Former touring professional and college coach helps revitalize Eugene-owned golf course
Debby King went a lot of places in her life because she was a golfer.
The sport took her across the country, and halfway around the world, as a professional player and as a successful coach at two universities, Memphis and Notre Dame.
She came to Eugene a decade ago because she was a daughter.
The ailing parents she helped care for died within six months of each other in 2010.
Along the way, King found another cause to keep her here, a city-owned golf course derided by locals as “Laurel-weed,” a new chapter of her life in golf.
As general manager and head professional at Laurelwood Golf Course, King, 57, and business partner Will Benson, who comprise the Cask Course Corp., have given new life to the course that dates to 1930.
Under Benson’s oversight and hard work, the quality of the golf course itself, from tee to green, has improved dramatically and is 99 percent organic.
And King has become the face of Laurelwood, running the pro shop, overseeing the pub, working to increase play by juniors, women and University of Oregon students, and launching an annual tournament that honors longtime Northwest teaching pro Al Mundle, who got his start at Laurelwood.
Those accomplishments earned her the LPGA’s club professional of the year award for 2015.
In her journey in golf, from player to teacher to college coach to course manager, King has never lost touch with the competitive player she was at the beginning. She plays regularly in Monday PGA pro-ams in Oregon, and plans to play in the club professionals’ national championship in September. And as time allows, she’ll work even more on her game in the coming year as she seeks to qualify for the inaugural U.S. Golf Association Senior Women’s Open, to be held at Chicago Golf Club in 2018.
Can she still play? Well, last year she shot 68s to win a member-guest tournament at Eugene Country Club and a PGA pro-am at Shadow Hills.
King grew up in Baltimore, Colorado and Louisiana, and played college golf at Florida Atlantic, earning her degree in 1982. Her first job as a teaching pro came at St. Andrews Country Club in Boca Raton, Fla. The head teaching professional happened to be a legend in golf instruction, Bob Toski, and King learned by watching and listening to the future PGA Hall of Famer.
“He taught me everything,” she said.
“I was very fortunate because the club was brand new, so we weren’t that busy yet. I got to sit on the range and watch him teach his students, (including) Tom Kite, Jane Blalock, Laurie Rinker.
“I learned to teach. Sometimes he’d look back at me and go, ‘What you see, Deb?’ and I’d tell him, and he’d go, ‘Very good.’”
From the diminutive Toski — 5-foot-7, 135 pounds — the 5-foot-tall King learned to “hit it far as a small person. I’m 5-foot-nothing, and I can hit it 240.”
King still keeps in touch with Toski, now 90, who helped her find a sponsor to play the Futures Tour as she attempted to reach the LPGA Tour while making roughly a half-dozen attempts at the LPGA Tour Qualifying School.
She bought a pickup truck, and her father helped her put a cab on the back.
“We carpeted it, and he built a bed and hooked up a fan to the battery so I could sleep in there at night,” King said. “He built a closet that could hold about seven outfits, a shoe-rack and a place for my golf clubs. It was like a little apartment in there, and that’s how I lived, just driving from tournament to tournament to tournament, all across the United States. …
“Toski gave me the nickname, TNT, which stood for Tiny ‘N Tough. We painted it on the back of my pickup truck when I played the tour. I thought I was so cool.”
King won once on the Futures Tour, the 1991 Massachusetts Open. She played in four LPGA tournaments, and a season in Asia. She reached Q School finals twice, but never earned full status on the LPGA Tour, or qualified for a U.S. Women’s Open.
“I wasn’t great, but I was pretty good,” she said. “I think I lacked the mental confidence. It’s that extra 10 percent, the mental confidence that makes you above everyone else. … You have to be so driven.”
But she has no regrets, she said, given the adventures, and the friendships forged, driving from tournament to tournament in caravans with other golfers, talking over CB radios.
“It was probably some of the funnest days of my life,” she said. “It was not a bad memory at all. It was a fantastic memory. How many people get to see the country when you’re half-broke like that? … I got to see a lot of the world because of golf.”
King continued to work as an independent teaching professional, and by the early 1990s her teaching base was in Memphis, Tenn. In 1995, that led to an offer to coach the University of Memphis women’s team, a job that she accepted on a trial basis and then embraced.
In six seasons, King coached Memphis to two Conference USA titles, five appearances in NCAA regionals and earned LPGA coach of the year honors in 1997. After the 2001 season King became the first full-time women’s golf coach at Notre Dame, and again had success; despite practicing indoors half the year because of snow, the Irish won two Big East tournaments, made two trips to NCAA regionals and set numerous school records.
After the 2006 season, King stepped down, and early the following year she came to Eugene. Her sister, Pat McCormick, was living here, and had moved their parents out here as well. But King’s parents, Bill and Marge King, were in declining health. McCormick’s husband, Bob, had cancer, and King left Notre Dame to come to Eugene to help her sister care for her parents.
Grief, and new roots
In 2008, King took the job as head pro at Laurelwood, working for the previous management company, Benson and another partner.
“It was the epitome of what people used to call Laurelweed,” she said. “It definitely had no place to go but up. But I loved the scenery, the hills, the view of Spencer Butte right there.”
In January 2010, King’s father died of stomach cancer. That April, her sister’s husband, Bob McCormick died of brain cancer. Then, in June, her mother died.
“It was right in a row,” King said. “It was horrendous.”
Free to leave, instead she stayed.
King and Laurelwood assistant pro Nancy Woodke developed a vacation rental business, Kingdom of Golf Experience School, out of the home they built in 2012 on property adjoining Laurelwood that features a short-game teaching facility — an artificial turf putting green, a bunker and three target greens. Woodke, a former state champion for Sheldon who golfed collegiately at Arizona and Washington, lost her husband to cancer in February 2008. She met King sometime after that for coaching as she got back in to golf, and a friendship was forged through shared grief.
In 2013, King and Benson formed Cask Course Corp. and entered a five-year lease-to-operate contract with the city of Eugene to run Laurelwood; the deal expires Dec. 31.
“I think the contract is running how it should be running,” said Ken Wofford, city parks operations supervisor for the south district. “We haven’t had anyone complain about the course, that’s for sure. We’ve actually had the contrary, people really enjoy playing it. …
“I’ve lived in Eugene all my life and I remember going to that course 15 to 20 years ago, and the conditions are certainly better than they were back then.”
Thanks to Benson’s self-taught agronomy skills, course conditions earn strong reviews. The biggest ongoing challenge remains further improvements to drainage, which would require city help.
“Having learned to play golf there when I was 14, to go from what was ‘The Weed’ to a legitimate, well-playing course has been an amazing transformation over the last 10 years,” said Bryan Hollands, a 57-year-old Eugene businessman who lives near Laurelwood and plays it several times a week.
“A lot of people don’t like to play Laurelwood because it’s just a nine-hole course, and they miss out. … It’s a really unique place to play golf, and I’ve played a lot of courses over the years in various countries and places in the U.S., and there’s no place like it. It’s a good experience, good place, good people.”
Under the agreement, the city gives the partners an annual subsidy of $100,000 to operate the course, a fraction of what it would cost the city to run the golf course itself. The partners retain the profits from green fees, merchandise sales and cart rentals, with a payback to the city if those profits exceed certain levels. King said the course’s best year was 2015, when it saw 25,000 rounds, up from 20,000 in 2008.
For local golf courses, this has been a brutal, rainy winter, with saturated fairways and extensive tree damage from storms. It’s a tough business right now, but King still loves the game.
“Some people get burned out, or they just stop playing,” she said. “I don’t know. I think I’ll be playing as long as I can.”
Originally published in the Eugene Register-Guard May 23, 2017.