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Staying the Course

Ted Perez

Ted Perez, long-time pro at East Mountain Country Club

When Ted Perez Jr. talks about the 2023 golf season, he uses the present tense — and even the past tense on occasion.

Indeed, Perez, the pro and co-owner of East Mountain Country Club in Westfield, said the season — for his course, anyway — began in January, as it sometimes does; this family-owned club is famous for being open whenever there is no snow on the ground.

But this January was different from just about any other that came before it, said Perez, who said the course was probably open for play all but a few days that month. And it was open most every day the first three weeks in February as well.

March wasn’t as kind, with the course closed several days by snow and play reduced to a trickle on many others, he said, but overall, it’s been a phenomenal start to 2023.

“I’ll call this a non-winter,” said Perez, whose father, Ted Perez Sr., built this course, located just a long par 5 from the runways at Barnes Municipal Airport, 60 years ago. “I wish every winter could have been like this one.”

Elaborating, he said winter golf of this kind is a real boon for the course because the revenue generated isn’t offset by the expenses encumbered most of the rest of the year, everything from cutting the grass to overseeding the fairways to paying the people to perform those tasks. “My father used to say, ‘it’s like finding money on the street.’”

As the 2023 season begins for most courses in the region — a few others were open for play through during stretches of the winter — they are hoping that their springs, summers, and falls are as good, relatively speaking, as Perez’s winter was.

“My father used to say, ‘it’s like finding money on the street.’”

Actually, they’ll settle, if that’s the right word, for what they’ve seen the past few years, a recognized surge in play that started during the summer of 2020, the height of the pandemic, when there was little else for people to do — they couldn’t even play tennis due to restrictions imposed by the state.

That surge continued into 2021 and then 2022, said Jesse Menachem, executive director and CEO of the Massachusetts Golf Assoc., noting that the numbers were down slightly in 2022 from 2021, but still better than the years leading up to the pandemic.

“We saw levels jump considerably in 2020 and into 2021,” he told BusinessWest. “In 2022, we were able to sustain levels and continue to grow. Overall, we’ve been able to retain the new golfers and the golfers who were brought back into the game by the pandemic. Our facilities, our operators, and our organizations are doing a great job of keeping the game sticky, keeping it relevant.”

The questions on everyone’s mind going into the new year are … will this surge continue?, and to what extent? As with the weather — always the biggest question mark heading into a new year — no one really knows the answers, but those we spoke with project another solid year for the local golf industry.

EJ Altobello

EJ Altobello, head pro at Springfield Country Club, is among those projecting the recent surge in the region’s golf industry will continue in 2023.

EJ Altobello, head pro at Springfield Country Club, a private club, said most all signs point to a continuation of current trends (his club now has a healthy waiting list for membership), and he points to Florida, where the first three months of the year have been on par (yes, that’s an industry term) with the past few seasons, as evidence.

“They’re off to a great start,” he noted. “Golf retail is off to a great start, golf rounds are off to a great start, and I think things will go the same way up here — there’s no reason to believe otherwise.”

Steve Elkins, chair of the board at Amherst Golf Club, a nine-hole track owned by Amherst College and managed by the board members, agreed. He said the past few years have been solid, and revenues have helped put the course on more solid ground than it has been in some time.

“We’re in good shape … we’re in as a good a shape as we’ve been in a very long time,” he said, adding quickly that courses have to be careful and smart with their spending to stay in solid shape financially.

On the downside, if it can be considered that, it is somewhat more difficult to get a tee time at some courses, said Menachem, and there are now waiting lists at many private clubs. So accessibility is certainly not what it was in the pre-pandemic years.

But for those in this unpredictable business, those are definitely good problems to have.


Green Lights

It’s called Good Friday, Bad Golf.

That’s the name of the first organized golf outing of the year at East Mountain Country Club, and, as that name suggests, it’s played every year on Good Friday, which means that some years, it isn’t played at all due to inclement weather, especially when Easter comes earlier rather than later.

This year, it’s set for April 7, and Perez is hoping his luck with the weather in 2023 holds, because there are 140 signed up for golf and the dinner to follow it. Meanwhile, April 7, or thereabouts, is when most courses in the area project to be open, if not a week or more earlier — a solid head start over most years.

“We saw levels jump considerably in 2020 and into 2021. In 2022, we were able to sustain levels and continue to grow. Overall, we’ve been able to retain the new golfers and the golfers who were brought back into the game by the pandemic.”

Jesse Menachem

Jesse Menachem

And as they open, they’re expecting to see roughly what they’ve seen for nearly the past three seasons — more business than they were seeing in the years leading up to the pandemic. In most cases, much more.

Indeed, through the end of the 2010s, golf was in the doldrums, continuing a downward trajectory that started in the early 2000s. For many, and especially the younger generations, the game was too time-consuming and too expensive, and they were putting their time and money elsewhere.

Public courses struggled to get daily play, often despite attractive specials, and private clubs, many of which had been historically full and boasted waiting lists, had plenty of spots available and were marketing themselves far more aggressively than ever before to bring in new members — and much-needed revenue.

The downward spiral was punctuated by the closing of several courses in the area, including Hickory Ridge in Amherst, Pine Grove in Northampton, and Southwick Country Club. Despite this thinning of the herd, many area courses continued to struggle.

Then, the pandemic came.

Golf was still slow and still comparatively expensive, but suddenly, people didn’t seem to care, or care as much. People of all ages and other demographic categories were looking for things to do, ways to keep active as they were eating and drinking more, and opportunities to socialize — and golf could check all those boxes, to one extent or another.

Then-Gov. Charlie Baker lifted tight restrictions on golf in early May 2020, and for the rest of the year, clubs saw surges in play, memberships, and retail sales.

Elkins said Amherst Golf Club (AGC) received a huge boost from students, most of them from UMass, who were still living in the area but not attending classes in person. Looking for things to do with their time, maybe 30 bought attractively priced memberships at AGC, a semi-private course.

Amherst Golf Club

Amherst Golf Club, a 9-hole track with a long history, has seen an increase in memberships and overall play since the start of the pandemic.

“We got a huge COVID bounce from students who couldn’t attend classes in person,” he said. “It was a one- or two-year bump, and now it’s gone away.”

Still, membership remains solid — it’s currently at about 265, down from the peak but certainly up from the pre-COVID years — and daily play (there’s a $32, play-all-day rate) has been stable as well and certainly helped by the closing of Hickory Ridge (just a mile or so down the road) a few years ago.


Different Strokes

The surge in play — and spending at local clubs — continued, and even accelerated, in 2021, despite the loss of maybe two dozen days of play to seemingly non-stop rain.

The skies brightened in 2022 — when obsessive heat was the bigger problem — and those trends continued. Indeed, almost everyone we spoke with said 2022 was down slightly from the year before, but still quite solid and better than pre-pandemic.

“Last year wasn’t quite as good, but right in that same ballpark,” said Altobello, using total rounds and membership, which is at a 15-year high, and his main measuring sticks. He noted that the difference might have been as simple as more people returning the office last year, making it somewhat more difficult to “sneak out for an afternoon round,” as he put it.

Overall, though, the numbers were quite good, and they provided ample evidence that those who picked up the game during the pandemic, or picked it up again after putting it down, were, indeed, staying with it, said Altobello, adding that these increases were across the board, and especially encouraging when it comes to women and young people, two demographic groups that many feel hold the key to the long-term success of the industry.

“The indicators are that they are still here,” he said. “How long they stay … that’s to be determined. But as of right now, they’re still out there playing. We’re seeing more and more women in the game, more and more men in the game, and we’ve had a great increase in our youth programs as well.”

As play picked up over the past few years, there were some changes to the landscape, ones that reflect concerns about the cost of the game and the time it consumes, said those we spoke with. Indeed, the nine-hole outing, or ones that are even shorter, became far more common, and more accepted, than perhaps ever before.

“In many cases, people only have time for nine holes. That’s roughly two and a half hours on a full course, and that’s all the time many people have.”

“Ten or 15 years ago, that wasn’t even a thought,” Menachem said of a nine- or maybe six-hole round. “It was either 18 holes or nothing; now, nine holes is a far more realistic and accepted option for those with families, for those with shorter windows of time to play before work or after work. That is definitely a positive.”

Dave Twohig, the head pro at Amherst Golf Club for more than 40 years, agreed. “In many cases, people only have time for nine holes,” he said. “That’s roughly two and a half hours on a full course, and that’s all the time many people have.”

Amherst actually has two “loops,” as he called them, holes 1-5 and 6-9 — both wind up back at the clubhouse — that people can play if they have just an hour or so and want to get a little play in, and many do just that.


