August 14, 2020
The Rookery’s South Course opened for public play August 2000, making this month the 20th anniversary for the popular Cape Region layout. I spoke with managing director/founder Chris Adkins, co-founder Pete Oakley, and head golf pro/owner Butch Holtzclaw about their achievement and how they felt about their two decades together.
Oakley was quick to credit Adkins for the idea of adding to the local public golf options. “Chris was and is the visionary and came up with the idea. I knew there was something special about Chris when we were paired together as greens superintendent and pro at Shawnee CC,” he said.
“Chris told me his tenure at Shawnee was iffy as the job was not challenging enough for him. Usually, that’s not the comment from most superintendents. Right then and there I knew and told Chris, ‘Hey, I know you’re going places so keep me in mind if you should ever need help,’” Oakley said.
“After a few years Chris shows up at Midway Par 3 as I’m about to give a lesson, and lays out this amazing plan for a golf course on a farm of sandy loam owned by Albert Lank and that the return on investment was uniquely suited to the local [investor community],” he said. “Two weeks later we had 22 investors. On the same date one year after we put a shovel in the ground, The Rookery Golf Course opened.”
Oakley continued, “Designing, building, and watching it happen in a year’s time has been the highlight of my career in golf, just a notch below winning the 2004 Senior British Open Championship!”
Holtzclaw is the public face of ownership that most people see when they come to Rookery South’s pro shop. He began work for The Rookery as its head golf pro after working several years as a PGA pro at the Salt Pond course near Ocean View. “I came in June 2000,” he said. “I had worked at private clubs, but Salt Pond got me ready for public course [operations]. It was nice to be here to watch it grow in. And I got to stay in the business where I grew up,” said the former Cape Henlopen High varsity golf standout. “I’ve been very lucky that way.”
Holtzclaw noted the success of the golf leagues and other group activities at The Rookery, and credited Chris and Nancy Lank for their efforts to encourage women golfers to try the course. “They’re the ones that built up the big Thursday league, and it’s been tremendous,” he said. “That exposed the course to a lot of lady golfers.”
When I first reached out to Adkins about the 20-year anniversary, he said, “I wasn’t paying attention,” and grinned. “There weren’t any huge surprises along the way, but there definitely was a learning curve.”
I started writing about The Rookery in August 1999, shortly after construction began. It took about five years for Adkins and Oakley to find a suitably large enough piece of acreage and then line up the investors to begin the project. At the time, Adkins described the concept as a “longtime dream,” and with a lot of work it became a reality. During the twelve-month build I wrote eight columns tracking their progress, finishing with an August 11, 2000 piece about playing the course for the first time.
“It’s been a good run, and I have enjoyed it,” Adkins said. “I learned a lot, and the owners trusted me to make a lot of the decisions.”
One major decision doubled the company’s 18-hole business by leasing and then purchasing another 18-hole layout. In January 2012 the shareholders of Shawnee Country Club, Inc. voted to approve the eventual deal. The Rookery owners bought Shawnee outright in the late summer of 2015, and it is now called Rookery North.
There have been challenges along the way, of course. The 2008-2009 recession hit all public golf courses hard, and some never recovered. Turf issues are a constant maintenance issue in the Mid-Atlantic region, and there have been some serious repairs and reworks required at both courses.
As for the current pandemic, Holtzclaw said, “We will be glad to get this year behind us.”
The growth of travel sports such as youth baseball, soccer, and lacrosse have also had an impact on attracting younger golfers to the sport, according to Adkins. “It’s just a time thing. The families have a lot going on and it’s hard to find the time to play golf.”
“I’m always looking for the best way to drive more business to the course,” he said.
In the meantime, a few changes along the South Course’s 18th hole are coming up as the construction of the Route1/Route 16 interchange begins. The Rookery owners’ deal with the Delaware Department of Transportation will lead to new netting along the western edge of the property, adjustments to a few tee boxes and the cart path, among other alterations.
Local club competition results
The Mulligans Pointe Ladies 18-hole group played a Stableford game August 11, won by JoAnn Zorb. Kathy Hudak took second and Sue Ahern finished third.