LUMBERTON — Golf has long been a past-time of retirees around country, but what does someone in the golf business hope for when they retired?
More golf, as it turns out.
“Being in the golf business, people always think you can play golf by working at a golf course, but unfortunately it kind of works the other way,” said Al Wall, the club professional at Cliffwood Golf Course. “It’s kind of like working at an ice cream store. You get tired of eating ice cream and want to eat something else. When it came time for me to be able to play after working at the golf course, I wanted to go home or go do something else.”
Wall will soon have plenty more time to hit courses and clubs around the country. The 22-year employee of the course will be retiring from his position at the end of the month, even if he prefers not to think of it in those terms.
“I don’t like calling this retirement,” Wall said. “I just wanted a different phraseology that this is the next chapter in my life. I’m moving into the next chapter of my life and not retiring, because retirement has some bad connotations.”
Instead, the 67-year-old Wall and his wife Suzie, who retired in February from Lumberton Radiological Associates, will continue to remain active. The priority now will be playing the course instead of working on it, and spending plenty of time with his 18 grandchildren and one great-grandchild, most of whom live in the Carolinas.
It will be the 19th hole in a career in the golf industry that started in 1971.
Wall got his start at Cliffwood in the first week of August 1991 after being hired by course owner and designer Clifford Bullard.
“The golf course was not open yet and he planned on opening it as soon as possible,” Wall said. “He had everything grassed and his turf was in and everything was ready to go. We had to basically just cut out the golf course and set it up to where the holes were in.”
Wall ended up working for Bullard until his death in 2003, even if things didn’t start out as smoothly.
“I remember the first the first time I cut his greens down,” Wall said. “Usually the shortest grass cut is on greens because that’s the best rolling surface. He had been growing his greens and when I cut them the first day with the greens mower, they could have been two or three inches tall and I cut them to a half-inch. That’s like going from green to white when you cut the canopy of the green off, so it kind of upset him. He came to me and ‘Al, what have you done to my greens?’”
Wall’s been at it ever since, watching as the course’s use expanded with population and later decreased with the local and national post-9/11 economies.
He oversees the entire operation of the course, working six days a week and 12 hours a day, if necessary. Everything from the pro shop to the grass seeds on the 18th green have had Wall’s personal touch.
“You’ve got to think from the business side of taking care of the people and serving the people, and then you’ve got 19 greens and say 150 acres of grass total that you have to maintain, so you’ve got to keep a handle on really everything that’s happening and try, in your mind, to think about coming down the road,” Wall said.
Originally from Columbia, S.C., Wall was working at a course in Myrtle Beach. S.C. when he had the opportunity to move to Lumberton. He’s had offers to go elsewhere, but instead stayed planted.
“I’ve had maybe six or more opportunities to leave and every time I’ve followed up on an opportunity, the door has shut. I’ve been here because I believe the Lord wants me here,” Wall said.
For him, it’s worked out just fine. He and his wife plan to stick around as they adjust to their new lifestyle.
“There’s some great folks in Lumberton,” Wall said. “We became part of the community, developed some great friendships and this became home, but still those opportunities came and it was just something that didn’t come together. I told her that until the Lord moved us, we’d be here and we’ve been here since 1991.”
Lumberton native Mike Hendren was named as Wall’s replacement and started the transition process on Sept. 2.
“I’m humbled by it because obviously they respected (Al) long enough to keep him here 22 years,” Hendren said. “I’m excited about the opportunity. It’s a nice little golf course.”
Hendren has been in and out of the golf business for more than 20 years. He’s managed courses near Pinehurst, and also managed courses in Dillon and Nichols, S.C. He’s most recently worked at Raeford-based Carolina Turf Farms, Inc.
“He’s pretty aggressive and he’s a go getter and that’s what it takes in this business,” Wall said.
Hendren spoke admirably of the legacy that Wall leaves behind and his help in the transition process.
“He’s highly respected by all these people around here,” Hendren said. “I think they all think a lot of him and he’s made it easy for me.”
Wall expects to miss the work, but is also excited for the next chapter, one that he expects to be filled with plenty of action.
“In this business if you wait the grass will grow underneath your feet and you’ll have problems,” Wall said. “You always want to stay in front of the grass as much as you can, so I’ve always been very active and tried to be moving in my life.”