Round Numbers

Looking ahead, or at what’s right in front of them, in the case of East Mountain and other courses that have been open for play in Q1, those we spoke with said the outlook for 2023 is colored by optimism.

And the head start many courses were able to get will certainly help, said Menachem.

Indeed, he said that, for tracks like East Mountain and many others, especially in Eastern Mass. and on the Cape (maybe 20% of the state’s courses), the robust first quarter provides needed cash flow, as Perez noted, when there are few, if any, offsetting expenses.

“It’s like found money,” said Menachem. “You’re running on a thin operation, and you’re allowing access to the golf course in the condition that it’s in without much preparation on the maintenance front; it’s not too much of a heavy lift, and the revenue you’re able to derive should completely outweigh the expenses.”

Also, the early, solid start provides a buffer against possible headwinds, such as heavy rain and excessive heat, later in the year, he went on.

Meanwhile, almost all courses should be able to open earlier than what would be considered normal, said Menachem, who, as he spoke with BusinessWest a few weeks back, said 60 to 70 were already open.

Despite all the optimism that prevails within the industry, there are still challenges to be overcome.

Indeed, the ongoing workforce crisis is still making it more difficult to attract and retain help than it has been historically.

“Labor is still a huge issue, especially on the maintenance and operations side of the game,” Menachem said. “It’s not always been attractive to get up early and set up a golf course, and we want to make sure we can support the next generation of staff and make sure wages are competitive with other industries. Meanwhile, being a seasonal sport also has its challenges.”

Elkins agreed, noting that Amherst Golf Club has increased pay rates to remain competitive and hire and retain not only young people, but also some retirees looking to work and stay active.

Meanwhile, the higher cost of … well, just about everything poses stern challenges for clubs, most of which are operating on rather thin margins and without huge reserves to fall back on. In a word, clubs need to be careful, said Elkins, adding that this certainly the case at AGC.

“Making sure that we manage our cash is really important,” he noted. “Like a lot of courses, we’re in good shape, but we’re not going to spend a ton of money on something that’s not core to the course, because it’s risky. We want to make sure we have a good capital reserve and that we spend our money wisely.”

Perez agreed, noting that, despite his great start to 2023, he knows things can change quickly, and he’s learned to reserve judgment until he’s added up all the numbers in December.

“I don’t get too caught up in all the numbers until the end of the year,” he said. “I’ve been doing this a long time, and I know better than to get too excited in March. But it is good to have a non-winter like this one; it beats the alternative.”


Staying on a Roll

With the non-winter of 2023 now in the rear view, the region’s golf industry looks forward to the next three seasons.

They do with a spring in their step — figuratively but also quite literally, and optimism that the recent surge the game has enjoyed will continue.

Time will tell if they are right, but all signs indicate that area operators will be able to stay the course — in all kinds of ways.


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Grinding It Out

Two decades ago, people were clamoring to get into the golf business. It was seen as an almost can’t-miss proposition, and individuals and municipalities alike were looking to cash in. Things changed in a hurry, of course, and today, operations are struggling to stay in the black. To do so, they must be imaginative, flexible, and diverse.

For several years now, area golf-course operators have been saying there’s at least one too many courses in this region for the collective good, especially given the downward trajectory of the business as overall play has declined.

With the accent on ‘at least.’

Well, now there is actually one less track in the Greater Springfield area with the sale last fall of Southwick Country Club to an area developer. Where once there were fairways, greens, and tee boxes, there will soon be homes priced at roughly $300,000 and above.

Just what kind of impact this development will have on the region’s golf industry remains to be seen — Southwick was a relatively small operation, but the course had several leagues, was popular with women and seniors, and had a loyal core of regulars.

“Those people and those leagues will have to play somewhere,” said Ted Perez Jr., long-time pro and co-owner of East Mountain Country Club in Westfield, a truly family-run operation launched 55 years ago by Ted Sr. “They’re not going to stop playing, they’re not going to quit the game, so they’ll have to go somewhere else; that much is clear.”

What is also abundantly and even painfully clear is that the problems facing all golf-course owners and operators, public and private, are not going to be solved or even remotely dented by one course closing its doors. Those problems are far too systemic for that.

That’s why Perez and others we spoke with believe it’s not a case of whether other courses will join Southwick as casualties of a changing landscape, but when. While there is no consensus on when it will actually happen, the overriding sentiment is ‘soon,’ which is obviously a relative term.

Meanwhile … in professional golf, when a player has to work exceedingly hard to make pars and keep from falling down the leaderboard, those analyzing the action on TV like to say that he or she is ‘grinding it out.’

And that’s exactly what area courses are doing — working exceedingly hard so as not to lose ground, as in revenue or profits.

These exercises in grinding it out take many forms, and the efficiency of some of them can certainly be debated. And one large realm that falls in that category is pricing.

The back wall of Dave Fleury’s office

The back wall of Dave Fleury’s office — the one crammed with posters promoting events at Crestview Country Club — speaks to how golf operations have to focus on much more than golf.

Many courses are actually lowering theirs, even as the cost of everything from fertilizer to health insurance for employees continues to rise. Meanwhile, others are adopting what is now a common practice among airlines and hotels — dynamic pricing.

In these scenarios, open stretches on the tee sheets can be filled by discounting those slots in the same way that hotels will let unsold rooms go at below-rate prices on the theory that an occupied room is better than a vacant one.

Jamie Ballard, head pro at Crumpin-Fox Golf Club in Bernardston, said the club is now using dynamic pricing, and it is helping to fill in more lines on tee sheets and get people on the course.

“The margins in golf are so thin now, you have to value every tee time,” he noted while explaining why the club utilizes a company called Golf Now to handle its tee sheet use dynamic pricing to fill slots that may otherwise go unsold. “We don’t ever want to cheapen our brand by giving things away, but if I have a block of tee times on a weekend from 10 to 12 that we’re telling to sell our $100 rack rate that’s not booked, we have to find a way to fill that tee sheet more.”

But others, like Perez, who called such tactics part of what he termed the ‘race to the bottom,’ and Dave Fleury, owner of Crestview Country Club in Agawam and Elmcrest Country Club in East Longmeadow, see inherent dangers in discounting the product, especially the fear that people will be reluctant to pay full price.

“Sometimes it gets like a market in Morocco,” said Fleury, referring to the growing amount of price negotiating going on in golf now. “Golfers are much more emboldened to basically try to demand the price they want to pay, and that’s not really good for the game.”

Meanwhile, there are other elements to grinding it out. These include changes and improvements to make clubs more customer-friendly and especially family-friendly. And this involves both public and private courses; among the latter, Springfield Country Club initiated a massive makeover last year coinciding with new ownership, and stoic Longmeadow Country Club is making nearly $5 million in improvements this year (see related story, page 28).

And then, there’s diversification.

Diversification? Yes, there’s always been some of that at golf operations — from weddings in the clubhouse to snowshoeing on the course. But now, there’s much, much more of it, out of necessity. And it comes in all forms — from Easter brunches to bands to comedy nights, as we’ll see — in an effort to create critically needed revenue streams.

At Waubeeka Golf Club in Williamstown, in the far northwest corner of the state, diversification and grinding it out are being taken to new and intriguing levels. Indeed, Mike Deep, a real-estate business owner who bought the club five years ago to keep it from closing, is advancing plans for an elaborate resort at the course.

Plans are still in the developmental stage, but he can envision dozens of small cabins, a large conference facility, a banquet hall, and more. It’s an ambitious plan, he said, but the current landscape demands such boldness.

“You can’t stand still in this business — you’ll get run over,” he said, speaking for everyone involved in golf. “You have to change, and you have to think differently.”

Setting a New Course

The wall behind the desk in Dave Fleury’s office at Crestview goes a long way toward explaining all of what’s happening in golf today.

Indeed, space that years ago would probably have gone toward pictures of Fleury with many of the golf pros he’s met during a long career in course design (and he has a few of those around) now boasts posters announcing different events Crestview has staged over the past several years.

And the depth and diversity of these events gives new meaning to ‘diversification’ in the golf business.

There are appearances by bands, a Harley night, brunches, comedy nights, a Kentucky Derby party, cruise nights … you name it.

Fleury displays these posters … well, because he’s proud of them; he helped design them. But as a group, these events show in a powerful fashion just how much this operation has changed.

Years ago, Crestview was a private course, and the focus was on golf and the membership. Period. There were no Harley nights and no U2 tribute bands playing there.

Scenic Waubeeka Golf Club in Wlliamstown

Scenic Waubeeka Golf Club in Wlliamstown may soon add a destination resort and conference facilities in an effort to create a more diverse, profitable business operation.

But today, more than 70,000 people make their way down the winding road to the Crestview clubhouse annually, by Fleury’s estimates, and only a small percentage of them will take golf clubs out of the trunk.

