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Golf Industry Adjusts to a Changing Climate

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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]

Sections Sports & Leisure
Cautious Optimism Prevails as a New Golf Season Gets Underway

GolfDPartDave DiRico hadn’t been in retail for very long — just over two years, actually — but that was long enough to know that something unusual, and perhaps historically bad, was going on.

“January was terribly slow,” said the former club pro turned owner of Dave DiRico’s Golf & Racquet in West Springfield, formerly Fran Johnson’s. “And in February, we were closed for seven days due to snowstorms; it was tough.”

Like area car dealers and others in the retail sector, DiRico was feeling the effects from an interminably long, brutal winter, one in which consumers mostly stayed indoors and kept their wallets in their pockets.

But when the calendar turned to March, said DiRico, people started coming out again. And then, Golf Digest printed its annual “Hot List,” a rundown of the year’s new equipment, with the TaylorMade SLDR driver earning five stars in each of four categories, something that had never happened before.

“The Hot List comes out the first week in March, and people really pay attention to that,” said DiRico, adding that, while the SLDR has been his best seller this spring, many lines are moving, people are replacing equipment they bought from him just two years ago, and, overall, he’s off to his best start to a year.

He and others are choosing to view these early signs as harbingers of what could be a turnaround year for an industry that has seen the adjective ‘beleagured’ attached to it for the past several years.

“I don’t know where golf is going in the years to come — I don’t think anyone does, and that’s the big question, “ said Ted Perez Jr., long-time pro and co-owner of East Mountain Country Club in Westfield, a public facility. “I’m optimistic, but that’s my nature, I’m always optimistic.”

But there are still a number of challenges remaining for an industry that has never fully recovered from the recession that started six years ago, and has endured several difficult seasons weather-wise, with everything from tornadoes to heavy rains to last summer’s prolonged heat wave, and is still in a state of flux.

And for Perez and several other owners and operators, the new year is already off to a slow start.

Dave DiRico

Dave DiRico says golfers have a good case of cabin fever, and that could translate into stronger sales for his store and a solid start to the new season for area courses.

Indeed, East Mountain, famous for being open whenever the ground is clear of snow, is usually open by St. Patrick’s Day, if not before, and has long stretches during winter when the course is playable. This year, the track was open just a few days in January, due more to cold than snow, and also on Super Bowl Sunday. “But things turned south in a hurry after that,” said Perez. The official opening was March 28, and the next three days saw torrential rain, heavy winds, snow, and sleet.

Most area courses are looking to open on or about April 10, putting them somewhat behind schedule at a time when there is little margin for error, as competition for what has become a stagnant, if not declining, pool of area golfers has intensified and area clubs have turned to discounts and promotions to bring people to their first tees.

And some believe these specials are making it more difficult for area courses because the buying public has becoming increasingly less willing to pay full price, and a time when margins are tightened and expenses are spiraling.

At the Ranch Golf Club in Southwick, one of the region’s high-end, semi-private layouts — greens fees average $100 — long-time pro Hope Kelley has seen people arrive at the pro shop looking for bargains, and sometimes getting back in their cars if they can’t find one, something that just didn’t happen years ago.

“People will come in and say, ‘what’s the real rate for today?’ It’s like Hotwire nonstop,” she said, referencing the website that helps consumers find cheap deals on flights, hotel rooms, and travel. “Unfortunately, that’s pretty much taken over the whole golf industry, just as it’s infiltrated into the restaurant business and the recreation business, and it’s a tough thing.”

Dave Fleury, managing partner and leader of a group that acquired Crestview Country Club two years ago (see story, page 26), agreed, and said the discount pricing and various coupon books that enable golfers to get rounds at many area courses at substantially reduced rates, while good for consumers, are in some ways hurting the industry.

