BY MIKE FIELDS
Tom Heilbron has always had the soul of an artist, a desire to create, which is why he picked up a palette and brush after he retired as a developer in the late 1990s.
His artwork – oil paintings of everything from landscapes to his grandchildren – decorate the walls of his Jessamine County home.
Mary Heilbron, Tom’s wife of 55 years, isn’t surprised he found an outlet for his creativity on canvas.
“He’s always had an artistic eye,” she said. “And he always does things right, whether on a small scale or large scale.”
By large scale, Mary Heilbron was talking about her husband’s signature work, founding Champions at Keene Trace (which was called The Champions when it opened in 1988).
Tom Heilbron considers the Arthur Hills-designed golf course the highlight of his career as a developer.
“Yes, that’s the crown jewel,” he said. “It was the most visible, most demanding and most fun project I’ve ever done.”
And it will mark its 30th anniversary in grand style this year by hosting a PGA TOUR event.
The Barbasol Championship, with a $3.5 million purse, will be contested July 16-22 at Champions at Keene Trace, the first of a mulit-year commitment to hold the tour stop in Central Kentucky.
The course has hosted some top-shelf tournaments over the years, including the NCAA Men’s Championship, the USGA Men’s Senior Amateur, the Women’s Western Amateur and the men’s Kentucky Open.
But Heilbron thinks hosting a PGA TOUR event is a premium validation. “It’s another step up,” he said. “I don’t know how it gets much better.”
Heilbron got his first look at the property that would become Champions at Keene Trace in the late 1970s. He and a partner purchased two big tracts of land in Jessamine County, just across the Fayette County line.
They developed 430 acres on one side of Keene Road into Delaney Woods subdivision, but plans to develop 375 acres on the other side were put on on hold when interest rates skyrocketed.
They ultimately wound up selling the land to a Texas businessman, who wanted it as a horse farm for his wife.
After the businessman died, though, Heilbron, on his own, reacquired the property a couple years later.
In his mind’s eye, he envisioned a development with a championship-worthy golf course as its centerpiece.
His background – he had a degree in civil engineering and a Master’s in urban planning — equipped him for the endeavor. “I knew about putting things together, systems analysis, and I had an artistic appreciation for things. I knew what looked good and felt good.”
He sketched in some golf holes that suited the property, figuring out how they would wind their way around the farm’s tree lines and lake. He knew where he wanted the clubhouse, too.
Then it occurred to him: “Nobody’s going to want a Tom Heilbron-designed golf course,” he recalled with a laugh.
So he went looking for a golf course architect.
He wrote letters to all sorts of golf foundations and organizations – “Anybody who would listen,” he said. – seeking help on making his dream come true.
Keith Foster, who was working on a project in Atlanta for Arthur Hills, nibbled at the bait.
“Keith came up here, looked things over and said, ‘Man, this is a gorgeous piece of land. I can’t wait for Arthur to see it.’
“Hearing him say that really got me excited.”
Within days Tom and Mary drove to Toledo (Hills’ hometown) and met with the renowned architect.
“We hit it off right away,” Tom recalled. “The chemistry was good.
“After looking at the aerial photographs we brought, he asked me what I wanted. I leaned in and said, ‘I want 18 masterpieces.’”
Hills agreed to do the design, and the Heilbrons couldn’t have been happier.
“I had every confidence that Tom would do it well,” Mary said. “And when we found Arthur Hills, I was sure it would be.”
Tom Heilbron said his wife’s support was vital in seeing the project through.
“It was just me and Mary, and I’ve told people that’s why it was so successful. We didn’t have to compromise, and we didn’t have to run things through layers of corporate entities.”
Skip Pedigo was another key hire. “A sculptor on a bulldozer that Michelangelo would be proud of,” Heilbron said of the golf course shaper.
Hills designed the greens while he was vacationing in northern Michigan.
“His staff told me the green complexes he did for us are some of the best he’s ever done,” Heilbron said. “They’re still pretty strong.”
Just how well Champions at Keene Trace was designed and built is evident in how little the course has been tinkered with over the past three decades.
“Lots of architects have to go back a couple years later and clean up their mistakes,” Heilbron said. “That didn’t happen here.”
The course has changed ownership a few times since Heilbron turned it over to club members in the late 1990s.
The newest owners, Evan Mossbarger and B Frye, re-grassed the greens a couple years ago, one of the reasons the PGA TOUR found Champions at Keene Trace up to snuff when evaluating it as a tournament site.
Brooks Downing and his bd Global company, along with the Bluegrass Sports Commission, are coordinating the Barbasol Championship, and helping Tom Heilbron show off his pride and joy to the world.
“Having a PGA tournament here is something I’ve wanted since we built it,” Heilbron said. “I know it was an ambitious idea, but why not?”
Now that it’s happening, Heilbron can take pride in knowing that the golf course he envisioned more than 30 years ago will finally be appreciated by some of the best players on the planet.
Meanwhile, he’ll continue to express his artistic side with his oil paintings, which is a lot less expensive and a lot less stressful than creating a world-class golf course.
“Instead of going to the bank and borrowing money to buy land,” he quipped, “I just go to the art store and buy a canvas.”