Bent Brook is closing in on 20 years of providing top-class public access golf
By Ian Thompson
Sure there was public golf in the greater Birmingham area before Bent Brook Golf Course, located off of I-459 in Bessemer, came along in 1988, but their arrival raised the bar for public golf courses, and they continue to raise that bar to this day.
Longevity. Director of Golf Dave Smith has only had three jobs, spending the last 20 years at Bent Brook. Before that he had a long stint at Vestavia Country Club (17 years), with 10 years at a club in South Georgia his beginnings in professional golf.
“I’ve not jumped around,” Smith said. “I feel I’ve made some good choices in my career. I’ve never been disgruntled and have been in a positive situation at each place.”
He is Bent Brook and loves the place.
“Jimmy (Lee III), the owner of Bent Brook and The Moors (Milton, Fla.), and I have made quite a few changes to the course over the years. We want to continue to make the course the best experience for our golfers.
“Jimmy, to me, is the Hall Thompson of public golf. He had the vision and wherewithal to think of and build Bent Brook using his own money. It’s been very successful.
“Mr. Thompson changed golf in Alabama for the good when he built Shoal Creek and brought major championships to the state. He is a true visionary.”
Longevity. Not only has Smith been at Bent Brook for as long as it has existed, so has food and beverage manager Janet Huske, plus her assistant Linda Burchfield.
Other long-term employees include Johnny Perry, golf course superintendent; Wezzie Ezelle, administrative assistant; Johna Smith, merchandising manager; Johnny Singleton, outside services; and starters Leland Caulder and Richard Phillips.
Bent Brook has long been civic-minded too as they have hosted many noteworthy tournaments through the years including the BGA Metro (Legacy) Amateur Championship multiple times, the open qualifier for the Regions Charity Classic quite a few years, USGA qualifiers, and various college tournaments. However, the highlight was the 88th State Amateur Championship played in June 2004.
Lee noted at the time that he’d like to see the winning score (for the four rounds) be between four-under and even par. Wouldn’t you know it? Lance Goodson won shooting four-under-par on a course that was a real challenge.
“I likened us hosting the State Amateur in a way to Bethpage Black in New York (a municipal course) hosting the 2002 U.S. Open. It was a massive deal for us and we did a lot of things to get it right.”
It was particularly momentous as this was the first time that the state’s most prestigious amateur championship was played at a purely public golf course.
And they did it right. Smith and Perry oversaw the building of multiple new tees to stretch the Graveyard-Brook combination of nines to close to 7300 yards. New back tees were added on Nos. 3, 5 and 7 on Graveyard and Nos. 2, 4 and 9 on Brook.
They grew the rough up and it was all the golf course the best amateurs in the state wanted.
“We sometimes may have had the label as an easy course,” Smith said. “We wanted to show everyone what this course could be...that it could be a championship test.
“That, to me, is the versatility of Bent Brook, as we want a course that anyone can play over and over and enjoy, but also be tested on.”
I concur. It used to be in the early days, before the course matured, that you could hit it just about anywhere; then find it and hit again, often on the green. Such days are gone as you have to manage your way around the course much more nowadays, but a wild shot can still be found most of the time.
Lee has not been slow to make changes where he and Smith have seen fit.
There isn’t a hole on Bent Brook’s three nines (Graveyard, Brook and Windmill) that hasn’t been tweaked or changed or overhauled over the ensuing years.
"Jimmy has always been willing to put money back into Bent Brook. He sees the benefit of spending money to keep the course in top condition,” Smith said.
"Some changes to the nines have been through natural happenings, and some have been improvements we planned on making.
"I think we are done now, but let me say this, if changes are warranted we will make them. We have a very forward-thinking owner, who wants the best for the facility."
The course has matured greatly since its early days, especially with the planting and growth of numerous trees that better define the holes on this relatively flat, open property, which used to be home to a dairy farm.
A relatively recent look has been the planting and growth of four different kinds of tall fescue-type grasses native to Oregon. While not in play, but for the wildest shots, these grasses provide definition and separation between holes and have changed the look of all three nines.
Not just golf...
Currently close to full build out, adjacent to No. 9 on the Graveyard nine and the practice facility, is The Glen at Bent Brook which will eventually grow to 177 garden homes in an English Cottage style and is a collaboration between Bent Brook/Buffalo Rock, Thornton Construction and Ingram Homes.
A new entrance to the course has been built this year, which has meant that No. 2 on the Windmill has been changed. The previous entrance road is no more and No. 2 is a much tighter and tougher driving hole than before. The large fairway bunker has shrunk in size, but is still in play, as are some imposing pine trees to the right.
A few years back Lee decided he wanted an indoor/outdoor teaching facility at Bent Brook (and subsequently at The Moors). The result was one of the finest such facilities anywhere in the country featuring four hitting bays that can be utilized year round, with head golf professional Paul Gamble doing most of the teaching.
Through the years changes have also been made to the clubhouse. The original pro's shop and men's locker room were too small. Thus they have since been enlarged to be more user-friendly. Such continual upgrading typifies the forward-thinking at Bent Brook.
“We appreciate the fact that many local golfers choose to play our course regularly,” Smith said.
“Many of them have played here for years and years, and are like family. They have many choices, many more than when we opened Bent Brook, and we understand that. Them choosing Bent Brook is what drives us to improve every day.”