Last Update :10/9/2019

Press Release: Spencer Robbins Honored with NCGCOA Golf Leader Award

North Carolina GCOA Golf Leader Award

Spencer Robbins

In recognition of leadership in the golf industry in North Carolina, as evidenced by long-term service to the industry, Spencer Robbins, 92 of Boone has been named the 2019 North Carolina Golf Leader, presented by the North Carolina Golf Course Owners AssociationRobbins was a catalyst of golf tourism and development in western North Carolina for over 50 years, and he still resides in the area and hangs his hat at Elk River Club, a Jack Nicklaus design.

The Robbins family history runs deep in the region, and Robbins’ father originally developed “The Blowing Rock” in 1933, a Ripley’s Believe It or Not attraction, billed as the only place where it snows upside down!  In 1956, his brother, Grover, Jr., then created another popular attraction in the area, Tweetsie Railroad, which is still entertaining families today!

So how did the family get into golf?  Spencer recalls playing some golf with his brothers as kids in the late 1930’s, but it was really the 1960’s before he adopted it as a lifetime passion.  Prior to 1960, Spencer and wife Grace operated the Chuck Wagon Restaurant, which was very popular in-season (summers), but not so much in the winter. 

With four sons & a daughter in the family, and the local schools being quite average, the family made the bold move in 1960 to relocate to the Pinehurst area, where schools were good and the winters were milder.  This move was without a job lined up for Spencer, and as he drove into town, he passed the Pine Needles Lodge, owned by Warren “Bullet” Bell & Peggy Kirk Bell.  He knew immediately that he wanted to work there.  The only job open was bartender, but he was happy to take it to get his foot in the door.  Over six years he became invaluable to Mr. Bell as his personal assistant.

He fondly remembers his time at Pine Needles, especially the daily golf games with Mr. Bell and the pro.  All the guests wanted to play early, so they had a standing game at noon, where they could play fast and get ready for the dinner crowd.  In those times, the resort was only open mid-September to mid-May, so in summers he and Grace would go back and run the Chuck Wagon.  Brothers Grover and Harry visited Spencer at Pine Needles, and they pondered having a similar attraction back home.

Hound Ears, Hole #15

Then Spencer moved back to the Boone area in 1966 and joined brothers Grover, Jr. and Harry in the family business for good.  What he learned at Pine Needles was valuable -- how to operate a golf attraction.  The brothers started with a ski lodge at Hound Ears in 1964 – this was something new – skiing in the South – it was very popular!  Then they added a golf course, noticing that the original Blowing Rock course was getting over-crowded and the Linville Golf Club was essentially private.  This pivotal moment laid the groundwork for other great developments in the region.  Some great courses followed, including Grandfather G&CC, by another developer.  Also the Robbins brothers developed the Beech Mountain ski resort, which added golf later, as well as Land Harbors, a popular campsite with a large lake and a nine hole golf course.

That was really how the golf real estate market started to take off.  Floridians, Texans and North Carolinians from the Piedmont and beyond flocked to the area for golf and other summer attractions, and to get away from the bugs and heat.  It became a second-home haven.  Then came the prize jewel, Elk River.

In 1978, they bought 2,700 acres, pre-owned by a bank, after another developer failed.  The property was fabulous, and it was a good price – work started in 1980, and Spencer tells an interesting story of how Jack Nicklaus was hired.

“Originally we planned to have Arnold Palmer do the design – he was very popular at the time,” he remarked.  “I even bought a car from him, but every time we would set an appointment to view the property, he would cancel – this went on and on.”

Finally he gave up and one day he asked his secretary if she could get Jack Nicklaus on the phone.  That afternoon, she told him, “I have Mr. Nicklaus on the line,” and it turns out Jack was familiar with the area and Hound Ears.  That weekend Jack and wife Barbara flew up for a visit, and for Jack to walk the property.  The setting was spectacular, and Jack quickly signed on to design the course.  Home sites and condos would be on high ridges, overlooking the golf course in the valley.  Barbara really liked the natural waterfalls.  The elevation ranged 3,500 to 4,700 feet.

Elk River, Hole #15

There were 100 charter members of Elk River Club who paid a tony initiation fee, which included a lot, with a drawing to determine which one.  The club opened in 1982 and really took off in 1984.  Elk River’s popularity became a regional draw for all courses, and the area flourished until the recession onset in 2006-08.  Now things are back on the move again.

One of the things Robbins notes about the golf industry is the willingness for different clubs to help each other – this is rarely seen in other industries.  “It’s not dog eat dog,” he said.  “We all worked together, helping with reciprocal play when renovations were taking place.”

Now at age 92, Robbins still plays nine holes regularly, complaining about his game just like all other golfers.  He lives in Boone, just three blocks from the Appalachian State University campus – it’s about 20 minutes from Elk River, which he frequents most days of the week.

Observing industry trends, Robbins remarks, “The young people are not taking up golf like they used to.  But here at Elk River, we have the ‘Bear’s Den’ indoor teaching center, allowing them to learn the game quicker and avoiding some frustration.  And of course one of the great things about golf is that you can play it your whole life….like me!”

A philanthropist of sorts, Robbins just celebrated the 50th rendition of a charity golf tournament benefitting the local cancer center.  It’s in honor of his brother Grover, whom he lost to cancer at a young age in 1970.  The tournament has raised over $1.5 million.

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