2005: Lawsuit vs. club a rangy debate

Louis Panesi got so upset with the poor quality of range balls available at the club where he was a member that he resigned – then sued for breach of contract. He says a club ought to measure up across the board, and that includes providing good, clean golf balls on the practice range. The case, involving Musgrove Mill Golf Club in Clinton, S.C., is slated for jury trial in mid-April. Panesi figures he’s got a great case. The club claims his actions are without merit.

In a letter last fall to the South Carolina Department of Consumer Affairs responding to a complaint from Panesi about the range balls, Musgrove Mill’s attorney, Albert D. McAlister was emphatic. “After a thorough investigation,” he wrote, “my client has determined that the complaint is totally frivolous and plans to take no action with respect to it.”

Panesi filed his suit in Laurens County Magistrate Court – in what amounts to small claims court. He’s claiming financial damages, humiliation and emotional distress and is asking for compensation to include his $2,000 initiation fee, two years’ worth of monthly dues (at $100 per month), and the cost of the replacement practice balls and ball washer he bought for the club’s use.

Panesi figures that by law he’s entitled to triple damages, plus punitive damages. He’s already spent $5,000 in legal fees pursuing the matter. To save himself what he estimates would be another $15,000 in attorney fees for the jury trial, he’ll represent himself in court for the case. He figures his claim is so clear cut “it will take me only three hours to make my case.” If he wins, however, he can’t be awarded more than $7,500 – the court’s jurisdictional limit.

McAlister, a 4-handicap golfer and member of Musgrove Mill, says the only reason Panesi’s claim hasn’t been dismissed is that in magistrate court, “there’s no prior discovery process. If this had been a common pleas (civil) court with no ceiling on damages,” said McAlister, “we would have done all kinds of discovery and made a motion for summary judgment for dismissal.”

Panesi, 49, is on leave from USAirways as a pilot. An avid golfer whose handicap hovers around 15, he lives in the Charlotte suburb of Pineville, N.C. In September 2002, he found himself dealing with a series of deaths and illnesses in his family and needed to take some time off to overcome depression. That’s when he discovered Musgrove Mill, ranked No. 49 on Golfweek’s list of America’s Best Modern Courses. Though the course is a two-hour drive from his home, Panesi took immediately to the Arnold Palmer-designed course and its eight-acre, double-sided, 300-yard practice area.

According to Panesi, there was only one drawback. The range balls were in deplorable shape: cut up, muddied and virtually without dimples.

“Tiger Woods couldn’t break 100 with these golf balls,” he says.

By mid-2003, Panesi was using the club a lot, often staying three days per week in a guest room on site and taking all three daily meals in the clubhouse. It got to the point were he was running up monthly bills of $2,500. He was so committed to the course that one day per week, he would spend six hours filling every fairway divot on the golf course.

But that did nothing to salve his discontent over the inferior practice balls.

Repeated complaints to club officials didn’t satisfy him. At one point, he came up with his own solution and presented Musgrove Mill with 96 dozen Wittek-brand, red-striped range balls (at a cost of $737.12) plus a used range ball washer ($800). The club didn’t use the ball washer but did mix in the Wittek balls with its own arsenal of Wilson Staff range balls.

“They were mixed in,” says Panesi, “only about 10 percent at a time, so as not to spoil the golfers.”

Moreover, he now faced what he perceived to be the ire of head professional Jeff Tallman. Instead of embracing the solution to the practice ball problem, says Panesi, Tallman humiliated him and treated him to inferior service.

Tallman, head professional at Musgrove Mill since 1996, says “I’ve been in the business since 1983 and learned to deal with many types of personalities.” As for Panesi’s claims, Tallman would only say that “they are so far fetched I’m at a loss for words.” He did point out, however, that his shop spends “$4,000 a year on practice range balls,” enough, he figures, to buy about 840 dozen annually. Those are the same range balls, he pointed out, used for the membership and when the club has played host to such events the last three years as the South Carolina Mid-Amateur and the South Carolina Mid-Amateur Fourball.

John Ellis, an architect based in Asheville, N.C., has been a member of Musgrove Mill for eight years and plays there twice per month. “I’ve never had a problem with the range balls and don’t know of any members who have,” Ellis said.

Panesi has. And he sees the problem as part of a larger issue, namely that a club with national credentials ought to provide service commensurate with its rankings.

“If you’re a Ritz-Carlton and you don’t clean your bathrooms,” says Panesi, “you’re nowhere and you lose a star in your ratings.”

He’s adamant that in one crucial regard, Musgrove Mill came up short. He feels bad about having left the club but says the atmosphere there became intolerable. He quotes Lee Trevino as having said “you can tell everything you need to know about a golf club by looking at their range balls.”

“It shows the amount of respect they have for their members,” says Panesi. “It’s a window into the club’s soul.”

These days, he’s a member at Olde Sycamore Golf Club in Charlotte, where he has no trouble with the range balls. He also spends his time preparing his legal case. His chief piece of evidence in the suit is a box full of beat-up range balls that he plans to haul into court. And anywhere else, for that matter, to prove his point.

“I’ll come up there to show you,” he tells a reporter. “I’ll drive the 650 miles to show you what I’m talking about.”

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