“Golf, as an industry, is going through a very interesting time, and with some of the things that are happening, like these deals, whether it’s one of these Internet companies or these cards or books, they’re almost creating the feel that golf is a commodity,” he explained. “And, in fact, golf is not a commodity. Every property is so very unique, every course is so unique; they all have their strengths and weaknesses, and some are more fun to play than others, and some are better-conditioned than others. This is not a commodity.”

For this issue and its annual golf preview, BusinessWest looks at projections for the season ahead and at the many challenges that continue to face area club owners and professionals.

Rough Going

Perez, who has spent most of his life working at the course his father carved out of the hills just east of Barnes Municipal Airport more than a half-century ago, said he used some of the considerable downtime from this longer-than-normal offseason to look at some recent numbers, especially last year’s, and attempt to decipher what they were telling him.

The first part of the assignment was rather sobering.

“The numbers [of rounds and overall revenues] from 2010 to 2013 were dramatically lower,” he said, adding that, while this was not a news flash, the extent of the decline was more excessive than he’d anticipated. “And last year was an off year; the number of outings was the same, but overall, play was down.”

Ted Perez Jr.

Ted Perez Jr., the pro at East Mountain Country Club, says the trend toward deep discounts and specials is making things more challenging for area courses.

As for the reasons why, he said there are many, and they include the weather — lots of rain in the spring and hot, muggy weather through July — as well as the lingering recession and, for East Mountain, problems with three greens (6, 12, and 13) that were damaged in the application of an herbicide during the summer.

But he believes numbers are down industry-wide. “Anybody in the golf business who says they had a good year last year is flat-out lying,” he said with a strong dose of confidence in his voice. “Nobody had a good year.”

Kelley said volume was down at the Ranch last year, and weather was a big reason reason why. She said a good fall helped rescue the season to some extent, but business was off probably 2% to 4% for the region as a whole, and the Ranch’s numbers were in that ballpark.

The question now becomes, will it get better in 2014? The quick answer is usually ‘yes,’ but with the typical caveats, with weather at the top of the list.

“In this part of the country, about 80% of our revenue has to be made in a five-month period — the second week in April to the second week of September,” said Perez, noting that, while early fall saw good weather last year, many players had put their clubs away by then. “It’s during those five months that you’re at full capacity, there’s more daylight, the leagues are playing. This is when you have to do it, and in recent years, we just haven’t been doing as well.”

By ‘we’ he meant East Mountain, but also the industry in general. He said the recession is still a factor, but the bigger issues are stagnancy in the number of players and relentless competition for consumer dollars.

That competition has led some clubs to take what Fleury called “desperate measures,” such as deep discounts on everything from individual rounds to club memberships, with some positive results short-term, but real question marks about the long term-impact.

“Golf is going through the unfortunate circumstance of having to deal with a really poor economy,” he explained. “And in a poor economy, people may do things from a general business sense that they wouldn’t do otherwise because they feel forced into it, and I think that’s what we’re seeing.”

Kelley said the “Hotwire mentality,” as she called it, presents challenges, but also some opportunities, especially during off-peak times of the day and the season.

“You have much longer days in summer, so there’s more inventory you can sell,” she told BusinessWest, adding that the Ranch does offer what she called “qualified promotions” (she doesn’t like to use the term ‘discount’) to help fill the tee sheets and expose new audiences to the course.

But Perez clearly doesn’t like the way things are trending.

“I think the golf industry in this area is hurting itself by running too many specials, at least low-priced specials,” he said. “The golf ‘passbooks’ that are going around are hurting the business; they’re lining some people’s pockets, but they’re not helping the golf courses.

“These things cheapen golf in the area,” he went on, “and it schools everyone to think they should be able to play for $12 — golf, cart, lunch, dinner, and more. It’s gotten out of hand, and that’s why you’re seeing fewer clubs in this area take part in these anymore.”

The discount pricing and intense competition challenges all clubs, public or private, because it forces them to maintain current pricing levels even as the cost of doing business continues to rise, with everything from payroll to insurance to fertilizer.

