Richard Stroud

Grove Sun

You could call it a comeback. Or, to use the golf phrase for a do-over, a mulligan.

Whatever you call it, it’s becoming increasingly clear that after two decades of decline, Shangri La is definitely reclaiming its place as one of the premier golf and recreation destinations in Oklahoma.

“There’s definitely a buzz around here,” general manager Jason Sheffield said. Sheffield, a 29-year-old native of Owasso whose family is in the hotel business, took over the running of the nearly 40-year-old facility in March when Tulsa-area businessman Eddie Gibbs completed purchase.

Since then the duo has initiated sweeping changes to a place that had seen better days. Ground was broken on a 13,000 square foot clubhouse just over two weeks ago, and two new holes along with a new driving range and practice facility are also being built. Additionally, the bunkers and greens are also in the process of being remodeled.

“We’ll virtually have a new golf course by the time we’re done,” Sheffield said.

A fabulous beginning and a slow decline

Until Gibbs and Sheffield arrived, Shangri La was in a state of decline that stretched back for decades since its heyday in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Originally opened as a resort hotel in May of 1964, it saw little success until it was purchased by Wichita entrepreneur Charles J. Davis in August of 1969. Davis shut down the resort and reopened it three years later, adding a condominium complex, a luxury resort and an 18-hole golf course.

The resort soon became the place to be for the affluent in Oklahoma and surrounding states. In 1977 the resort hosted the 16th annual Midwestern Governors Convention and received high ratings from both AAA and Mobil.

Thanks to a prosperous economy driven by the price of oil, Shangri La continued to grow, adding another 18-hole golf course in 1982, rated as one of the top-five courses in the state by Golf Digest.

Shangri La reached its peak in 1982, when it hosted the 74th annual meeting of the National Governors’ Association.

But the good times were already on the way out by then. Thanks to the oil crash and the nearly $30 million in renovations for the two conventions, Shangri La was bankrupt by 1983.

By the late 80’s, Shangri La was corporate owned, and as it passed through several owners during the 1990s and 2000s, membership declined and the facility fell into disrepair. From a peak of over 400 members, that number declined to under 100 by the time Gibbs bought Shangri La in March.

Gibbs, who owns AmeriStar Fencing in Tulsa and has been a member of Shangri La for 20 years, first attempted to buy the facility in the spring of 2005 from Highgate Holdings Corporation, a New York-based hotel business. But that deal fell through at the last minute.

A new beginning

Gibbs successfully completed purchase of Shangri La in March of this year, and he and Sheffield immediately set to work. The facility is, for now, down to one 18-hole golf course, with future plans for a hotel and a 9-hole golf course tentatively set for the next few years., as well as resurfacing greens that are nearly forty years old.

“We’ll be operating in the red for a while,” Sheffield said. “So we’ll have to get into the black after we complete the new clubhouse before we do anything further. We’re trying to show our members that we’re all-in on this deal. ”

The new clubhouse is scheduled for completion by Memorial Day 2011. To make room for the clubhouse and practice area, two holes are scheduled to be taken out, replaced by the new ones currently being built.

“The old holes were kind of bland and centrally located,” Sheffield said. “So it worked out.”

Membership has grown in response to the changes, doubling to 173 since March; with a goal of 300 by the time the new clubhouse opens.

“We’re trying to listen and be member-friendly,” Sheffield said. “We’ve had a great response.”

The new holes are a par-5 and a par-3 and will be holes number 16 and 17.

The two-story clubhouse will be on the highest point on Monkey Island, with views of Grand Lake in several directions. The facility will include a gym, a restaurant and dock space.

John Lewis, who has worked at Shangri La for seven years and is currently director of golf operations, said the difference since Gibbs bought the resort is, “Night and day. It’s fun to see the smiles on people’s faces now. A year ago people wanted to throw darts at us, now they want to put their arms around us. It’s very gratifying work. He [Gibbs] is very passionate about this place.”

Challenges remain, including finding a way to balance the needs of the golf courses with that of the hotel once it opens. That is something that previous owners have been unable to do in recent years before the hotel was finally closed in 2004.

“”It will be tough,” Sheffield said. “One feeds the other, but it’s two different worlds.”

But for now the excitement around Shangri La is growing.

“Everyone’s taking down their for-sale signs and looking to stay,” Sheffield said.