The rest will be going to the restaurant, using the pool, checking out vintage cars, or taking part in what Fleury called “block parties,” events that become important revenue streams. Ton sum up how it works and what it means for the operation, he borrowed terms from baseball, not golf.

“There are very few home runs in this business,” he explained. “So if you can hit a lot of singles and doubles, then you can stay in business. If you look at every event like that, as long as we make a reasonable profit and we’re doing a good job of what we do, then they’re well worth doing.”

This is how it is now and will be moving forward, said those we spoke with.

Why? Well, let’s start by going back to where we started — the now-closed Southwick Country Club. A visit there provides some some intriguing perspective, geographically and otherwise, on a changed but still-crowded golf landscape.

Indeed, one can actually see another course from what used to be Southwick’s first fairway — the Ranch is right down the road, although it is a world away when it comes to price, quality, and amenities. And there are two more public courses within just a few miles of Southwick’s driveway — Shaker Farms Country Club in Westfield and Edgewood Country Club in Southwick. Tekoa Country Club, also in Westfield, is maybe three and a half miles away, and there are three more public courses just over the line in Agawam — Oak Ridge, St. Anne’s, and Agawam Country Club. East Mountain Country Club is only six miles away.

Things aren’t quite as crowded on the east side of the Connecticut River, but there are plenty of choices there as well.

There is simply an oversupply, said Fleury, adding that it would have been hard to imagine such a scenario 20 years ago. That’s when Tiger Woods was creating huge amounts of energy and interest in the game — and the business — of golf.

A stroll through the BusinessWest archives puts things in perspective. The headline on the cover of the May 1997 issue (this was a monthly back then) said it all: “Going for the Green: Round Numbers Are Adding Up for Golf Entrepreneurs.” One of the principals behind the Ranch project, talking about a surge in play at area courses, said at the time: “all you have to do is open the cash register and point to the first tee; everyone wants to play these days. You’ve got to get that $20 bill out of your pocket fast … because there’s a guy in line behind you who has his out already.”

But things changed relatively quickly, from a business-cycle perspective, and there’s no better evidence of this than the Ledges Golf Club in South Hadley, arguably the poster child for a struggling industry.

A municipal course — meaning it’s owned by the town — the Ledges was conceived just as Tiger and the game of golf were booming and it seemed like things would stay that way forever. Golf wasn’t a get-rich-quick scheme, per se, but for many private developers and even towns like South Hadley, it was something close to that.

Until it wasn’t.

Which, in the case of the Ledges, was essentially right away; from the start, it has been a losing proposition. The town’s manager said last fall that it has lost almost $9 million since the first foursome went off in 2001. And, remember, this was sold as a can’t-miss revenue generator!

The Ledges is still operating, but it is on the golf-business equivalent of life support. Town officials have said that, if things don’t turn around this year, they will pull the plug, and the course will close and revert to parkland.

If that happens, there will less competition for area courses, but the region will still be saturated, if not oversaturated.

And those in the business will still be grinding it out — or not. As noted earlier, more casualities are expected.

In the meantime, course operators will continue looking for ways to bring more people to their doorsteps — for golf or anything else that will generate revenue and help keep people employed.

Rough Estimates

This is the broad topic that is dominating regional and national meetings of golf-course operators, said Deep, adding that he has now attended many such gatherings.

“We have to change how people think about golf,” he said while summing up the broad assignment, which is even more daunting in Berkshire County, which has, as Deep noted, among the highest rates of golf courses per capita. There are 14 of them, by his count, and they are all fishing in a pool that seems to get smaller each year.

There might be only 13 if Deep had not stepped in five years ago. Waubeeka was losing about $400,000 a year at the time, he said, adding that he was confident (and now he has no idea why) that he could turn things around quickly and profoundly.

Instead, he could do neither, although he did make progress, reducing those losses consistently to where the club is now maybe $100,000 in the red. “We’re going in the right direction, but there’s no way anyone can continue to lose that kind of money,” he went on, adding that this reality prompted the plans for a destination hotel and convention facility, something the area lacks and needs.

Preliminary plans call for what Deep called a “village,” with a new clubhouse, a dining facility for 300 or more, and cabins scattered around the property. The project would be built in phases, and 2020 is the goal for the first stage.

To borrow another phrase from those television analysts, this ambitious move is, like a reachable par 5, a risk-reward scenario. There is considerable risk, but also potential rewards. And this is what is going on across the industry, albeit on a generally much smaller scale: Taking risks to realize rewards.

Put another way, and to paraphrase those we spoke with, the biggest risk comes in doing nothing and simply hoping the golf gods (ask anyone who plays) will smile on your operation.

One of the risks being taken is lowering prices, a difficult step at a time when other costs are escalating, but a necessary one for many clubs.

Crumpin-Fox is in that category, said Ballard, noting this step wasn’t taken lightly and is considered a calculated response to the changing landscape.

“Whether you like it or not, this is a business,” he told BusinessWest. “We might love our golf course and say, in our opinion, that we don’t have any competition, but the reality of it is we do. And if you have options, price is one thing that people consider.”

Other risks are more minor in nature and reflect Fleury’s comments about hitting singles and doubles — a discussion that prompts Perez to talk about ‘upstairs.’

That would be East Mountain’s expansive yet flexible ballroom.

“My brother, Mark (also a partner in the EMCC operation), talked about this six or seven years ago — he said we had to start using upstairs more,” said Perez, adding that, while the facility had always played host to weddings, chamber breakfasts, Rotary meetings, and more, it was clear that it was still being underutilized as a revenue generator.

Not anymore.

To get his point across, Perez referenced Trivia Night, or the latest in a series of them, staged on the Thursday night before he spoke with BusinessWest.

“We do it from the first Thursday in October until the last Thursday in March — that’s six months,” he said, adding that an average turnout would be 40 players, or about eight teams.

That’s not a large number of people, but most of them order food and drinks, and thus it becomes well worth turning the lights on. The goal, obviously, is to do this as many nights of the year as possible. And East Mountain does this with bands, comedy, and more.

“Pretty much every Friday, we’ve got something going on upstairs,” he said. “You don’t make a lot of money with it, but you keep people coming here, and you keep a few dollars going through the system.

“You realize why nightclubs open and close all the time,” he went on, referring specifically to the decidedly hit-or-miss nature of booking bands. “It’s nice to have, but thank God we don’t have to make a living with that.”

In many ways, though, golf-course operators do have to make a living with such events — or at least a part of their living.

“That’s part of the new reality,” said Fleury, noting that, if clubs do not adjust to it, then they increase their risk of being the next casuality.

Course Correction

As he talked with BusinessWest, Deep offered an observation that many in golf have made over the past few months: Tiger is back.

Indeed, he is playing on the tour again after almost three years of being sidelined by back ailments and surgeries to correct them. And he’s not only playing, he’s competing at a high level, with a few top-10 finishes.

His presence has been noticed in a number of ways: TV ratings have soared, attendance at the tournaments he’s played in has skyrocketed, competitors paired with him are complaining about how hard is to play in front of such huge galleries, and anticipation about the upcoming Masters is off the charts because he’s listed among the favorites.

“Tiger coming back is good for the game,” said Deep, expressing, without actually saying as much, the hope that maybe Woods’ comeback can fuel some sort of resurgence for the industry.

Maybe, but what’s more likely is that Tiger’s return will be like the closing of Southwick Country Club — it will help, but it won’t change the big picture.

No, course operators are going to have to keep grinding it out.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Golf Preview Sections

Course of Action

This rendering shows the new pool and addition to LCC’s stately clubhouse.

This rendering shows the new pool and addition to LCC’s stately clubhouse.

Longmeadow Country Club will turn 100 in a few years (the easy-to-remember 2022, to be more specific).

It is a venerable institution with considerable history, much of it focused on two of the most famous names in the history of golf: Donald Ross and Bobby Jones.

The former designed the course, and it is considered one of his best — in this region if not the country (he designed more than 400 courses worldwide). The latter is considered the greatest amateur in the history of the game. The winner of seven major championships, he played Spalding clubs, and the Chicopee-based company put his name on some of its equipment. When he visited the plant, he would often play Longmeadow Country Club and became a member there.

The club has hosted a number of tournaments over the years, including several Massachusetts Amateurs and the 2005 U.S. Junior Amateur, won by current PGA Tour pro Kevin Tway. Popular current players Rickie Fowler and Sam Saunders (Arnold Palmer’s grandson) also competed that year.

Meanwhile, the club has long been the only one in the region to have caddies, and its program has involved young people who would become captains of industry — and even captains in the military (an admiral, actually) — who would proudly recall their time at LCC.

