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E. Spencer Robbins, Founder of Elk River Club in Banner Elk, NC

10.28.13 12:09 PM

“In 1960, we began living in Southern Pines for the winter. I needed a job, so I went to Pine Needles and talked to Warren Bell. He said, ‘My bartender quit, so I need a bartender.’ I told him my only experience was at the other side of the bar. He hired me anyway — but not as a bartender.”

“My experience at Pine Needles led us to build Hound Ears Club. We thought a lodge and golf course in the mountains would do well in the summer. We didn’t plan to build all those condos and houses — they just happened over time. By the time we sold it in 1987, we’d built over 380 homes.”

He’s no golf historian, but like many an older fan, Spencer Robbins can recall Jack Nicklaus getting the better of Arnold Palmer a time or two. And Robbins can tell another story about them that’s rarely told: It involved Jack besting Arnie when nary a tee shot was struck.

“My brother [Harry] and I had bought 2,700 acres in Banner Elk in 1982, and we wanted to build a nice development and golf course. I had been trading cars with Arnold Palmer for years at his Cadillac dealership in Charlotte, and he kept saying he wanted to fly up and look at the property. We were hoping he’d design our golf course.

“Well, we’d had two or three appointments with Arnold that he wasn’t able to keep — he was so just busy at the time — so one morning Harry and I were having breakfast. We decided, what the heck, we’d call Jack Nicklaus.”

The Robbins’ brothers and the Golden Bear — then still very much a formidable golfer — spoke that very day. “Jack said he’d heard about the Hound Ears Club [outside Boone], which my family had developed. If we didn’t mind, he said he’d like to bring his wife, Barbara, with him to come visit us that weekend.”

At breakfast on Sunday morning, Nicklaus proposed to design what would become Elk River Club, his first “signature” project in North Carolina. “While I’m sure Arnold would have designed us a great golf course,” Robbins says, “it couldn’t have worked out any better.” Today, Elk River encompasses 1,250 acres, 300 residences and a private jetport.

Some would say Robbin’s Midas touch is genetic. His father, Grover, was instrumental in the High Country’s development, including creation of the Blue Ridge Parkway and preservation of The Blowing Rock. All three sons were successful in the lumber business, and their names are synonymous with Tweetsie Railroad, Beech Mountain, and, with Hugh Morton, Grandfather Mountain.

Grover Jr. died in 1970, followed by Harry last year, but Spencer, at 81, is still going strong — in his Elk River office every day he’s in town, which is most any time that he and Grace aren’t visiting their four children (the second oldest, Rick, is an accomplished golf-course architect), six grandchildren and a great-grandchild. “No question about it, I’ve been blessed,” he says.

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