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Berkeley Hills Country Club rich in tradition as golf course turns 50

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Berkeley Hills Country Club, one of Gwinnett County’s oldest golf courses, celebrated its 50th anniversary earlier this year. (Staff Photo: Mitch Blomert)

DULUTH — A dirt road used to lead Roland Sorel to Berkeley Hills Country Club.

When he joined the club in 1968, he would exit Interstate 85 via Beaver Ruin Road, rumble through an unpaved road to the 4-year-old golf course, which was surrounded by farmland.

“There was no Satellite (Boulevard) — there was nothing there,” Sorel said. “It was a dirt road from Beaver Ruin down to the clubhouse.”

Sorel still makes that drive to Berkeley Hills, which celebrated its 50th anniversary earlier this year. The ride is easier on his tires nowadays — roads are paved, Satellite Boulevard now connects Beaver Ruin to Pond Road, where the course is located, and residential developments dominate the surrounding landscape.

It’s almost a completely different place a half-century later. When the course was founded in 1964, Gwinnett County was home to roughly 44,000 residents. Today, its population continues to creep toward 1 million.

“Good lord, there have been so many changes since that time,” Sorel said. “Built and taken away.”

But it’s still the same old Berkeley Hills to Sorel. Aside from a move from bent to bermuda grass on its greens in 2005, the holes have stayed relatively the same over the years.

Meanwhile, the facilities surrounding the course have improved. A new clubhouse was constructed in 2001, adding a new swimming pool and additional tennis courts. The green enhancements boosted membership.

The mix of fervent tradition and modern detail has upheld the allure of the club, which is one of Gwinnett County’s oldest.

“The course was here before the neighborhoods were,” Sorel said. “This was out in the wilderness.

“It’s a natural golf course. It’s not built with a bulldozer. Everything about it is the way you found it. The course hasn’t changed since we’ve been here.”

According to general manager and director of golf Shawn McKinnon, it doesn’t need to.

The fast greens and deceiving par 3s have made Berkeley Hills a target venue for various annual events. The course currently hosts the Championship at Berkeley Hills, a Georgia PGA pro-amateur event, as well as the state’s open qualifier and U.S. Mid-Amateur qualifier. It was the site of the Georgia Mid-Amateur Championship two years ago.

Georgia State University calls Berkeley Hills its home course, and hosts an annual tournament that features Division I teams from across the country.

“We’re going to maintain what we have for a while,” McKinnon said. “The golf course is good — it doesn’t need new additions.

“When people look at the scorecard, they don’t think it’s long enough to be a championship course, and that we need to add length. It doesn’t need to be any longer. It plays challenging enough.”

The greens are revered by professionals and amateurs alike, offering firmness and speed that equal those of PGA courses. Professional golfer and 2009 British Open champion Stewart Cink, who is also a Berkeley Hills member, uses the greens as a simulator for PGA Tour events.

Ironically, it was the greens that almost caused Berkeley Hills to fold a decade ago.

From 1972-2005, the course used bent grass greens, which required exceptional drainage and exposure to oxygen to remain healthy. The blistering summer temperatures took their toll, and membership numbers began to decline at the turn of the century.

The club’s Board of Governors elected to turn to Champion bermuda grass in July of 2005. Two years later, nine holes were eliminated from the 27-hole course.

Not only did membership enjoy a full rebound, but the greens also became a strength of the course.

“It’s more tolerant, but it’s better than anything else anyway, on top of that,” Sorel said.

As a result, Berkeley Hills has become somewhat of a pioneer among Atlanta courses, with other venues making the switch to Champion bermuda grass in the years following. Atlanta’s East Lake Golf Club, which annually hosts The Tour Championship, and 2011 PGA Championship host Atlanta Athletic Club in Johns Creek are among notable courses that utilize the same greens.

The younger golfers who play there regularly are reaping the benefits.

Norcross High School practices and plays home events at Berkeley Hills, and won a state championship in 2013. Defending club champion and University of Georgia signee Zach Healy was Class AAAAAA’s low medalist that year, and finished second this past year.

The older golfers aren’t bad, either. Sorel’s best round on the course is 68. Longtime friend Hilton Johnson, a member since 1969, isn’t far behind at 70.

“You can always get a game with somebody,” Johnson said. “It may not be a fair one, but you’ll get one.”

Throughout the ups and downs, the course has witnessed its share of big names, inside and out of golf.

Professionals who have played the course include Cink, Lee Trevino, Billy Andrade and Duluth native James Mason. Comedian Ron White and former Atlanta Braves infielder Martin Perez have made appearances.

Braves legend and recent Hall of Fame inductee Greg Maddux proved to be less accurate away from the pitcher’s mound during his visit, accidentally hitting a member off the tee.

The high-profile names only add to the charm of the course.

“It has character,” Sorel said. “To me, I still say it — every hole is different. You never get tired of playing it. Some courses, you go down one way and come back, and everything looks the same. It’s not so out here.”

But Sorel doesn’t keep coming back to Berkeley Lake because of the imposing greens or the cast of celebrities who have stopped by.

Instead, it’s his ties to the club, which go back almost as far as the course itself.

And he’s not the only one.

“There are so many members that are old members here,” Sorel said. “I can’t begin to name all of them. We’ve known these people forever.”