There’s so much tradition and lore here that you often see adjectives placed before the club, like historic, fabled, and storied. And while those still apply, all that doesn’t make LLC immune from the powerful forces impacting the game — and business — of golf and private clubs everywhere, said current President Patrick O’Shea, a lawyer by trade and avid golfer.

“We no longer have a situation where the younger generation aspires, as a sign of success, to join a country club,” he said, summing up a complex matter rather simply. “The family money is going to a lot of places other than a country club.”

The need to respond to this sea change was the catalyst for a nearly $5 million renovation at the club. There is some work taking place on the course itself, O’Shea noted, adding that several hundred trees have been taken down, mostly in an effort to bring sunlight into areas of the course that sorely need it. But the most sweeping changes will be in and around the stately clubhouse.

Indeed, the facility is being made more casual and more family-friendly, he said, citing everything from a completely new look and feel inside the clubhouse to a new pool and patio area outside.

The plans call for demolishing the old tap room and nearby patio area and replacing that with a new 19th-hole/bar area with seating for about 50 people, with an adjacent casual dining space for nearly 100 people, with an open, family-friendly design.

Those we spoke with would wear out those words ‘open’ and ‘casual,’ in large part because these are things the old clubhouse wasn’t, but needs to be moving forward, because this is the environment members want.

“The focus is on the casual, fun social-gathering spaces,” said Rod Clement, LCC’s general manager, adding that the club is moving away away from the ‘white linen’ look and feel — although there will still be some of that if it’s appropriate. “People want spaces where they can see each and other and interact; they don’t have to be segregated in different venues of the club. People want to be part of a community and see people coming in and out.”

The Donald Ross-designed course at LCC

The Donald Ross-designed course at LCC is among the region’s finest. This view is from the back of the par-3 16th hole.

The extensive renovations bring with them a discernable level of risk for the club — it has lost some members as a result of the assessment levied to help pay for it, and replacing them is challenging in this environment, even for LCC.

But all those we spoke with said it was something the club needed to do as it strives to thrive not only in its second century, but in a new environment for private country clubs.

For this issue and its focus on sports and leisure, BusinessWest toured the new clubhouse and talked with several of those involved with this ambitious project to gain some insight into the latest chapter in the club’s long history.

Reshaping History

That tour took place on St. Patrick’s Day, when the club scheduled an open house at which members could see the work in progress.

More than 100 people would come through the new front door at the course that day, said Jim Kennedy, the club’s vice president, adding that this number reflects the size and scope of this project, as well as the level of investment on the part of the membership.

renovated clubhouse at LCC

This rendering shows the renovated clubhouse at LCC. The two words used most to describe it are ‘open’ and ‘casual,’ qualities it did not possess before the makeover.

Longmeadow is one of only two member-owned clubs left in this region (Ludlow is the other), and every aspect of this project had to be approved by committee — actually, two of them. First, the long-range planning committee, which took ownership of the project, and then the membership as a whole.

“I think it went quite smoothly,” said O’Shea, tongue firmly planted in cheek as he talked about what became several years of planning, revising plans, and revising them some more.

He said talks concerning a serious makeover at the club actually began about five or six years ago, and escalated over time. The talks commenced because the scene was changing at private clubs regionally and across the country.

“We had different national consultants come in and talk with the members and let them know that there are changes on the horizon in the country-club scene,” he told BusinessWest. “They said that it’s more family-centric, with women making more of the decisions about joining clubs, where before it was men.

“We have a spectacular golf course here — everyone knows that, we know that, we love it, we appreciate it, we’re stewards of it,” he went on. “But we realized that we need more than that; we recognized that we need to enhance the family and social gathering places. Some of the spaces we had were more set up for the 1950s dining and dancing culture than the culture of today.”

By late 2015, a plan emerged — and was actually approved by the members — for a $7.4 million renovation focused entirely on the clubhouse, with nothing slated for the course or pool and related facilities.

After much consideration, and despite approval from the membership, the panel created for this initiative decided to “tap the brakes,” as O’Shea put it, and consider something on a smaller yet broader scale. What eventually emerged is what members toured on St. Patrick’s Day.

As they drove in, they could probably see some of the changes on the course itself, undertaken in accordance with a 54-page golf-course master plan prepared by golf architect Ron Prichard, a well-known Donald Ross restoration specialist (changes to Ross-designed courses are not undertaken lightly).

While there will be repair work to the cart paths and installation of improved drainage on holes 9,12, and 17, the biggest change involves the removal of trees.

This is a movement taking place across the golf landscape, literally and figuratively, said Tim Quirk, head pro at LCC, noting that, while trees can define a golf hole, some trees don’t contribute to a course’s design or degree of difficulty but do keep areas in almost constant shade, thus impacting turf condition.

It is trees of this latter variety (more than 300 of them by the latest count) that the club has taken down since late last fall. A good number of trees have come down on the right side of the 10th fairway, but the biggest change is the removal of a large stand of trees between the 3rd and 6th holes.

Indeed, as they walked BusinessWest out for a look, Kennedy and Quirk stopped at the tee of the par-3 7th and gestured out to something that could never be seen from that spot before — the 3rd green.

But as dramatic as the on-course changes are, those inside and around the clubhouse are even more so. Overall, though, they were blueprinted in a way that would change the look and feel of the interior of the clubhouse, but yield what O’Shea called “minimal exterior transformation to make sure it looks like it’s been here for 100 years.”

Bill Laplante and his father, Ray, principals with East Longmeadow-based Laplante Construction, were assigned the task of designing and undertaking the renovations. But as long-time members, they were already heavily invested in it — in every way.

As he walked BusinessWest through the new clubhouse-in-progress, Bill Laplante also used the words ‘open,’ ‘casual,’ and ‘family-friendly,’ but he added some others that hadn’t been used to reference to the LCC facilities historically — like ‘modern,’ ‘flexible,’ and ‘energy-efficient.’

“We tried to marry the new with the old to make sure that it’s consistent with regard to the original design of the building,” he explained. “But at the same time, we’re trying to modernize the space.”

By modernize, he meant amenities like an elevator for handicap accessibility between the main level, pool-deck level, and the pool locker-room level below it. But he was also referring to foam insulation, new windows, and new roofing in some sections for increased efficiency.

And also to how everything has been designed — with the goal of creating an environment that is open, bright (there’s much more natural light), and easy to navigate.

The Next Chapter

Overall, this is an extensive makeover that includes everything from that new front door to a new private dining room; from a new and expanded kitchen with energy-efficient equipment to a new audio-visual system. As LaPlante said, it’s a marriage of the old and the new, which is important here.

Indeed, from the road, the clubhouse still says ‘1922,’ which is what the members want and demand.

But inside, it says ‘2018,’ and in all the important ways, that is also what is wanted and needed.

Thus, a course and a club steeped in tradition and lore is writing an important new chapter in its history.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story Golf Preview Sections

Spring in Their Step

Kevin Kennedy

Kevin Kennedy, head professional at Springfield’s municipal courses, Franconia and Veterans.

The region’s beleaguered golf industry, which has been beset with challenges ranging from the recession to a dwindling number of players, to even stiffer competition in the form of additional courses, caught a break from Mother Nature this spring — several weeks of additional revenue. While working to capitalize on that opportunity, courses, and the industry in general, confront the larger task of creating the next generation of golfers.

That sound you might have heard about a month or so ago — if you were listening carefully enough — was cash registers opening and closing at a few of the region’s public golf courses, especially the smaller, family-owned operations.

A few weeks later, though, it was much easier to pick up that noise, as most area municipal courses also opened their doors and greens to players. And by this past weekend, just about every course in the region was seeing play.

In this business, that’s called an early spring, or — in the case of those that opened several weeks ago or stayed open almost throughout the winter — it was a very early spring. And if any sector of the economy needed a break from Mother Nature, it was the golf industry.

Go HERE for a PDF chart of area Golf Courses

Indeed, this industry has been hit hard by a combination of factors ranging from declining play (and there are several reasons for that) to winters like the one in 2014-15 that have kept courses shuttered, for the most part, until at least mid-April.

How much does the extra month or so help? Kevin Kennedy, the long-time pro at Springfield’s two municipal courses, Franconia and Veterans, said it doesn’t guarantee a great or even good year — 2011 saw an early start, and everyone knows what happened that summer and fall — but it does create a positive vibe and some momentum.

“An early start is quite valuable, and much better than a late fall,” he told BusinessWest, on March 17, the official opening of the season at Franconia, adding that this sentiment applies to not only play, but equipment and apparel sales as well. “People are really excited to be out and playing.”

He barely finished that thought when, as if on cue, maybe his 10th customer of the season came through the door, joining playing partners already warming up on the first tee. “It’s St. Patrick’s Day … I’m playing golf and having a couple of beers,” he told those in the clubhouse as Kennedy counted out his change. “How good is that?”

