Hitting Its Stride
GreatHorse Moves Strongly Out of the Gate
More than three years — and $45 million — after what started off as a basic renovation of the Hampden Country Club golf course, GreatHorse has made its debut. This new name is not followed by ‘golf club’ or ‘country club,’ said President Guy Antonacci, because it is much more than the former, and is not the latter, in the traditional sense of the word. Instead, management is calling this a ‘lifestyle club,’ and say it more than meets that description.As Guy Antonacci remembers things, it was supposed to be just a “facelift.”
That was the term he used to describe what his family, owners of USA Hauling and a number of other business ventures, intended to do with Hampden Country Club when they acquired it at auction in early 2012.
The initial plan, he told BusinessWest, was to take a club, opened in 1973 and that was, by most accounts, tired — an adjective that could be applied to the course, clubhouse, and practically every other aspect of the operation — and make it far less so.
They started with the sand traps, eventually investing more than $2 million in work to refurbish them. But as that undertaking progressed, it became clear that the work couldn’t stop there.
“This project has evolved 10 times,” he explained. “It started with bunkers and drainage, but then you realize the bunkers don’t match the grass on the greens, and they don’t match the fairways. You re-grass the greens, and then you say, ‘the greens are 40 years old; we’re putting all this money into everything else … we might as well redo the greens.
“That facelift … well, it turned into full-blown plastic surgery on the entire body,” Antonacci, the club’s president, added with a hearty laugh, noting that what happened on the course also transpired with the clubhouse, added amenities (everything from a pool to bocce courts), and a new, separate banquet facility a few hundred yards from the first tee.
Roughly $45 million later (no, that is not a misprint), GreatHorse — a name chosen in a nod to one of the family’s many entrepreneurial pursuits, a horse-breeding operation — is ready for prime time.
Well, sort of. The course is open, but work continues, specifically on a redesigned, lengthened, and toughened finishing hole. The rambling, 25,000-square-foot clubhouse, described by Antonocci, the club’s president, as “mountain rustic,” is getting some finishing touches, especially in the pool/cabana area and those aforementioned bocce courts, but is otherwise ready for members. The banquet facility is still under construction, but there have already been a number of bookings, and the first wedding is expected early next year and perhaps by the holidays.
As for those members, there are already close to 600 of them, said Antonacci, who stressed that he was counting individuals, not memberships (there are roughly 170 of those). And he’s quite proud of that distinction.
Indeed, the name Great-Horse is not followed by ‘Country Club,’ ‘Golf Club,’ or anything else, he said, and for a reason. It is not designed to be either of those, in the strictest sense of the words.
Instead it is what he called a ‘lifestyle club,’ one that is already appealing in a huge way to families.
“I think a big part of our early success is owed to the fact that we’re very kid-friendly,” Antonacci noted, listing facilities and activities ranging from a playground and pool to a planned kids’ movie night. “The golf-only model, or the old country-club mentality, clearly hasn’t worked in this region over the past 10 to 15 years; we’re calling ourselves a lifestyle club, and we want activities for not just the husband and wife, but everyone, right down to very young kids.”
GreatHorse, the facelift that became a full-body makeover, was designed to be different, and it has already succeeded in that mission, said Antonacci, adding that members and potential members alike recognize and appreciate the difference between this facility and more traditional clubs.
The facility is opulent, to be sure — from leather seats on the golf carts to individual wine lockers in the 160-seat dining room (there are 24 of them, and only a handful remain to be sold) — but also casual, or “comfortable,” as Antonacci put it.
That means jeans are allowed in the dining room and the men’s lounge, complete with its majestic views and mounted deer and elk heads (many of which are trophies Antonacci has bagged himself), and there is no prohibition on cell-phone use, as there is in many clubs.
“We want members to feel comfortable; we want members to feel relaxed,” he explained. “We don’t want guys to feel like they’re walking on eggshells; we want it to be an extension of your home.”
For this issue and its focus on luxury living, BusinessWest paid a visit to GreatHorse, a tour that certainly revealed why this facility with the great view is worthy of that designation ‘lifestyle club.’
Going to Great Lengths
Antonacci has some simple advice — some might call it a warning — for those looking to kick the tires on GreatHorse and see what all the fuss is about.
“If you don’t intend to join, you probably shouldn’t visit this place,” he said with a voice that blended sarcasm with a strong dose of seriousness.
The implication was clear, and those sentiments have been backed up by the club’s strong performance out of the gate. Indeed, those who do visit — and have the wherewithal to join the high-end club — are finding it difficult not to eventually sign on the dotted line, Antonacci said. “We have a very high close’ rate.”
That’s because there is much more to tempt potential members than the course, although that’s a good place to start. Other selling points include everything from massage rooms in both the men’s and women’s locker rooms to the 30-odd TVs scattered around the facility; from the view out the back of the clubhouse to the many aspects of the operation that make it family-friendly.
And it all started with that bunker-restoration project in the late spring of 2012.
Turning the clock back more than three years, Antonacci said his family, always looking for solid business opportunities, set about finding one in what most would consider an unlikely place, literally and figuratively, at that time.Indeed, the golf industry, which had been thriving in the years after Tiger Woods appeared on the stage in the mid-’90s and gave the game a huge dose of adrenaline, was still suffering mightily several years after the Great Recession took a severe toll on public courses and private clubs alike.
A number of area clubs were either officially or unofficially for sale, and Antonacci said his family looked, to one extent or another, at several of them, including Hickory Ridge in Amherst and Crestview in Agawam.
The search eventually ended at Hampden, a course and a club that had certainly seen better days but had a spectacular view and what Antonacci described as “good bones.”