“Any business shows that, if your expenses go up, you are supposed to pass that expense on to the consumer, somehow, some way,” said Perez, who is nothing if not candid and outspoken about what he’s seeing in his industry. “And that means going up a dollar or a half-dollar on greens fees. But you can’t do that anymore, because if you do, people will go down the road to the guy who has a better special.”

Recovery Shots

Moving forward, club pros and owners we spoke with said their facilities have to become proactive, aggressive, and imaginative when it comes to operating their courses, bringing players to their pro shops, and introducing the game to various audiences, especially women and young people.

“To me, golf is very healthy,” said Kelley. “We have a goal within the PGA of America to try to grow the game and get more people to play the game; golf is still a very popular sport, and golf professionals across the country are doing their best to offer programs that appeal to the masses.

“And that’s what I want to focus my energies on,” she continued. “At the end of the day, if we can bring more people to the golf course, that’s what really matters.”

Elaborating, she said the challenge for individual clubs, and the industry as a whole, is to do more than just bring people to the club. The focus must be put on what she called the “experience,” and getting visitors to return — to that club or another one.

“The glass is half-full as far I’m concerned, not half-empty,” she went on. “I’m optimistic that there will be a lot of people playing golf. Yes, there are a lot of courses competing for players, but I’m rooting for everyone — I don’t care if you’re a muni (municipal course), private, or public. At the end of the day, it’s all about the game of golf.”

Perez summoned that well-worn phrase ‘thinking outside the box’ to sum up the challenge, adding that, in some cases, it means going back to basics, such as with customer service and marketing.

He noted that East Mountain was one of the first area courses, if not the first, to market itself extensively, especially through cable television, and also one of the facilities to see a dramatic benefit from such exposure.

“My dad said we should be doing advertising on television,” he recalled, adding that this was in the ’80s, cable was still in its relative infancy, and the notion of the courses taking to the airwaves to promote themselves was a novel concept. “It really made a hell of a lot of difference; we went from being a little busy to a lot busy in a year.

“When we first got into it, our brand-new ad was being shown at 2:30 in the morning on CNN,” he went on. “But we learned how to do it. And when your ad is in the middle of a golf tournament on the Golf Channel or one of the networks, you’ve got a captive audience; that’s going to reach a lot of people.”

Beyond marketing, the club will look to continue to find ways to control and cut costs without impacting the quality of the experience, and create repeat business.

“You have to make the most of the opportunities that you have to show people a good time and make them want to come back,” he said, speaking for everyone in his business as he did so.

Driving Force

As he talked with BusinessWest about his start to the year and thoughts on what happens next, DiRico kept referring to what he called an “improved forecast.”

Initially, he was talking about weather, and how, after roughly 15 weeks of misery, the mercury was ready to soar past 40 — and stay there.

But he was also talking about projections for the industry as a whole.

This business has been playing out of the rough for several seasons now, and its score, the bottom-line results, clearly show it. Challenges, and many of them, remain, but there are indications that the industry’s lie, and its fortunes, might be improving.

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

Cover Story
Crumpin-Fox Club Focuses on Providing an Experience

Mike Zaranek

Mike Zaranek says Crumpin-Fox is a thought-provoking golf course, meaning that one needs a game plan to attack it.

Mike Zaranek describes the Crumpin-Fox Club as a “thought-provoking golf course.”

And by that, he meant that one can’t — or shouldn’t — plan on muscling their way around this picturesque track in Bernardston, just outside Greenfield. Rather, they have to think their way around.

“There’s a lot of shot-making that’s involved here,” said Zaranek, the head golf professional, gesturing with his hand to the 18th hole as he looked out on the course from a seat at Zeke’s Smokehouse Grill, the club’s 19th hole. “It’s not a bomber’s golf course where you hit your driver on every hole and try to get it as close as you can to the green. This course makes you think off each tee, and on every second shot as well.”

And just as the player needs a strategic plan for taking on this Robert Trent Jones Sr. creation, Zaranek and the rest of the management team needs one of their own to enable the club to continue growing at a time of stern challenges and mounting competition in the golf industry.