No one had to answer him, because the answer was obvious. And there were plenty of people expressing similar thoughts.

“It’s another three weeks of play, another three weeks of generating revenue,” said Chris Tallman, head golf professional at Cold Spring Country Club in Belchertown as he talked about the club’s slated March 25 opening. “And after the mild winter, people are psyched to get out and play.”

But while the golf industry is getting a series of breaks from the weather — a first-day-of-spring snowstorm conveniently missed the region, and a misty Good Friday was not a total washout — there is still no shortage of challenges confronting this industry, especially in Western Mass.

For starters, the local sector is usually described with the words ‘saturated’ or ‘oversaturated’ — the latter more than the former — and with good reason. There are four courses the public can play in Agawam, for example, three more in Westfield, and three more in Southwick, where’s there’s also an executive par-3 course.

Chris Tallman

Chris Tallman says one big challenge facing all course owners and managers today is creating a large pool of golfers for the future.

“There are a lot of courses in this area, and they’re all working hard to attract players,” said E.J. Altobello, head pro at Tekoa Country Club, a semi-private course. “It’s a very competitive situation.”

Meanwhile, the pool of golfers these courses is trying to attract certainly isn’t getting any bigger. In fact, the consensus is that it’s getting smaller, as Baby Boomers retire and move to warmer climes, and young adults continue to struggle with the sport’s cost and time commitment — more the latter than the former.

The challenge, said Altobello, and one that all courses share together, is to create a bigger pool, especially through a hard focus on young people.

And while Kennedy has some doubts about this young generation — “kids today don’t want to hit a shot, go walk after it, wait five minutes, and then hit another shot; they need instant gratification,” he said — Altobello is more optimistic.

“We’ve been making a big push over the past several years with more junior programs, and they’ve generated some real results,” he said. “That’s going to be our base for the future. And as you get more kids to play, you often get their parents out as well, and their usage is going to go up.”

Thus far, Mother Nature has given the industry a reason to be optimistic. For this issue and its focus on sports and leisure, BusinessWest looks at how area courses look to seize whatever momentum they’ve been given and make 2016 a year with lots of round numbers.

Rough Drafts

As he waited for customers on St. Patrick’s Day, Kennedy began the task of filling the racks and shelves in his pro shop, which have been barren since the end of November.

A skilled retailer and keen observer of golfers’ spending habits, he said an early spring doesn’t just help fill the daily sheet of tee times.

“People will buy in the fall, but not as much as in the spring, because they don’t want to buy something and then have to put it in the cellar or garage for four or five months,” he explained. “That’s another way that an early spring helps; if people buy something now, they get a full season’s use out of it.”

Such observations provide insight into how most golfers think and spend. They are creatures of habit, like bargains, and definitely look to get their money’s worth.

Such character traits help delineate the many challenges facing those in the golf industry today. Summing it all up, those we spoke with came back again and again to that word ‘experience’ and the never-ending task of providing one that is meaningful and value-laden.

“You have to take care of people from the minute they arrive to the moment they pull out of the parking lot,” said Tallman, adding that, at Cold Spring, he really means the minute they arrive.

Indeed, visitors to the semi-public course are greeted upon arrival, their clubs are put in a cart, and they’re driven to the pro shop, a perk usually reserved for private courses and expensive resort layouts, although the practice is becoming more common at public facilities, out of sheer necessity.

Such red-carpet service has helped Cold Spring, which opened in 2012, attract steady levels of play and overcome one additional challenge. Actually, two — location and perception of same. Belchertown is not exactly on the beaten path, said Tallman, but the perception is that it’s much further off that path than it actually is.

“I was at the golf expo a few weeks ago, and a number of people came up to me and said, ‘I like your course a lot; if I were closer by, I’d definitely join,’” he said, adding that roughly 160 people have joined, and there is also a steady volume of public play. That comes in form of many first-timers — the course is still new, as courses go — but especially repeat play.

And generating large amounts of that is every club’s goal, said Altobello, adding that customer service, which hasn’t always been a hallmark of this industry, especially when times were much better, courses were full, and tee times were hard to get, is now of paramount importance.

And it involves every aspect of the experience, he added, from the consistency of the greens to the quality of the food; from the availability of tee times to the temperature of the beer being served.

“You need to show people a good time,” he said, speaking for pros and course owners across the region. “If you do, they’re far more likely to come back to your course. If you don’t … there are plenty of other places for them to go.”

Overall, he said the goal for the industry is to generate more play that the region’s bevy of courses can share. And a good, early spring can certainly help.

“What I’m hoping is that the medium-use golfers, those who don’t play a lot, can use this opportunity to play more,” he said. “If they get off to an early start, get a few rounds in during March, that might spur them to play more during the season. If the industry can get that eight- or nine-time-per-year player up to 15 or 16, that really makes a difference.”

But from the bigger-picture perspective, the challenge of creating more rounds for courses to share involves much more than weather.

Tight Lies

That’s why area courses, while keeping one eye on the present and the current legions of players, have the other on the future and the task of generating solid volumes of business for years, even decades, to come.

And here’s where things get a little dicey. In the ’60s, Arnold Palmer and the advent of televised golf combined to give the game a huge boost, one that involved men, women, and children, and as a result, thousands of new courses were built, including dozens in this area. In the late ’90s, Tiger Woods did very much the same thing, inspiring, among other things, the small army of young players from around the world now dominating the tours in the U.S. and Europe — players like Jordan Speith, Jason Day, Rory McIlroy, and Rickie Fowler.

Will those dynamic young players spawn another golf boom and inspire large numbers of young people to take up the game? That’s the $64,000 question.

As he answered it, Kennedy said he’d like to be optimistic, but settled for what he considers realism. He noted that Fowler inspires some clothing and shoe sales — he likes bold colors, and is especially partial to orange, the one worn by his alma matter, Oklahoma State. But, overall, Kennedy noted, today’s young people are not turning to golf like the generations before them.

“They’re into other sports and other activities,” he told BusinessWest. “They don’t want to spend four or five hours playing golf.”

Tallman and Altobello, though, were more upbeat. They acknowledged that golf is competing with many things for the time and attention of young people, but believe it is winning some of those contests. And they and most others in his profession are helping by promoting the game, running youth camps, offering attractive rates for play, and other incentives.

“Our job is to create new golfers,” said Tallman. “We run a lot of junior programs, and they’re packed. I’m encouraged by what I’ve seen, but we have to keep working hard at encouraging the young people; this is our future, after all.”

Altobello agreed, and voiced more concern about those in their 20s and 30s, a constituency that wasn’t exactly courted heavily when they were young because the game was booming, thanks largely to Woods, and active recruitment of new players wasn’t a real priority.

“They were somewhat ignored when they were young because the industry was very healthy, and there just wasn’t a push to get more players into the game; the golf business was resting on its laurels,” he said, adding that, as a result, many Millennials didn’t get into golf, and now find it difficult to do so as they attempt to balance already-busy schedules dominated by family and career.

This current generation of young people is getting much more attention, with the expectation that this will pay dividends decades down the road, he went on, citing, as one example, a pilot program set up by the PGA of America called the PGA Junior Golf League, what he called a Little League for this sport.

“We’ve taken that to a good level in our area,” he said, adding that the initiative was launched in 2012. “In our Greater Westfield league, we’re probably going to have 75 kids this year. The goal is to get them turned on to the game and get them comfortable with it.”

As for those retiring Baby Boomers, the ones who stay in this market, well, many of them do have the time and resources for the game, said Altobello, and they have the potential to make an impact on the local market.

“That’s another strong segment — there are a lot of people retiring, and they have the time and money to play,” he said. “But golf is a difficult game to take up late in life, and those who do generally struggle with it. We’ll see what happens with that group.”

Finishing Hole

Looking ahead, the pros we spoke with said the early start is certainly a blessing and a chance to create some momentum when the industry certainly needs some.

In the larger scheme of things, though, the golf business will need much more than a few additional weeks of revenue to get its game in significantly better shape.

The focus has to be on customer service and, to the greatest extent possible, generating a solid pipeline of customers for the years to come.

Like the game itself, that assignment comes with no shortage of challenge, frustration, or hope.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story Golf Preview Sections Sports & Leisure
Golf Industry Adjusts to a Changing Climate

While golf courses in the Pioneer Valley will certainly be opening earlier than those east of Worcester — where close to nine feet of snow fell in less than two months and temperatures have not induced much melting — they will be getting down to business later than what would be considered normal or desirable.

And that has Kevin Kennedy a little worried.

The head professional at Springfield’s two municipal courses, Franconia and Veterans Memorial, told BusinessWest that golf seasons have a tendency to reflect how — and often when — spring begins.

