For the first time in 32 years, Windy Hill Sports Complex in Midlothian has a new owner behind the wheel — fueled in part by a banner year for the golf industry in 2020.
But Nichole Inkel, who bought the business on Jan. 25, is no stranger to Windy Hill.
The golf pro worked as an instructor at Windy Hill for a year for longtime owners Janet Phillips and Hilton Phillips, before leaving in 2013 to work at golf clubs in Arizona including Desert Mountain and Anthem Country Club.
“I was here eight years ago teaching and (the Phillipses) had talked to me about possibly going in as partners and then I ended up in Arizona,” said Inkel. “When they called me about coming back I was in a good place and I was ready for it.”
Inkel now owns the business at 16500 Midlothian Turnpike, which houses a 36-hole mini-golf course, go-carts, batting cages, a party room, a 32-bay driving range, a lighted par 3 golf course and a 9-hole course.
Inkel and Windy Hill lease the complex’s 136 acres from the Ciejek family, a prominent land-owning family from nearby Powhatan.
While the mini-golf, batting cages and go-carts are great revenue drivers, especially during a pandemic, Inkel sees the two golf courses and driving range as her chance to up Windy Hill’s profile and drive even more business.
One of the first steps in that direction is to change the name to Windy Hill Golf Course, dropping the Sports Complex moniker.
“There’s so much to do with Windy Hill,” she said. “(The Phillipses) did so much but it can be taken to another level. I have a pretty big plans for the course and the driving range.”
On deciding to sell Windy Hill after three decades, Janet Phillips said COVID and the pandemic had a lot to do with it.
“We had such a great year this past year with COVID, which is crazy to say, that we were financially in the position to sell it,” she said. “It was off the charts good for the golf industry. People were learning to play and it was one avenue they could get out and have some activities with their families and friends.”
Phillips added, “We’re a perfect facility to get people once they’re learning. We’re a grass roots facility for the game.”
A Monacan High School grad, Phillips played golf at JMU and started teaching at Windy Hill in 1989 when it only had a driving range, batting cage and mini-golf.
She and Hilton, then her fiancé, bought the business a year later. While the two eventually divorced, they stayed together as business partners up until the sale to Inkel.
“We divorced seven years into the business but we maintained a working relationship up until now,” she said. “They should write a book about that.”
At age 55, Phillips said she plans to continue teaching golf at Windy Hill and coaching high school golf.
She said she has too many memorable stories to tell to recount just one.
“Just dealing with the general public was always an adventure,” she said. “I’ll miss the employees but I’ll be out there to see them. I won’t miss predicting the weather.”
Inkel, 51, is backed by several investors who are all family members. The Illinois native also leaned on her family when a car accident at age 22 derailed her plans to one day make it on the LPGA tour.
“I had to basically learn to do everything again,” she said of her injuries from the accident. “I wanted to play on tour and it kind of put everything to the side because it took me almost 10 years to get back. The one thing that actually came back very easy for me was golf. It’s the only thing I could really remember to do. It was really my safe place.”
A golfer since age 9, Inkel said she put her tour dreams behind her and moved toward coaching and instructing. She coached golf at the University of Illinois Springfield, prior to her initial stint at Windy Hill years ago and her stopover in Arizona.
And last year, prior to buying Windy Hill, she made her first leap into business ownership with the launch of To the Moon, a women’s golf apparel line that she plans to sell out of the pro shop at Windy Hill.
Among other new additions at Windy Hill under Inkel’s tenure will include a liquor license to help fuel more group golf outings, a renovated party room, new mats and balls for the driving range, a new fleet of carts and scooter carts, and bringing on local restaurant chain O’Toole’s to take over the food and beverage service
“It’s just taking the pieces of the business and growing with them,” she said. “And to listen to the community to see what they want and give it to them.”
She’s also planning to hire a full-time in-house general manager and superintendent, which the course has never had.
The previous owners had farmed out management of the golf courses to locally-based consulting firm Acumen Golf, run by Mike Hatch, owner of Birkdale Golf Club and Brandermill Country Club in Chesterfield.
Inkel said she is still in talks with Acumen about management but her ultimate goal is to bring it all in-house.
Now a course owner, Inkel said she’s heard the old adage that owners end up spending less time playing golf and she’s hoping to buck that idea.
For starts, she’s planning to play in the LPGA’s teaching professionals national championship at Kings Mill later this year. She also expects to be actively playing at Windy Hill.
“My goal is to continue playing as much as I can, especially with our clients and customer base,” she said. “You get to know so much about a person on a golf course.”
And if she runs out of time to get in some practice during normal business hours? That’s the beauty of owning a lighted course, she said.
“If I need to go practice I’ll go turn the lights on and hit some balls,” she said.