What was on those bones obviously needed some work, though, and it eventually came in waves, and in many respects mirrored the experiences of the homeowner who does over one aspect of a room and then realizes this necessitates other steps. And when that room is finished, the others must be made over as well.
So it was with GreatHorse.
While creating a championship golf course, the new owners decided they needed not simply a makeover of the clubhouse, but something new, big, and bold.
“Originally, we were going to fix up the banquet hall and generally leave the old building as is,” Antonacci said. “But we knew that, to do it right, we would have to get rid of the old facility, and that’s when we decided to go full steam ahead with building a new clubhouse.”
And while Guy and one of his brothers, both avid golfers, essentially presided over the course makeover, the new clubhouse was a family affair.
“Everyone got involved,” he recalled, adding that the firm given the assignment to design the clubhouse, Portsmouth, N.H.-based TMS Architects, was given some simple instructions — design something elegant and distinctive, yet also “casual.”
And by all accounts, it delivered, with a facility that includes a full fitness center, a salon, the massage rooms, and a Dale Chihuly chandelier near the front entrance.
“It’s upscale enough to charge what’s being charged,” Antonacci explained, adding that the structure looks more like it belongs in the Rockies than in Western Mass. “But it’s laid-back enough to where you can come, kick your shoes off, relax, and not have to worry about rules.”
Billy Downes remembers carrying two of those old-style (and quite heavy) leather golf bags at one time when he caddied at Hampden just after it opened.
That’s why, when it was suggested that the course, with several steep climbs, is difficult to walk, he just smiled.
Downes has a long history at Hampden. He caddied there, played out of the course, and was its pro, after an earlier stint at nearby Elmcrest, when the club went on the auction block in 2012. He told BusinessWest that the creation of GreatHorse has stimulated a great deal of interest and speculation across the region, and in some ways it has re-energized the local golf market.
“I’ve been in the golf business my whole life, and on this end (being a club pro) for the past nine or 10 years, and I’ve never seen in that time what I’m seeing here,” he said. “People come in, whether they’re from another club in this area or not, and their attitude is totally changed. They’re excited — they’re excited to play golf again, they’re excited to be here … it’s fun to see.”
And the course itself is a big reason for this enthusiasm. Redesigned by noted course designer Brian Silva, it is now easily among the best tracks in the region and is already being mentioned as a potential U.S. Open qualifying site and host of state and regional tournaments such as the Mass. Amateur.
Capable of being stretched to just over 7,300 yards, the course maintains, for the most part, its original routing, but is otherwise entirely new. That includes dramatic makeovers to the first and 10th holes, which featured blind tee shots down the mountain and were widely criticized by players.
“It’s a great test of golf for people of all ability levels,” said Downes as he offered a quick tour. “We’ve created what is sure to be a great golf experience.”
To ensure that goal is reached, the club is planning a large teaching facility, and has constructed a huge practice area and three putting greens.But Antonacci and GreatHorse General Manager Bryan Smithwick stressed that there is much more to this facility than the course. Indeed, the tour revealed everything from a huge outdoor patio area with five TVs to two semi-surround golf simulators, suitable for lessons and playing a host of courses virtually; from the massage areas to the so-called ‘club room,’ complete with several large TVs, which Smithwick described as an ideal setting for fantasy-league draft nights; from the huge pool area to a tennis and paddleball complex currently under construction.
Overall, the clubhouse and adjoining facilities were designed with the same philosophy as the golf course — to provide an enjoyable experience.
And everything in the package has to succeed with that goal, said Smithwick, adding that as much attention is paid to the food and wine being served as there is to the grass on the greens.
“You can have all this,” Smithwick said, gesturing to the golf course seen outside the windows of the men’s lounge, “but if the food doesn’t match, you’re not going to be successful.”
The goal is to make the club a nearly year-round operation (it will close just after the Super Bowl next February and re-open a month later for March Madness) and to become a family’s restaurant of choice.
Officially open just a few months now, the club has caught the attention of the buying public, said Antonacci, adding that the more than 170 memberships sold thus far far exceed the goals and expectations for this date.
“In the beginning, maybe six or eight months ago, we were saying that we’d be happy to get 75 or 80 memberships to start, and they’d bring their friends, and everything would catch on the second year,” he recalled. “We thought the first year was going to be extremely light, but that hasn’t been the case at all.”
And when one does the math and divides the number of members by the number of memberships, it’s clear that GreatHorse is appealing to its intended audience — families.
They hail from several surrounding communities in Massachusetts and Connecticut, and even one from Boston. Thus far, the club has relied solely on word-of-mouth referrals, said Antonacci, adding that more formal, targeted marketing is planned.
When asked about the overall goal for memberships, Antonacci said common sense will ultimately dictate a number.
“A lot will depend on activity — some people play once a month, others six days a week,” he noted. “We’ll probably cap the golf memberships at 275 to 350; once we sense that the place feels crowded, we’ll shut it down. One thing we want to avoid is a guy showing up on Saturday morning and not being able to get out for several hours.”
Antonacci didn’t get into any details on rates, offering instead to qualify the price structure. “We like to say that we offer Rolls-Royce value at Audi prices.”
Antonacci said that most of the golf publications and other types of periodicals that might review the course and the overall operation won’t do so for at least a few more months.
And those at GreatHorse want it that way.
They would prefer those writers and editors to see and experience a finished product, and, as mentioned earlier, this one isn’t quite finished.
But it’s not too early to declare this one of the more intriguing regional business stories of 2015 and a venture that, like the horses that inspired its name, will run hard and fast in a crowded field of competitors and likely emerge a big winner.
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]