“I really believe that, if you get off to a good start in the spring, it trickles down to club sales and everything else — everyone’s raring to go,” he explained. “I’d rather have a good spring than a good fall; if they don’t excited about golf in the spring, some people may not get excited for the whole year. A good spring start is imperative.”

However, it looks like area courses won’t be getting that good start. As BusinessWest went to press on April Fool’s Day, the professionals we spoke with were predicting it would be at least another week and probably two before anyone would be putting a peg in the ground.

Kevin Kennedy

While many in the golf industry are content to whine about business, Kevin Kennedy says, he prefers to be optimistic about the present and future.

That’s a few weeks later than normal — many courses are typically able to open in late March — and this year it’s after Good Friday, which is usually one of the busiest golfing days of the year. In fact, area courses with a lot of snow will likely kick off after the Masters tournament (April 9-12), which has become a symbol to many golfers in colder climates that it’s time to get out and play.

And a slow start certainly isn’t what courses need at a time marked by myriad and, in some cases, historic challenges for the industry — everything from the lingering effects from the recession, especially when it comes to discretionary spending, to an oversaturation of the local market when it comes to courses (although that’s certainly not a recent phenomenon); from continued discounting and price stagnation that has many consequences, to societal changes that have left many people, especially younger audiences, with little if any appetite for an activity that consumes five hours or more.

Yet, despite all this, there is optimism to be found among the pros we spoke with, who said they’re learning to adapt to this new environment.

E.J. Altobello, long-time professional at Tekoa Country Club in Westfield, said the course registered “minor growth” in 2014, another season that started later than what would be considered normal, a byproduct of predominantly solid weather during the summer and few lost weekend days. Overall, he said the golf market has stabilized somewhat after several challenging years immediately following the Great Recession.

“We’ve been pretty steady the past several years,” he said, referring to both Tekoa and the regional market in general. “I think we’ve managed to stop some of the bleeding from six or seven years ago. We’ve had minor growth — nothing off the charts — and that’s what we’re probably going to see this year.”

Mike Zaranek, head pro at Crumpin Fox, a higher-end course in the Franklin County community of Bernardston, agreed.

“We had a good year last year, with about the same number of rounds as we did in 2013, which I really can’t complain about in this golf world,” he said, adding that this was despite a similarly late start, April 19 to be exact. “Our membership has been hanging on — the numbers are steady, which, for our neck of the woods and this business climate, is pretty good.”

Even Kennedy, despite his apprehension about a late start, takes a decidedly glass-is-more-than-half-full attitude as he talks about the local market, the state of the sport, and the industry’s prospects for the future.

“I tend to be a little more optimistic than many,” he said. “There are some people in the industry, and not just locally, who prefer to sit around and whine about the golf industry and how bad it is. It’d definitely challenging, but I think the game is healthy, and we can grow it.”

Still, challenges abound, and for this issue and its focus on sports and leisure, BusinessWest looks at how they are forcing clubs to bring their A-games to the table in order to post some solid numbers.

Par for the Course

To summarize the state of the game and the environment in which clubs are operating today, Kennedy summoned some numbers to get his points across.

“In 1995, there were about 25 million golfers,” he said, noting that was the year before Tiger Woods joined the PGA tour and inspired people of all ages to not only watch the sport on TV, but take it up. “And in 2013 there were … about 25 million golfers.”

In between, or roughly around 2000, there were maybe 31 million or 32 million, he went on, noting that this surge, fueled by Woods and a strong economy, was greeted with a wave of new course construction that was country-wide and included Western Mass.

Indeed, this region saw the construction of several new tracts, including the Ledges in South Hadley, the Ranch in Southwick, and, most recently, Cold Spring in Belchertown.

“The overall supply of golf courses skyrocketed — every developer wanted to build 100 condos with courses around them,” said Kennedy, talking about the scene nationally, adding that demand is currently what it was two decades ago and much less than at the start of this century.

Mike Zaranek

Mike Zaranek says courses like Crumpin Fox can’t compete on price, so they must focus on value and providing an experience.

The laws of supply and demand dictate that there would be some attrition, that some courses would fail, he went on, noting that this happened nationally, with several hundred courses closed or soon to close.

But it hasn’t happened regionally, where the inventory has only grown.

And that has left clubs and their managers to take whatever steps they deem necessary to compete, he went on, adding that this means keeping prices stable (the two Springfield courses have not had an increase the past three years, for example), adding value wherever possible, focusing on good customer service, and, in many cases, marketing themselves far more aggressively than they did years ago.

Altobello agreed, and noted that the greater inventory of courses, even just a few new layouts, impacts everything from daily fee play to league play to the myriad outings and charity tournaments staged each year. And it all matters when there is already little margin for error.

“We’ve lost a few tournaments to some of the newer courses,” he said, noting the Ranch specifically because of its proximity. “Every new option out there hurts a little bit and dilutes the business for the rest of us.

“The real issue around here is saturation,” he went on. “It’s great for the consumer — this is a wonderful place to play golf — but not so great for course owners and operators.”

Using his own specific competitive situation, or “micro-climate,” as he called it, to illustrate his points, Altobello said that, although he’s competing against courses across the Pioneer Valley, the situation in his own backyard is especially intense.

Indeed, there are six public or semi-private courses in Westfield and neighboring Southwick alone — Tekoa, East Mountain, and Shaker Farms in Westfield; Southwick Country Club, Edgewood, and the Ranch in Southwick — along with two driving ranges and a par-3 course. And they serve only about 65,000 people, said Altobello.

“That’s a huge number — this is a tough environment to compete in,” he told BusinessWest, adding that a few of those courses are offering “ridiculously low” yearly rates to woo members and keep the daily time sheets full.

Given this competitive climate, Tekoa and other higher-end courses are forced to compete on quality, because they can’t compete on price.

“I certainly feel that our facility is a little better, and hopefully that wins out in the end,” he said, adding quickly that, while quality is important to some, increasingly, the golfing public is being motivated by rates and deals.

That’s because there are so many of them — available through coupon books, Groupon, Golf Now, and other online phenomena, and individual courses looking to drive traffic, especially on the slower weekdays, through golf-and-lunch specials.

“Some people are just looking to get out quick and get the lowest price available,” said Altobello. “It’s different strokes for different folks.”

Zaranek agreed. “People will ask, ‘what’s the special of the day?’ and ‘how much is this going to cost me?’” he said, adding that many will look to do better than the prices posted at the counter. “Everyone wants a deal — that’s the battle you fight.”

At Crumpin Fox, where daily rates average around $100, the club has to specifically focus on those for whom quality and excellent course conditions are a priority, he added.

“There are some places south of us where people can play three rounds for what it costs to play one at Crump,” he explained. “Our job is to get them to come up and understand the value attached to that high-end daily-fee golf course — how you’re treated, the experience you get, the golf holes you remember, the conditions you play under — and make it worth their trip once, maybe twice a year.”

Course Corrections

Meanwhile, there are many other challenges for club owners and professionals — everything from declining sales of clubs (generally, people are holding onto equipment longer than they did even a few years ago and buying last year’s models at a fraction of the cost of new sticks) to a younger generation that seemingly has no patience or passion for a game that takes so much of their time.

“The retail side of the business has changed considerably since the recession of 2008 and 2009,” said Altobello. “Guys aren’t spending money like they used to, and the equipment makers have trained people on when to buy; the 2015 driver is $400, but the 2014 driver is now $149. Is the 2015 driver $250 better than the 2014 model? Probably not. And when the next new driver comes out, people will know to wait it out.”

As for attracting younger audiences — and even those a little older who have similarly stiff competition for their time and attention — clubs are doing what they can to spark interest and hold it.

But it’s an uphill battle.

“Young kids want instant gratification — they want to pick up their phone and play a game, they want to go do this and then do that,” Kennedy explained. “Five hours? If I tell my daughter she’s going to have something good in five hours, she looks at me like I have seven heads. Five hours? How about five minutes? That’s what they have patience for.”

Despite those sentiments, clubs are being more aggressive with programs aimed at attracting younger audiences and, when possible, keeping them in the game, said Zaranek, noting that Crumpin Fox has pricing programs for families and juniors. Meanwhile, it is stressing options for time-strapped individuals, such as nine-hole outings or even playing a handful of holes.

Clubs are also working hard to keep younger individuals and families interested in golf through that challenging period when they are otherwise preoccupied with their career and their family.

Altobello said an all-too-common pattern is for young people to start playing the game in high school, maybe stay with it through college — although that’s challenging as well — but then drop the game when the responsibilities of parenthood and their career consume most all of their time.

“I don’t think the 17-and-under crowd is playing any less than they were 10 or 15 years ago,” he explained. “But I think that, as they get into business and get into their 20s, it seems like we lose them for about 10 to 12 years.

