We’ve all become way too familiar with news of a golf course closure. Though inevitable, I learned this morning of another planned closure that hit close to home.
The club I grew up at, where I learned the game from my father, taught my sons the game, won and lost club championships, made friends and some foes, went to weddings and bar-mitzvahs and spent many idle hours shooting the breeze in the pro shop, on the patio or in the bar, Blue Ridge Country Club in Harrisburg, PA will be shutting its doors in favor of mixed development at the end of the 2017 season. It’s where I made my first par, first birdie, broke 100, 90, 80 and 70 for the first time and where my boys (pictured above-2008) experienced many of the same thrills. The club had been on “life support” for a number of years.
Though we relocated and I left the club 7 years ago, I suspected this day was coming, back in 2008 when club leadership first decided against investing in improvements to the club and again a few years later when the impact of the great recession, poor leadership and management and declining levels of service precipitated the sale of the club to a developer. Blue Ridge as we knew it died peacefully after an extended illness.
My grandfather was one of the original members back in the late 1930’s when Dr. Ben Gainsburg and a few others decided to purchase the existing golf course, reportedly designed by George Morris because Jews were not welcome at the other clubs in Harrisburg. The club thrived for many years as many of the Jewish Community leadership (like my grandfather) supported the club even though they didn’t play golf (or any other sports). As a junior, I remember there was one Gentile member and I remember that our club focused on hosting competitive events that were open not only to other private club members, but public players as well. I always liked that.
Like any club, ours had its share of interesting characters, with names like Horace Goldberger, who changed his grips regularly or multiple time club champion, Phil Patz, who after his playing days I never saw at the club without a sport jacket, even when he was hitting chip shots at the practice green. There was Dr. Andy Panko, a great player who could hit a 1 iron longer than most of us hit driver. There was Marc Luft and Dr. Ben Chotiner, who I mostly remember having a lot of laughs with. Dr. Gainsburg, himself a member of my grandparents generation was the root of more stories than I could ever choose from. From my parents generation guys like Eddie Rubin and the Isaacmans, Woolfs and Morrisons made up some of the families that I played golf with through the years. I certainly remember that many of them had attractive daughters my age. As a junior in particular, I remember some of the wonderful and beautiful women who were not only very nice to me but also fun to play golf with, like Babara Morrison, Alice Spector and many time women’s club champ Rita Berman. I never had an issue with women on the golf course. I was lucky enough to have won the junior club championship and club championship and see both my sons win junior club championships as they grew up.
Like the rest of the members, I survived the destructive clubhouse fire in 1982 that took many sets of golf clubs and (interestingly) numerous other items of value, and the uninterrupted play of the Thursday Afternoon six-somes that went off on schedule immediately thereafter, despite no clubhouse, much to the amazement of the local newspaper. I fondly recall Chef Mario’s great fare, especially the veal parmigiana. I remember our legendary 45 year golf course superintendent Whitey Suttles, with whom I played lots of golf and was always amazed as he shot near par all while picking up every piece of debris that might lay on the course and radioing one of the crew to syringe a green that might be too hot as he made putts from everywhere. During the fire, Whitey refused to allow the fire fighters to pull their hoses across”his” silky smooth and fast greens, which were legendary on their own in Central PA golf circles. I remember golf lessons as a junior from the old pro of Scottish descent, Bob Dunn, who was later succeeded by his son Jim and a few others until after the fire. Then, (Senator) Pete Micklewright came along and stayed. Pete has been the GM the past few years but I’m told will return to one more year as Head Pro, before retiring. Pete was the absolute best I ever saw at avoiding controversial questions, and has told more than a few stories himself, some which can’t be shared in this forum.
I almost forgot the evening some years back I was privileged to play with longtime Blue Ridge assistant Rob Shuey, Steve Wolf, and assistants Scott Stoltz and Ryan Garrity. You see, I played quite well that day, in the company of all those pros, shooting 71 with 4 birdies. Unfortunately, only one was worth a skin as Shuey made 6 birdies and two eagles enroute to a course record 62! A few beers were hoisted that night.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention the pool, where I swam as a kid under the watchful eye of “Coach” Roger Goodling and where my kids learned to swim from the legendary Mike Mausner. I would also be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that during the “swimsuit” season, I was not above taking a walk by the pool. There were the beautiful clay (later Har-Tru) tennis courts where my dad taught my sister and I to play tennis and then showed off the form that (despite not having played in 25 years) won him many important championships in his youth. I remember the calls he got after that seeking his participation as a doubles partner. I remember the wait staff, bartenders and others who always looked out for us when we were kids and took great care of us as adults. In the 60’s and early 70’s they still had caddies, and I remember names like Goop, Teddy and Slim as being the “characters” of that crowd.
As time and society evolved, the 1980’s and 90’s brought debate on whether the club should retain its jewish identity or continue diversifying membership. Diversity won the debate, mainly out of financial necessity, but to the dismay of the older generation. In about 2000, the club reached a peak of membership, from which it slowly declined steadily until the sale in 2012.
Many of these names will only be familiar to those of us who grew up at “The Ridge” but there are also numerous other members I played with a good bit through the years like Lee Esser (whom I met as a kid when he was an assistant pro), John McNair, Bill Wishard and many others that may not be named but aren’t overlooked.
The important thing for club leaders to understand is why clubs fail. When they do lots of people and good relationships are impacted. Sometimes, we tend to view clubs only as recreational facilities and we obsess about the greens, the rules, the food or the furniture. The bottom line is that a club as defined by Dictionary.com as “a group of persons organized for a social, literary, athletic, political, or other purpose:” Many of the clubs that are failing today are because they have developed a culture of customers. Accordingly, when a club makes decisions, the physical plant is important but preserving the community that is any club is critical. These decisions have to be made as if the members own the club, which they do. The late Robert Dedman of ClubCorp used to say that “clubs are run like nobody’s business, because they are nobody’s business.” At Blue Ridge, that community was not preserved because there was no reinvestment in the club, the members didn’t take “ownership” in the club and the “community” fractured. Now, it’s just memories. There are obviously many more and most are good memories but it’ll be tough the next time I drive by and see assisted living facilities, townhouses, single-family homes, stores and a park where all these memories were hatched.
I hope other clubs can learn from this, develop a culture of ownership and avoid such a fate. Blue Ridge, Thanks for the memories.