The essence of that plan is to let the course become not merely a destination, but an experience, said Zaranek, adding that it does this naturally, through its views and challenges, both of which create lasting memories.

“Each tee you stand on, and each green you look back to the tee on, is like a postcard,” he explained, adding that this effect is heightened by many changes in elevation and is especially dramatic at fall-foliage time. “There is a uniqueness to it, and that’s what brings people back.”

Repeat business is obviously one of the keys to success for any golf operation, but it’s especially critical for one that charges just under $100 a round for public play — which accounts for roughly 60% of the business at this semi-private course — and is tucked away in one of the most remote areas of the state, just a few miles from the Vermont border.

The Crump’s eighth hole

The Crump’s eighth hole forces the player to make a number of decisions.

Thus, the staff puts the accent on the total experience — from the golf to the meal afterward — and also on both driving first visits (which often prompt return trips) and convincing players that Crumpin-Fox should be a more than a once-a-year course.

“That sentiment is summed up in one of our marketing slogans — ‘minutes away, worlds apart,’” said Zaranek. “We’re a destination, but we don’t want to be just a destination; we’d love to have people visit us two, three, or four times a year. Overall, we want to make this an experience, one that you’ll enjoy and want to mark on your calendar every year.”

For this issue and BusinessWest’s annual Golf Preview, we take an indepth look at what is still a hidden gem, and Zarenek’s efforts to make it less so.

 

On the Hole

The eighth hole at ‘the Crump,’ as it’s called, is certainly one of the more thought-provoking holes on this 7,023-yard layout.

There is water along almost the entire left side of this lengthy par 5 (nearly 600 yards from the tips). And the decision making really begins after the drive, even if it’s a very good one.

The player is faced with the option of hitting a safer mid-iron to a still-relatively wide section of fairway for a third shot of roughly the same length over the lake to a narrow, undulating green, or bringing out more artillery and hitting down to a narrower strip of fairway, leaving just a wedge onto the putting surface.

There are many such decisions to be made on this course, which offers what Zarenek described as a Pine Valley-like feel, if not look, although it has some of that, too.

This is a reference to the George Arthur Crump-designed track in Southern New Jersey that is generally regarded as the world’s most difficult course, and one of its very best. The comparison doesn’t involve degree of difficulty — although Crumpin-Fox is certainly challenging — but rather the notion that every hole is an entity unto its own, with other holes rarely visible from tees, greens, or fairways.

“Each hole is set in its own scenery here — you play that hole, and then you move on to another piece of scenery, and that’s what we mean by a Pine Valley-like course,” Zaranek explained. “You barely see the group in front of you or the group behind you all day.”

The overall tightness of the layout also contributes to that description.

“At one time, especially on the back nine, it was basically the tee, the fairway, about five feet of rough, and then there was brush, the jungle,” he noted, adding that the course has been opened up somewhat over the years, but still demands accuracy. “What you see is what you get in front of you.”

This was the general idea when, in 1969, area businessman David Berelson engaged the services of Roger Rulewich, a noted golf-course architect then with Robert Trent Jones Inc., to locate a parcel for a destination golf course.

The current site in Bernardston was chosen, but the project stalled and didn’t begin to take shape until 1977, when Andy St. Hillaire, owner of Mohawk Plastics, bought the land and project, completed what are now the back nine holes, and built the present clubhouse.

The name Crumpin-Fox, said Zaranek, was derived from some of the old soda bottles found on the property as construction of the course commenced. The Bernardston-based Crump Soda Co. was eventually sold in 1853 to one Eli Fox, he noted, and then renamed the Crump & Fox Soda Co.

In 1987, St. Hillaire sold the club to William Sandri, president of the Sandri Co., which owned a number of gas stations in Western Mass., Vermont, and New York, and would eventually diversify into a number of business sectors, including real estate, clean-energy products, and golf.

