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Golf enthusiasts buy River Oaks
Thornberrys, Halls take over Ceres golf course from Phipps family
Golf shop
Kathy Hall, who is in charge of the pro shop at River Oaks Golf Course, shares smiles with new owner Ken Thornberry. - photo by JEFF BENZIGER/Courier photo

For the first time since its inception, River Oaks Golf Course is no longer owned by the Phipps family. The Ceres golf course closed escrow Thursday morning and is now owned and operated by the Thornberry and Hall families who seek to improve the facility as well as add an event center.

Ceres businessman Ken Thornberry has been working for months to close the deal and said he is relieved that the protracted and complicated transaction has come to a close.

"There were times when it was doubtful," said Thornberry.

Ken and Pam Thornberry of Hickman and Robert and Gloria Hall of Ceres are the partners involved in the purchase. Ken's two sons, Ryan Thornberry and Nick Thornberry, will help operate the golf course as the River Oaks Golf Course and Event Center. Temporarily it's being owned under K&D Enterprises with plans to roll it into an LLC.

"We have plans of putting in a very large amphitheater with lawn seating in excess of a thousand people and we're going to convert one of the warehouses to a venue center for activities and weddings," said Ken.

He said the course can turn a marginal profit but an event center would be worthwhile to drive up receipts as well as give Ceres a place for activities.

"If we do the things that we want to do, it will be a great local event center, a place for activities. My intent for the driving range is that it will not be a driving range every day. We can have car shows. If someone wants to do a weekend special farmers market or once a month thing..."

"It'll be a group effort," said Ryan Thornberry, an avid golfer. "I'm sure I'll probably have the most presence out there just because it's become my forte."

The Thornberrys also operate BTY (By The Yard) Concrete & Materials on Morgan Road. K&D is another business that Ken operates to build concrete projects.

The new owners say they will be busy getting the golf course back into shape.

"It's been grossly neglected," said Ken Thornberry. "It's going to take a lot of work but we want to make it a showcase lawn. It's going to take time. We've spent the last two weeks making the top nine functional."

Gophers have caused damage to the greens and irrigation systems, lawns are either flooded or dying in spots and crab grass has overtaken some of the holes.

Thornberry is eying a location on the bluff near the golf pro shop for a natural amphitheater.

"We're construction people. We can build so that they will come. Move dirt, pour concerete, shape land."
There may also be some remodeling to the pro shop, which ironically was constructed by Robert Hall in 1978.

The 18-hole golf course and driving range - located on Hatch Road in Ceres along the south bank of the Tuolumne River - was developed in 1979 by Jim and Carol Phipps. Their son, Rob Phipps, who was a member of the Ceres City Council, took over management of the course. When Rob died in late 2007, brother Mike Phipps became the manager. Mike raised hackles in the community - especially homeowners along Golf Links Road - when word leaked in 2013 that he wanted to develop 70 custom home lots on the upper nine-hole course because River Oaks was struggling financially. Those plans never materialized and Mike Phipps' March 2015 death left the course in the hands of his widow, Kim Phipps. She is executor of her late husband's trust.

Ken said he absolutely has no plans to use any of his facility for housing.