The event that has the potential to change the face for Waco golf for the next decade began with a very simple five-word text message: “Is this still Tommy’s phone?”
When Waco businessman and golf lover Tommy Tompkins looked down at his cell phone on the night of Oct. 18, that was the message he found. He responded that, yes, it still belonged to him and found out the sender was Tom Richards.
When they connected, Richards told Tompkins that his father, Bob, wanted to sell the Twin Rivers golf course and wanted Tompkins to be the buyer.
While he had never expressed an interest himself in buying the course, within 24 hours they had come to agreement, and a week later Tompkins was the new owner of the semi-private course that has endured a tumultuous history.
While the news caught most in the Waco golf community by surprise, it was greeted as a hopeful one for those who want to grow the game in Central Texas, with junior golf at its lowest ebb.
“I’m just thrilled. I can’t wait to see what will happen,” said local junior golf coach Bob Ammon. “A viable Twin Rivers (the name has recently returned to the original Bear Ridge) helps junior golf and helps anybody who wants to play the game and get started in the game.”
Ammon founded the Waco Junior Golf Association in 1985 and ran it until 2016, when he shuttered for lack of interest. He said a healthy Bear Ridge course, which currently needs millions of dollars of repairs, will help everybody in the Central Texas golf market.
“If somebody calls Cottonwood Creek for a Saturday morning tee time and finds they can’t get one, now there is another option,” Ammon said. “If that happens two or three weeks in a row, they may just give up and go fishing. We are underserved for junior golf. This can only help.”
The news of the new owner, a person he had never met, certainly caught the attention of Baylor men’s golf coach Mike McGraw. He has recruited a powerhouse golf team from all over the country, but wouldn’t mind getting in his car and driving only a few miles to watch potential Baylor golfers who are local junior stars.
“To have another option for junior golf and all golfers is this great,” McGraw said. “It’s a beautiful and growing part of town and a great amenity for people who live there and are current or potential junior golfers. The place could be really special with some TLC.”
McGraw said the course and the improvements that Tompkins has vowed to make could lead to another possible, but far-fetched goal.
“What if you could build a national championship golf team with just kids from the Waco area? Is that likely?” McGraw asked. “Probably not, but a restored course with a great layout could certainly help.”
MCC men’s golf coach Vince Clark, who has won a couple of men’s junior college national golf titles, cheered the purchase and the renewed promise of Bear Ridge as the best news anybody involved with Waco golf has had in a long time.
“I just love that place. Anybody who knows me knows how much I love it. It’s a brilliant design, an amazing location,” Clark said. “To be honest, I’ve been concerned with junior golf for a long time. Having the course and the facility restored is an incredible blessing for everybody who loves golf in Waco.”
Kenny Duron, the longtime manager of the city-owned Cottonwood Creek, said he looks at a restored Bear Ridge as a helper to the local golf scene, not a competitor. He has known Tompkins for several years and thinks he is the man who can restore the luster and the green-grass splendor of the course which originally opened in 2001.
But he also knows the work and financial muscle it will take to restore Bear Ridge to a course who can regularly attract members and regular players to make the layout financially viable.
At one point over the last couple of years, Duron and city officials did some due diligence into buying and fixing up Bear Ridge and perhaps making it a second city golf outlet.
But after some extensive studies, they determined it would take at least $3 million to repair and restore the course, and that it would need to be shut down for an extended period of time to get all the work done.
Tompkins says he doesn’t have any financial partners help him with his new golf purchase, but added that he is prepared to spend what is needed to get Bear Ridge back into top golf shape.
He declined to reveal what he paid for the course other than to say that it was less than the $1.1 million Richards paid when he bought the course in 2013. He said he has already begun the restoration project on the course, and wants to see it through to completion.
“I want to give Mike McGraw a Big 12 golf tournament at Bear Ridge,” Tompkins said. “I want to give Starburst (junior golf tournament) a place to play. I want to give junior golf a place to flourish. It’s going to take time, but we’re not going to give up until we get it done.”
Tompkins said that his 36 years in the shoe business for LB Evans and Sons, making weekly trips from Waco to the corporate headquarters in Boston, taught him how to run a successful business. He thinks he can apply that knowledge in restoring Bear Ridge.
“We have failed the kids of Waco, they lack the opportunities to pursue the greatest game there is for teaching them life lessons,” said Baylor Vice Provost Wes Null, a resident of the Twin Rivers subdivision.
“We are looking at a long-range plan to help kids three to five to seven years down the road. An improved Bear Ridge and everyone’s hard work to make it better is the key to making it happen.”