When Darrin and Brandi Kuenzel acquired a multi-acre property, mixed with old-growth trees, open fields and stretches of land carved out by the Turtle River, they never knew how much they would care for and learn to love a carved wooden statue overlooking a riverbank. An oak tree limb still dangles over the carving. A vintage bridge is close by. On most summer days, the water just feet below the figure, trickles past. It is painted stark red today, just like it was years ago when it first went up. It stands in vibrant contrast to its surroundings. According to the Kuenzels, the wooden statue represents more than the basic shape of an old-timey golfer holding a club. It was carved more than a decade ago in remembrance of John Sweeney, the ambitious Manvel, North Dakota-farmer who pooled his resources from friends and family, acquired land and helped turn a grouping of farm acres and river run into a celebration of summer in farm country, a place for an age-old sport of leisure that thousands of Red River Valley inhabitants play, practice, cherish and bemoan: golf.
The statue of Sweeney was carved and placed near the middle of the Whispering Oaks Golf Club, the same course Sweeney dreamt of and helped create decades ago. Sweeney was only able to enjoy the fruits of his golf course building labor for half a decade. He passed after it was built in the late ’90s. Today, after acquiring the unique course from the previous owners—who operated the business as River's Edge—and reimagining its future through renovation and new offerings, the Kuenzel’s more fully appreciate the statue and everything it represents. While the entrepreneurial couple learns the ins and outs of the golf course business, both say they are still giddy about their decision to take on the business and continue the course's legacy as Whispering Oaks.
“I remember the first night we reopened the new clubhouse. The place was packed. I’ll never forget Sweeney’s daughter rushing up to me and giving me a big hug. She had tears in her eyes. So many people from Manvel and Oslo were there. She was happy we were helping to continue the legacy of her father,” Darrin says. “I think I started to tear up myself.”
How To Own A Golf Course
Whispering Oaks isn’t your average golf course. Designed with nine holes, but eighteen tee boxes, the course allows players to play the course two different directions. Because of the added tee boxes, players can get a different experience playing each course setup. Occasionally, the Kuenzels hold tournaments that challenge golfers to play the course both ways—the "front nine" followed by the "back nine"—giving them a true 18-hole golf course experience.
The Turtle River winds through the course and provides an obstacle to players and water for irrigation. The course has always been allowed to utilize water from the river. Back in the early days, Sweeney’s brother helped install bridges for crossings that were supplied from the county. The bridges are still in use today, with a few additions.
Prior to an extensive remodel the Whispering Oaks clubhouse, bar and restaurant—all housed within an addition to an old potato warehouse—the golf course's gathering place was in need of an update. Today, it is open, airy and fun.
The improved clubhouse is one of many projects the Kuenzel's have completed since buying the course four years ago.
When Darrin told Brandi he had an opportunity to buy a golf course, he knew it was a crazy idea she would back. Brandi played both high school and college golf, and the Kuenzel's two oldest boys were aspiring high school golfers (they both now play on the Red River High School golf team). Golf was already a huge part of their life. After issuing and agreeing on a number of contingencies, the Kuenzels became owners of the course in 2016. “All of it got real, real quick,” Darrin says.
“It has been a bit surreal and hard. But it has all been worth it,” Brandi says.
Before they began course and clubhouse renovations, everything from the fairways to the greens were in rough shape. Some of the bunkers had weeds growing in place of sand. Broken water-infrastructure kept parts of the course from receiving proper water treatment. One of the bridges was out of order. The course was spiraling into a bad place.
Since 2016, Darrin and Brandi have changed the course culture for the better. “We had, and still have, a lot to prove out here,” he says. “We're giving this our all and trying to make improvements—large and small—to the course every year.”
To date, Brandi, with the help of a friend with an eye for aesthetics and design, has created a visually pleasing entrance to the clubhouse, complete with landscaping boulders, plants and grasses in a setting fit for a high-end course. A patio area was added outside the clubhouse. Walls inside the clubhouse were taken down and others erected to give anyone sitting inside enjoying food from the new menu, a beautiful view of the course. This year, a putting green was added. Next year, tee box reconstruction will continue. The biggest ongoing expense is the mowing and maintenance equipment, some of which can reach $80,000. Darrin looks to used equipment from the Twin Cities for upgrades. He’s hired managers who know golf courses to keep it looking more and more impressive every season. The team is in the process of rebuilding several of the course's tee boxes with boulder retaining walls. “It’s been an interesting story for us,” Darrin says. “I feel obligated to take care of the place now.”
Both Darrin and Brandi admit owning the course hasn’t been easy. There aren’t a lot of how-to videos or online manuals for doing such, they say. With the help of friends, a trust in their previous work experience and a newfound commitment to an endeavor they know means as much to others as it means to them. They both declare that the business of summer—and the legacy of their unique property with old-growth trees, river banks and mowed field openings—is a good one to be involved with. Their new passion for the course is safe and secure. None of them are going anywhere. Not the new owners or the growing member list. Certainly not the statue, painted red and carved out to mimic a man set on the Turtle River as if it—or he—was looking back out towards the heart of the course and to the clubhouse in the distance, smiling with a sense of pride after the smack of a club hits a ball and someone’s laugh trails off like a whisper into the air of a summer evening before sundown. G
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PHOTOS BY: MANSTROM PHOTOGRAPHY
From Issue 4, 2019