The stunning countryside that has nurtured The Oaks Golf and Tennis Club was headed for an ignominious demise earlier this year. The club in McCutchanville was going into foreclosure — even closing two days in March — until a small group of Evansville entrepreneurs stepped in.
Not wanting to see such a beautiful, historical place become pasture land or overdeveloped, Tim O’Bryan and David and Karen Blankenberger, who all live adjacent to the golf course, formed a partnership and bought the private country club themselves. “It is just such a beautiful piece of property,” Karen Blankenberger says. “A mutual friend put us together (with O’Bryan), and our son, who had just graduated college with a finance degree, said we should really take a look at this.”
Already successful in business (O’Bryan owns O’Bryan Barrel Company and the Blankenbergers own Blankenberger Brothers, Inc.), the three new owners were about to find out just how much there was to learn about revamping a private club.
The threesome started working on the golf course immediately upon taking over, and they plan to begin renovations once the golfing season slows down this winter. The goal is to complete all improvements during the off-season, but they are prepared to take it in phases.
The lakes on the course will be dug out deep, so there will be plenty of water for irrigation onsite. “David has moved a lot of dirt,” O’Bryan says. David Blankenberger owns a construction company, and he helped with the construction of Cambridge Golf Club, where he also is part owner. “We want to bring the landscaping up to where it’s never been before,” says O’Bryan.
The course once had seven lakes and nearly 70 bunkers on the 6,827-yard layout. White oak trees are still abundant on the property, and some are more than 100 years old.
Those are all projects that new course superintendent Andrew Brennan is helping to keep moving forward. Brennan’s previous position as the assistant superintendent at Rolling Hills Country Club in Newburgh, Ind., will be helpful with this challenge. Brian Myrick moved back to Evansville from Philadelphia to take over as the head golf professional. Myrick is a graduate of both Central High School and the University of Evansville, and he is PGA certified. “What we are wanting to improve is the teaching academy, and that is mainly the driving range,” O’Bryan says.
Although a clubhouse renovation is also slated for the winter, the club’s restaurant is currently open, with Matt Barker as head chef. Kelly Heilman, Tim’s daughter, works with event planning for the club, and Cathy Kapp is the membership director. “With the improvements to the clubhouse, the venue will be even more attractive for events and weddings,” Kapp says.
Plans also include moving the tennis courts or adding more courts. The partners want to tap into the large residential presence that borders the club property on all sides. They also want to offer more teaching opportunities for both junior golf and tennis players.
The former Oak Meadow has had a significant presence in northern Vanderburgh County for several decades. It was the family estate of D. Mead Johnson, who started the Mead Johnson Company in Evansville. The former clubhouse was Johnson’s home until he sold his interest in the company to Bristol Myers Squibb and moved to Florida, according to a story in the defunct Evansville Press from 1994.
The estate was taken over by Dick Heath of the Heath candy bar family in 1971. He turned it into a country club hoping to bring a major golf tournament to Oak Meadow, but financial problems derailed those plans. The club has since changed ownership several times and was member-owned in the 1990s.
O’Bryan and the Blankenbergers realize it will take some time for the club to operate at a profit. They are concentrating on increasing membership from the 320 that are on the books now. Of that, there are roughly 165 full members.
“Our official draw is children and women,” O’Bryan says. “We’ve opened up tee times to the women, and we’re going to encourage the junior events for the kids.”
A lot of children and mothers were enjoying the swimming pool on a warm day in early June. That is exactly what the owners want to see. “One of the neat things, and one of the most exciting things I see coming out of this, is that the club life focuses on lifetime sports (golf, tennis, swimming), and there will be an opportunity for a lot of growth,” Kapp says. “We’re focusing on the family part of club life.”