Golfer."
-This is one of the greatest turf experimental places there is in the whole United States, for sure.
NARRATOR: Steve Elkington heads to Farmlinks in Alabama.
-The golf course Farmlinks is truly the world's first research and demonstration golf course.
NARRATOR: To learn their secret formula in the dirt.
STEVE: Aw, I aced it, right on camera right here. I may have a gimme up here. You never know.