Fishers and Golf and Regional News and Sports Business

Exclusive golf club opens up--a little

February 12, 2007

Until now, gaining entrance into the exclusive nine-hole golf course built on 40 acres next to the Indianapolis Metropolitan Airport in Fishers was as difficult as a commoner scoring an invitation to a royal palace.

But admittance to Balmoral is loosening--a little.

Brothers Richard and Lyman Eaton, who designed, developed and operate Balmoral, plan to open membership this spring to a group beyond their closest friends and business associates.

Balmoral is one of two private estate courses in central Indiana, and the Eatons are looking for an additional 25 to 35 members to join the current 25-member club. It's not uncommon for exclusive private clubs to have 200 members.

The Simon family--founders of Simon Property Group Inc.--owns the other estate club, a nine-hole course along Ditch Road, about one-half mile south of 106th Street.

The Eatons, who built Balmoral over 18 months and opened it in 2000, said they field inquiries weekly from people interested in playing the course. Until now, gates to the club have been tightly closed to all but members and invited guests, elevating curiosity among area golfers.

"Some of our members said Balmoral was a unique experience, and they suggested we open it up to share it with a wider membership," said Richard Eaton, 54, an orthopedic surgeon for Indiana Orthopedic Center.

The Eatons plan to run a small print advertising campaign to notify golfers of the opportunity to join Balmoral, but they're not planning to hire a marketer or salesperson.

"We will start with referrals and open up membership [recruitment] wider if needed," Lyman Eaton said. "We want to keep the screening process very tight. We don't want to compromise anything we've already established."

Lyman Eaton, 57, is a retired pharmacist who loves entrepreneurial endeavors as much as golf. Lyman was formerly a principal of Corinthian Pharmaceuticals, which sold pharmaceuticals to and later operated nursing homes. That company ended up in the hands of Indianapolis-based Standard Management Corp.

Four years ago, Lyman--with Richard as his capital partner--founded Desert Golf Homes Development LLC, a home developer in Palm Springs, Calif.

Though both brothers are golf fanatics, neither had experience designing courses. The duo's greatest golfing claim to fame before Balmoral was that their uncle, Edwin Eaton, was a local amateur champion.

"Balmoral turned out as we had hoped," Richard Eaton said. "It's a golf experience that requires you to utilize every club in your bag."

The Eaton brothers spent $1.5 million to develop the course seven years ago, but would not reveal how much it costs to operate.

Familiar ground

The parcel they developed has been in the family more than six decades. Richard and Lyman bailed hay on it in their youth and later rented it to farmers. When surrounding development made it impractical for farming, the brothers, who maintain their homes on the land, decided to build a golf course.

As fortune would have it, contractors expanding nearby East 96th Street were looking for a place to deposit dirt. The dirt, the brothers said, was instrumental in creating a course with varied terrain.

The brothers hired local landscaper and earthmover Danny Vaughn to handle fine grading and shaping.

Looking for an unusual name that conveyed exclusivity and a Scottish flavor, the brothers settled on Balmoral, the name for a Scottish cap and also the British royal family's summer castle. They used the family's crest as the club's logo.

Professional golfer and southern Indiana native Fuzzy Zoeller has raved about the course, but few local golfers have played it.

"The Eaton brothers are known in the business community, and most people in the golf industry are aware of Balmoral, but among golfers, because of its exclusivity, I wouldn't say it's too well-known," said Milton Thompson, president of local sports marketing consultancy Grand Slam Cos. and part-owner of The Trophy Club, a semiprivate course in Lebanon.

Thompson hasn't played the course, but he's heard good things about it. On one occasion, Thompson played with the Eatons on a different course and noted their passion for and knowledge of the game.

"I think if they open it up, they'll generate interest," Thompson said.

Courting club members

Competition in the industry would hamper all but the most modest of membership campaigns.

"For several years, central Indiana has been overbuilt with golf courses, and that's hurt a lot of private clubs," said Mike David, executive director of the Indiana Golf Association and Indiana Section of the PGA. "There's a lot of competition to attract golfers, and fewer people these days are willing to lock into one club."

But Thompson said there is a draw to a club that has such exclusivity.

"Balmoral has what you'd call extreme exclusivity," Thompson said. "When you can play purely among your family and friends, with no tee times on a finely manicured course, there's an allure to that."

The nine-hole course has 18 tee boxes offering golfers a wider variety of play. It also has a putting green, chipping area and small driving range. A 2,000-plus-square-foot clubhouse, when combined with an outdoor area that includes a pavilion, can host parties for up to 400 people.

The pavilion overlooks a private beach and lake, and the clubhouse includes locker rooms, meeting and dining space, a kitchen and fireplace.

Balmoral has five employees, and the Eatons are looking to add a sixth. While the brothers might consider enlarging the clubhouse if needed, they have no interest in adding a swimming pool or tennis courts, or growing much larger.

Most of the employees are dedicated to maintaining the golf course. The clubhouse, Richard Eaton said, is run by members on an "honor system."

"This is first and foremost our home," he said. "We love golf, and we'd like to share this with others, but we're not looking to grow too big or make this a for-profit venture."

The Eatons are charging members $2,500 annually, which is in line with many clubs and far below most of the area's exclusive courses. The Sagamore Club in Noblesville, for instance, charges a $36,000 initiation fee and $420 monthly dues.

Though the Eatons said they built the course with lots of features-including plenty of sand and water-that would help keep course maintenance expenses down, Thompson estimated it would cost more than $100,000 annually to maintain the grounds. Four years ago, the Eaton brothers hired Purdue University graduate Eric Miller away from Crooked Stick Golf Club to be their grounds superintendent.

Golf industry experts said that, given the relatively modest membership dues, the Eatons couldn't expect to make any money.

"I think they're doing this out of a pure love for the game," Thompson said.

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