VALDOSTA, Ga.: Bob Spence wants to take Kinderlou Forest to a new level

VALDOSTA, Ga. – Bob Spence is about to hit the 60-year mark as a golf professional. Now his focus is on Kinderlou Forest, a stunning 18-holer just 16 miles from the Florida state line, but Chicago golfers should remember him well.

Spence, who turned pro in 1954 – a few months after graduating from high school, was the first director of golf at Kemper Lakes. The late Jim Kemper hired him in 1978 to direct the opening of the Long Grove course designed by Dick Nugent and Ken Killian. Kemper Lakes was an instant hit. It was the first public course to host a PGA Championship in 1989, a year in which Payne Stewart was crowned the champion.

Kemper also hosted a tournament on the Champions Tour for several years and was the site of a U.S. Women’s Amateur, the Grand Slam of Golf and 24 straight Illinois PGA Championships before an ownership change led to the facility going private.

Spence moved on, too. Prior to the Kemper experience he spent six years as an off-and-on PGA Tour player. Afterwards he established himself as a teacher, working with –among others — the famed Bob Toski, and an expert on course operations.

He enjoyed all those things, but found out that he loved course architecture more than anything else. Spence hooked up with Davis Love III to create Love Golf Designs in 1994. Kinderlou Forest, now celebrating its 10th anniversary under owner John Langdale (pictured below on right with Spence), was one of the first of the 20 courses that Spence built on Love’s behalf. It is most likely the best.

“We continued until the economy went bad,’’ said Spence. “Now (Love Golf Designs) is on hold, but Davis had a major desire to get into golf course architecture later in his career. I wouldn’t be surprised if the company started up again.’’

Love, of course, was the 1997 PGA champion and the losing U.S. captain in the dramatic Ryder Cup matches played at Medinah last September. He’s resumed his playing career and is also the host for the McGladrey Classic, a PGA Tour event played on his home course in Sea Island, Ga.

Kinderlou Forest has had a great first 10 seasons. Spence has declared it “better than Kemper Lakes’’ and isn’t so sure it isn’t the best course in Georgia – even though that state is home to legendary Augusta National, where the Masters tournament is played every April.

“There’s a lot of similarities between here and Kemper Lakes,’’ said Spence. “Both are great golf courses. Kemper Lakes has a lot of water and length. Kinderlou Forest doesn’t have as much water, but has variety in length and look on every hole.’’

Spence won’t designate a signature hole at Kinderlou, believing all 18 are special. The most striking visually, though, is the par-5 fourth, which features a large, deep cavern. You can play over it or around it. Either way, you don’t forget it.

The cavern, created when soil was needed to build a highway fronting the course, also extends in front of the tee at the par-3 fifth hole (see photo above).

The lack of houses on the property is another similarity between Kemper Lakes and Kinderlou. So is the personality of the owners. Langdale and his family have long been prominent in various business and political endeavors in south Georgia, just as Jim Kemper was prominent in the insurance world in Chicago.

“Jim Kemper was one of the most special people I’ve ever known,’’ said Spence. “He became a fatherly figure to me, helping my life in any way he could. John Langdale is the same way. He wanted a showplace for Lowndes County. He wanted to give back, just like Jim Kemper did at Kemper Lakes. I’ve been very fortunate to work with special people.’’

As was the case at Kemper Lakes, Spence moved on to other projects after Kinderlou Forest was up and running. Langdale brought him back six months ago to take Kinderlou Forest to a new level.

The first 10 years certainly weren’t bad. About 200 homes were built on the 4,000-acre property and the course, built on 600 of those acres, has already hosted a pro tour event (the Web. com Tour’s South Georgia Classic will be played there for the eighth time in April).

Kinderlou Forest, though, stands somewhat alone on the outskirts of Valdosta, a city of 54,000 and home to Valdosta State University and its 13,000 students. The weather makes golf an option year-around and overall living is affordable.

Kinderlou’s No. 13 has the feel of the famous courses at Pinehurst in North Carolina.

“We’re in the process of building it into a community, possibly a retirement community,’’ said Spence. “We’re trying to get people to come in here, and if they do they’ll want to stay.’’

Two Chicago area club professionals, Phil Benson and J. Anderson, have already brought groups from Chicago to check out what Kinderlou Forest has to offer.

As good as it is, Kinderlou Forest — at 7,474 yards from the tips –is no course for retirees, so a second — much shorter layout — will be needed. A lodge is also a consideration, though Kinderlou has townhome villas available for golfing guests and plenty of hotels are nearby. But space for more homes is abundant.

“If Kinderlou goes as planned we will have a lot of people coming from out of state, and a lot coming to retire,’’ said Spence. “It’s a great place to live. We’re building an atmosphere that you’d rather be here than anywhere else.’’