“The whole dynamic of the family has changed over the past 25 or 30 years,” he went on, adding that, while this isn’t a recent phenomenon, societal changes have amplified its impact. “Today, both parents are working, and kids are into more things — and parents need to be there, whether it’s a soccer game or practice or dance. It’s a time factor.”

The challenge for clubs is to try to keep people in the game, he went on, or at least make sure they get back into it when their children get older and time is more plentiful.

There are some positive developments, said the pros we spoke with, although the impacts are more likely to be felt down than the road than in the present.

One is the retirement and pending retirement of the huge Baby Boom generation, said Altobello, adding that this constituency has two things the golf industry requires — time and, generally speaking, disposable income. And many have the wherewithal to retire early.

“The real factor for most people is time,” said Altobello. “If you have a family and you’re working, you just don’t have a lot of time. Anyone who’s retiring early, people in their late 50s and early 60s — that really helps out, and we’re seeing more of those people, men and women, out there.”

Spring in Their Step

It will probably be at least mid-April before they’ll be out on many of the courses in this region.

That later start will only add to the many challenges facing golf-course owners today as they deal with changing societal patterns, lingering effects from the recession, a time-challenged population, and, yes, the weather.

In this climate, ‘steady’ is a reasonable goal and, in the end, a good number on the scorecard.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Golf Preview Sections
Elmcrest’s Manager Puts Some Imaginative Spins on Golf Operations

Jim Haberern

Jim Haberern says Elmcrest has had to evolve from a somewhat closed society into one that’s much more open.

Jim Haberern called it his “temporary office.”

This would be the small, cluttered desk, chair, credenza, copier, and other pieces of equipment positioned in the center of what he termed the small-events room at the grille, or 19th hole, at Elmcrest Country Club in East Longmeadow, which he serves as manager.

Like the small room that is his permanent office, this space is getting a much-needed facelift. Indeed, as Haberern explained, while the club has undertaken many improvements over the years, some of the features would represent original equipment from when it was built almost 50 years ago.

“We’ve been doing a lot of painting and giving the place a new look,” he explained. “With the changes we’ve made, the room is much more versatile — and it’s also a lot cleaner, because just about everything in here had been here since day one. This was long overdue, and it was the right moment to do it.”

And just as the dance floor, some of the walls, ceilings, and woodwork from the club’s early days have required some change and modernization, so too have some of Elmcrest’s operating philosophies.

As Haberern explained, for decades the club operated as what he called a “closed society.” And by that, he meant the original core of members (only a few of whom remain) and the new members brought in on a steady basis until about 15 years ago, when those individuals started hitting 70 — and not on the scorecard.

As that group of original members dwindled in number, Elmcrest essentially had no choice but to become an open society, or at least one that was far more open than it and most other private clubs in this area have been historically.

And by open, he meant open to both new members of all ages and new ideas for attaining them. These have included many forms of marketing — something most private clubs had never done and some still refrain from — including print ads and sponsorship of a popular Saturday-morning golf show on radio station WEEI. But it also includes hosting more tournaments to introduce more people to the course and its amenities, and then giving participants a gift card good for another round, a practice that has paid off.

“Membership is moving in the right direction,” said Haberern, adding that there have been fairly steady increases over the past several years. “And a big reason for that is that people know who we are now. We were a closed society, and I had to open it up quite a bit.”

His efforts to continually cast a wider net continue with another new initiative aimed specifically at women. Noting that there are many professional women who may want to join a club but are reluctant because of their lack of golf skills, Haberern is putting together a package that would begin with lessons from a professional and eventually ease the individual into a golf membership.

Long-term, said Haberern, the unofficial goal for Elmcrest is to become more of a closed society again, meaning membership numbers closer to the 500 the club once enjoyed than the current 300. That day is still at least a few years away, he noted, adding that the economy is still far from fully recovered from not only the Great Recession, but the years just prior, when the golf industry started a decline that in many ways continues today.

So, for the immediate future, Haberern and his staff will continue to look for ways to be creative and keep this half-century-old club vibrant and on the cutting edge of new ideas on how to attract members and then provide them with value.


A Cut Above

Before talking about golf and the business that it is, Haberern wanted to discuss … carpentry.

Not the projects going on around his temporary office, necessarily, but the work of his uncle, Joe Pagos, who started Elmcrest with some business partners in the early ’60s.

Haberern said he started working at the club, and for his uncle, in the mid-’70s, when he was 10, and was soon handling odd jobs ranging from cleaning toilets to washing dishes to mowing greens. While performing such tasks, he did something that would pay dividends years down the road — watch, and, more importantly, listen to Pagos talk about business and serving people.

“Working with my uncle wasn’t easy, especially for a 10-year-old, because he was a very hardworking person and pretty demanding,” Haberern recalled. “But you learned his work ethic, his morals, and how things go. I’d have to say that it was probably the best education I ever had, sitting back or standing behind him and watching his business sense.

“He said, ‘I’m going to teach you everything; just keep your mouth shut and listen,’” he went on. “He taught me everything I needed to know, and mostly what he taught me was to be good to people, because if you are, they’ll be good to you.”

Such lessons served Haberern well when he assumed a leadership role in the family business in 2000. Learning the ropes from the ground up — not to mention all that insight from Pagos — gave Haberern a solid background in all aspects of a golf operation, and likely helped him interpret the warning signs about a decline in the industry that he started seeing as early as 1999.

“I could see then the golf business was heading for trouble,” he said, “and that you were going to have to do something more than open up the doors and expect new members to come in.”

In response to these trends, Haberern started taking the initiative, with some tactics that would have to be considered cutting-edge, if not well ahead of their time, when it comes to private clubs.

This included advertising, and, eventually, his strong presence on the radio, with a golf show that has the Elmcrest name attached to it. Haberern has also given the club a presence at the region’s annual golf expo, a stage usually preferred by public and resort courses open for general play.

“Almost everyone is doing things like that now,” he said of private clubs and marketing in general. “I was doing it five, six, or seven years ago; I’ve also liked to think outside the box.”

Other initiatives include being imaginative when it comes to tailoring membership packages to suit the needs of a specific demographic group, or even an individual.

To emphasize this point, Haberern showed BusinessWest a breakdown of current packages, many with deferred initiation, designed for families, individuals, younger individuals (there are two age groups, 30-35 and 19-29), seniors, juniors (ages 14-19), those on active duty in the military, and even those who live outside the area but have family here and visit frequently.

“I started hitting every demographic group I possibly could — kids under 30, people between 30 and 35 … before, clubs had individual and family memberships; now, I have a long list of them,” he noted. “Most people will fit into one of them, and if not, I can make one up for them.”

A willingness to take on more tournaments (but without negatively impacting members) has also benefited the club, said Haberern, noting that he is now staggering tournaments, starting earlier and ending later (Nov. 10 this year, with the seventh annual Marine Corps Breakfast & Golf Tournament) to achieve that result.

“I took a lot of dead time and filled it in with tournaments,” he said, adding that such outings bring in additional revenue — memberships certainly don’t cover all the costs at a private club — but, perhaps more importantly, also introduce players to the course, its clubhouse, and other amenities.

“Tournaments get people in the door,” he noted, “and that’s when you can give them information about the course and perhaps spark some interest. And with the free round you give them, we get a second opportunity to talk with them about membership or about bringing their own groups down for tournaments.”

The new initiative involving women members is something Haberern has been contemplating for some time, and he’s now ready to pull the trigger and implement it for this season.

“Everyone I’ve talked to about this likes the idea, and they think it will be well-received,” he told BusinessWest. “It’s a transition, from taking lessons to actually playing on a golf course. It should help people in business ease their way into the game and be less intimidated about playing.”


Course Correction

Haberern said he’s noted some improvement in the overall climate when it comes to the golf business.

“The economy has recovered somewhat, and people seem more willing to spend money on things like a club membership,” he noted, adding that it will likely be several more years before Elmcrest can be anything approaching that closed society he says it was years ago.

Which means he will continue to push the envelope when it comes to new and different strategic initiatives to brand Elmcrest and bring people to its front door and first tee.


George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Golf Preview Sections
15 Years in the Making, Cold Spring C.C. Opens for Business

Fan Du

Fan Du says its was views from the top of the hill, like this one, that helped inspire her father to make the long-stalled Cold Spring Country Club a reality.

After a number of false starts and mis-steps, the long-awaited Cold Spring Country Club in Belchertown opened its fairways this spring. There has been the expected curiosity factor among regional players, getting the operation off to a solid start, but management understands that the key to success isn’t getting the attention of the golfing community — it’s holding it.