The company now has three courses that operate under the name Fox Golf. The others are the Fox Hollow Club in Trinity, Fla., which opened in 1994 — its 18th hole was at one time rated the number-one par 4 in Florida by Florida Golf Central magazine — and Fox Hopyard in East Haddam, Conn., which opened in 2001.

 

Round Numbers

All three clubs operate under the same model — that of a semi-private course that has members but is also open to the public at most times during the week. Zaranek said this model is perhaps the most successful in golf today because it offers both the stability provided by a core of members (that number is roughly 235 at Crumpin-Fox, one Zaranek said he’s comfortable with) and the flexibility and additional revenue opportunities that come with making the course open to the public.

Membership at Crumpin-Fox has been steady, with relatively little fluctuation in the number in recent years despite turbulence in the economy, said Zaranek, adding that the public-play component of the equation has been more impacted by the downturn, as well as a number of other contributing factors.

These include everything from the weather — which has both helped and hurt; the 2012 season began on March 23 (a record for the Crump) after a nearly snowless winter, but the hurricane of 2011 took a heavy toll — to new competition in the destination-course market.

Indeed, while the pace of new-course construction has slowed in recent years, some additions in the eastern part of the state, especially a new cluster of tracks in the Plymouth area, as well as the Ranch in Southwick and some new venues in Connecticut, have had an impact on play in Bernardston, said Zaranek.

“From Route 3 down to the Bourne Bridge, they built 15 or 16 golf courses since 1997, and that took some of the traffic we used to get from the Boston area,” he noted. “We still get some, though, and we’re seeing those numbers climb because people are expanding their visions, and they’ve played all those new courses. People say, ‘have you ever played Crump?’ and once people come out here once, I think they like putting us back on their docket.”

Last year, even with that early start, the club recorded roughly 19,000 rounds between members and guests, he told BusinessWest, adding that, in banner years (such as the late ’90s), volume has exceeded 25,000, and the present goal is to get closer to 22,000.

To get there, the general strategic plan for the course, which hasn’t really changed since it opened, is to convince players from maybe a 75- to 100-mile radius that Bernardston is not that far away, and certainly worth the time and trouble for a course that is unique and challenging.

And this is the message being sent to a host of constituencies, from smaller groups (a foursome or two) to larger entities, such as leagues or clubs, to charitable organizations planning fund-raisers. The club already hosts a number of events, said Zaranek, including a large gathering for Big Brothers Big Sisters and another for the It Takes a Community foundation.

While the Crump name certainly resonates within the Western Mass. market, it is still somewhat of an unknown commodity in other areas, especially with younger golfers, he continued, adding that one of the club’s stated goals is to build brand recognition across the region it serves.

With each of those aforementioned constituencies, the key is providing value — and an experience — that will drive repeat business, Zaranek explained, adding that this goal, or mission, has prompted improvements ranging from extensive renovations to Zeke’s Grill, including the addition of a smoker, to an ongoing facelift in the locker rooms.

“There are a lot of elements that go into making a club successful,” he explained. “And you have to make each guest that comes through feel like a member that day, and make them feel like they had a great experience. And that all has to gel together. We keep trying to improve everything we do every day.”

Long-term, the club is exploring a possible expansion of the clubhouse and perhaps the addition of a large pavilion for outings, he said, adding that many events are currently staged under tents erected on the driving range.

Course of Action

Zaranek said the club has historically strived to be open by Masters weekend, the unofficial start of the golf season for those in the Northeast.

Looking out on a course that still had a number of areas covered by more than a few inches of snow, he said that goal is likely within reach (the Masters is set for April 11-14), but some assistance from Mother Nature will probably be needed.

She has already contributed a dramatic setting that has contributed to those postcards Zaranek described, and given the Crump a strong selling point to draw players for what will likely be the first of several visits.

“It’s one of the most unique, pretty, and, yes, demanding golf courses that you’re ever going to play,” he said in summation. “You don’t go away forgetting many of these golf holes as you play them.”

 

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

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