Sunset Grove adds membership opportunity
Orange’s Sunset Grove Country Club has been one of the city’s top spots for social gatherings since it was built by timber baron Lutcher Stark and opened during the Roaring Twenties.
By Dave Rogers
For The Record
Cousins Lutcher Stark and Edgar Brown Jr. turned their grandfather’s vision into unforeseen progress for Orange during the middle of the 20th Century.
Even a family feud worked out for city fathers, leading as it did to the founding of Orange’s Sunset Grove Country Club.
“The whole idea of Mr. Stark building the place was because Mr. Brown had the only golf course in town and wouldn’t let Mr. Stark play,” Kerry Lamb, Sunset Grove general manager, said.
“So he [Stark] decided to build his own country club.”
Now, 90 years after the opening of Sunset Grove, it’s up to Lamb and the other 250-odd owner-members to continue operating what is now Orange County’s only golf course and country club.
In addition to traditional memberships, Sunset Grove is now selling corporate memberships for $2,000 per year.
School districts and private businesses are among those who have already taken advantage.
“Country clubs aren’t the same as they used to be back in the day. Members are passing on,” Lamb said.
“Corporate memberships are allowing a lot more people to play golf and use the facilities.”
The corporate memberships allow all of the companies’ employees, spouses and dependents under 25 years old use of the club’s pool, tennis courts, dining facilities and reduced rates on rounds of golf.
That 18-hole golf course, designed in 1923 by Scotsman Donald Ross, the golf world’s then-most famous architect, opened in 1926. The two-story club house that looked down on fairways lined by oak, pine and pecan trees, quickly became one of the social centers of the community.
The price tag was $750,000, the equivalent of $10 million today.
Lutcher Stark built the course in part for his father, William Stark, who became hooked on the game during annual summer vacation trips to Maine.
Bill Stark, one of Lutcher Stark’s twin sons, was a longtime club pro at Sunset Grove. Ownership of Sunset Grove was passed to club members after Lutcher Stark’s death in 1965.
William Stark and Dr. Edgar Brown, fathers of Lutcher Stark and Edgar Brown, Jr., were sons-in-law of and top executives for Henry Lutcher, co-founder of the Lutcher-Moore Lumber Company.
The company’s sawmills poured millions of dollars into Orange and provided thousands of jobs for its citizens around the turn of the 20th Century.
The Stark and Brown families were split by a dispute over the will of Frances Ann Lutcher, widow of Henry Lutcher.
Edgar Brown Jr.’s Pinehurst Country Club was a nine-hole layout that opened about 10 years ahead of Sunset Grove, on the property that later became the Brown Estate. The club closed during World War II and Brown built the Linden mansion there. The property was ultimately gifted to Lamar State College-Orange.
In 1959, fire destroyed the ornately furnished club house at Sunset Grove. In 2005, Hurricane Rita badly damaged its replacement.
The club house and a separate golf pro shop were rebuilt after Rita.
The new club house still boasts magnificent views of the golf course to the east and the setting sun to the west, with a covered patio on the north side overhanging the bayou.
There’s a grill, dining room and plenty of banquet space.
“We do a lot of Christmas parties. We do bridal and baby showers, all sorts of parties and we host Kiwanis and Rotary Club meetings,” said Lamb, the club’s golf pro for nine years who added the GM title in a year-ago restructuring.
The golf course, the only Donald Ross course in Texas still using its original design, has a par of 71, a course rating of 70.6 and a slope rating of 1.24.
While at 6.394 yards from the back tees, the course doesn’t play long, it exacts a toll on wayward approach shots.
False-front greens are staples of Donald Ross courses, steeply rising fronts to the greens like those at the recent U.S. Open at Erin Hills Golf Course.
“That allows you to run your ball up to the hole, but the trick to Donald Ross greens is you don’t want to be left or right or long,” Lamb said.
“Most of these, if you miss them right or left, you’re going to have a hard shot. If you miss them long, you’ll have an impossible [downhill] shot.”
While water is in play on most holes on the back nine, compared to just one on the front nine, Lamb says, “It seems easier to score on the back nine than the front nine, for the better players.”
Among the sites on the course is the state-certified “largest living red oak tree” in Orange County on No. 16 and two ornate bridges crossing the lake that fronts the 14th and 18th greens.
The latter is a favorite backdrop for engagement or other family portraits.
The biggest change in the golf course over the years has been the trees. Tree trimming was forbidden during the Stark ownership. Hurricanes Rita in 2005 and Ike in 2008 downed 800 trees, the course manager said.
“I think it actually helped the golf course,” he said. “We have the most amount of grass we’ve ever had on the course.”