Fan Du says there was a great deal of buzz, or anticipation, that accompanied the recent opening of Cold Spring Country Club in Belchertown — and with good reason.
After all, this track, located just over the Ludlow line in a former apple orchard, has been more than 15 years in the making. Over that time, there have been several ownership groups involved, a well-chronicled foreclosure, and enough fits and starts to prompt the residents of that area to wonder if the vision would ever become reality.
“People have been waiting a long time for this course to open — there has been a lot of curiosity,” said Du, whose father, Sheng Du, a successful businessman in China and avid golfer, is the man responsible for resurrecting the project. He was able to look past the problems, she said, and focus on both the incredible views from the hilltop where the clubhouse was eventually constructed — and also the vast potential of the property to become home to a golf course and much more.
The challenge moving forward, said Bill Tragakis, head golf professional and club manager, is to maintain and build upon that buzz, and channel it into what will become a multi-faceted business venture, launched during a difficult time for the golf business in general and the economy as a whole.
But the requisite pieces are in place or on the drawing board, said Tragakis, adding that the highly anticipated golf course is merely the first one to fall into place. Others include the club’s 19th hole, a restaurant now open to the public that was launched with expectations that it could become a popular destination for residents of Belchertown and surrounding communities, as well as a large banquet facility to be located further up the hill and a housing component that has no timetable as of yet but will likely be commenced when that sector improves.

Bill Tragakis

Bill Tragakis says Cold Spring is off to a solid start with both memberships and public play, and it will need continued support for those constituencies to be successful.

The success of each of these specific ventures, as well as the larger development, will depend on management’s ability to capture and keep the public’s attention, said Tragakis, adding that the golf course itself is off to a solid start with membership (more on that later), as well as public play, despite a rainy spring, and the restaurant is drawing positive reviews from those who have discovered it.
In both cases, the goal is to bring people back repeatedly, he explained, noting that every course in the region is confronting the same basic challenge, and must respond accordingly.
“The keys are impeccable conditions for the golf course and superb customer service, and that’s where our focus has been,” he said. “This club has a resort appearance, and that’s by design.”
For this issue and its focus on the region’s golf industry, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at the Cold Spring development, and why its managers look to the future with optimism and confidence born from a combination of persistence and imagination.

Designs on Success
Du, who has assumed a leadership role at the club with her husband, Willie Guo, told BusinessWest that one of the many assignments that had to be carried out over the past several months was selecting a logo for the venture, a branding mechanism now affixed to everything from ball markers to shirts; from golf-bag towels to a wide variety of head gear.
“There’s a lot that goes into this, and it took a while to create this look,” she said with a laugh, while displaying the eventual winner — the words Cold Spring juxtaposed against a leaf. The image contains several colors, including red, orange, gold, and a few shades of green, and it was chosen, said Du, to spotlight what is perhaps the club’s best selling point — the scenery, especially at fall foliage season.
It was the views at that time of year that captivated her father, said Du, adding quickly that the scenes from the top of the hill, which he discovered while looking for business opportunities in Massachusetts, were certainly not enough to prompt the requisite sizable investment in the project. Indeed, the initiative had to make good fiscal sense, she went on, something that outwardly appeared unlikely given the challenged state of the local golf industry and the prevailing opinion that this region was already saturated, if not oversaturated, with places to play.
But market analysis, not to mention instinct, indicated that there was room in the market for a higher-end, semi-private course that offered something distinctive, said Tragakis, formerly the pro at Hampden Country Club, adding that he believes that Cold Spring delivers those qualities.
The elder Du acquired the property in 2009, said his daughter, adding that preliminary construction on the course resumed soon thereafter, with grass put down early in 2010. Construction of the ornate clubhouse and a maintenance building commenced in 2011, and the course was open for business on May 1 for members and June 1 for the general public.
What the golfers have found is a test that is both stern and somewhat unique, said Tragakis, who points to the scorecard for some evidence. It has yardages for five tees, including championship markers that stretch the track to 6,521 yards. “And that’s the longest 6,521 yards you’ll ever play, because the actual yardage is somewhat hidden,” he said, noting that there are some uphill stretches, particularly the rugged par 4 18th, to go with some downhill holes, and a rare route to a par of 71.
Indeed, there are six par 3s (three on each side), and five par 5s, he said, noting that a typical par 71 would have four of the former and three of the latter.
The course architects, Armstrong Associates, located in New Mexico, essentially took what the land offered, and designed an intriguing test for players of all abilities, said Tragakis, adding that this is one of the many ingredients necessary to attract a large and diverse audience.
Overall, he describes Cold Spring as a mix of Crumpin Fox (in Bernardston) and the Ranch (Southwick), meaning the former’s tight, tree-lined fairways — which dominate the front side — and the latter’s open, sweeping fairways, prevalent on the back nine.
Thus far, the course has been successful in attracting both members and public play, said Tragakis, and it must continue to do both if it is to be profitable. “My goal is to make this golf course a fun, enjoyable experience for everyone,” he explained, “but especially for the members. We need them to come back, and we need to keep growing those numbers; that’s our rainy day money.”
The membership count now exceeds 200, and continues to climb each week, something unusual at this time of year, months after most area players have settled on a club to join for the year, he said, adding that many former members of nearby Hampden Country Club (now under new ownership) have joined Cold Spring. An attractive senior membership rate ($750) has attracted more than 70 people from that demographic group.
Meanwhile, there has been a steady stream of public play, with visitors from across Western Mass. and even Northern Conn., which Tragakis attributes to that aforementioned buzz factor, as well as some aggressive, targeted marketing.
The club has focused mostly on radio, including the expensive option of taking slots during Red Sox games and related programming, he noted, adding that the pitch line used at the end of each spot — “it’s the reason you play golf” — sums up how the club intends to differentiate itself.
The specific marketing message has varied through the first several months, he went on, adding that in the late winter and early spring, before the season started, the club was focused on memberships. Later, the emphasis was on the fact that the club had opened for play, and most recently, the accent has been on stressing that, despite its appearance (including the elaborate stone entranceway now under construction), Cold Spring is in fact open to the public, as is its restaurant.

Aggressive Course
And that’s important, because attracting golfers is just part of the success quotient, said Du, adding that there will eventually be several components to this venture.
For starters, there’s the club’s restaurant, called simply the 19th Hole Bar and Grille, which, like a growing number of facilities at public and semi-private courses (including The Ranch and Crumpin Fox), is open to the public and will be in operation year-round.
Ron Riopel, food and beverage manager for Cold Spring, said the restaurant is relatively small (just over 70 seats inside), but can accommodate more than 120 on a large patio that boasts sweeping views of the course and the hills beyond, and will likely stay open until at least mid-fall.
Beyond the scenery, the outdoor area will feature live music on many evenings (a ‘Caribbean Night’ was staged recently), and a menu Riopel described as “simplified but elegant.”
Elaborating, he noted that the fare extends well beyond traditional post-round food (most of it fried), and includes such options as pan-seared Pacific Ponga, a Vietnamese white fish.
The 19th Hole opened to members and the public on June 1, and like all new eateries, went through a breaking-in period, during which kinks were worked out and staff members came fully up to speed, said Riopel, adding that, as with the golf course, there has been a curiosity factor surrounding the restaurant that has prompted many area residents to take the drive up the hill.
And, also like the course, repeat business will be a function of delivering a quality experience, he continued, noting that he believes the facility should fare well in a region that doesn’t have a deep roster of competing restaurants.
Tragakis said some of the recent marketing has made reference to the dining element, underscoring its importance to the overall operation. “We have focused on food and beverage in these spots,” he explained. “We’re not going to forget about golf — we’re still a golf course — but public dining is a big part of what we’re doing, and I think the restaurant will do very well.”
Other components of the Cold Spring business plan are on the drawing board, to one degree or another, said Du, who told BusinessWest that plans are being developed for a banquet hall that will sit above the clubhouse.
The facility will be large in scale, and meet what she considers a recognized need in the Quaboag Valley region, she went on, adding that there is no immediate timeline for construction.
The same can be said for a housing component that most experts say is a key to the success of any large golf operation. There is considerable land on which to build houses or condos, she noted, adding that market analysis is currently ongoing, and it is likely that work will begin over the next five years.

Successful Roll Out
If all the pieces fall into place as expected, Cold Spring will become a formidable player in the large and seemingly ever-changing local golf market, said Tragakis.
He acknowledged that the industry is faced with many challenges — from the still-sluggish economy and its broad impact on discretionary spending, to stagnancy and even retreat in the number of people taking up the game, to the vagaries of the weather.
But venues that succeed in creating enjoyable and memorable experiences can overcome those issues, he continued, adding that Cold Spring has enormous potential to do just that.
“The view from up here is good,” he said, using that term in both a literal and figurative sense, “and we think it’s only going to get better.”

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]