Two years ago, she took over operations at Big Oaks Golf Course after her husband, John, died.
The Sowards had been running it together since December 2000. They were both golfers and moved from Iowa to buy the course.
Debbie Soward started working in the kitchen while her husband handled the rest of the operations. But when he lost his battle with brain cancer, she took over operations for the 250-acre course.
She remembers hearing doubts from players about her ability to run the course.
“They did not know when I stepped in what was going to happen to Big Oaks,” she said. “It was a challenge.”
But she buckled down, listened to members and took bookkeeping classes.
“When I took over, I wanted a different vision because I was taking John’s place,” she said. “I came up with ideas to make the golf course a success. ... When John passed away, I learned that I could do this job.”
She focused on the appearance and usability of the course and clubhouse. She upgraded the members’ lounge and the bathrooms. She replaced carpeting and painted the inside of the clubhouse.
Outside, she added clocks to the course to keep tee times on schedule. Plus, she added mulch to the trees, got a new mower that manicures the greens better and added directional signs on the course.
She also created a monthly newsletter to keep members up-to-date on what was happening at Big Oaks.
Now, she’s working on widening the sidewalks to give the golfers more room to drive and park.
“I own the golf course myself,” she said. “I always listen to other peoples’ opinions. I don’t have to go up against a group of people to make changes. ... I work seven days a week, 10 hours a day.”
Her efforts appear to be working.
“A lot of people are saying it’s in the best shape it’s ever been in,” said Buford Easter, the club house manager.
Memberships are up for the semi-private course which offers memberships and open play time.
Big Oaks also is hosting more tournaments than ever, Soward said, and the remodeled members’ lounge now is being rented for special events.
“Everybody asks me if I want to play, but I don’t really have time,” Soward said. “Business is number one for me.”
In fact, only a handful of players at Big Oaks are female. Soward and Easter said they work to encourage more females to play the game but they haven’t been successful. They have a weekly women’s club and they offer prizes. Some women play, but it hasn’t caught on as much as the men’s club, Soward said.
She and Easter hope to change that soon. She also plans to continue working on improvements to the course. In 10 years, she hopes her efforts will gain her national attention.
“I would like to see us written about in ‘Golf Digest’ as the number one semi-private golf course in Mississippi,” she said.