The business of golf – A golf course with an option to buy . . .

Alan Prescott
May 31, 2021

“On a cold morning in April of 1981, John stood in the driveway of his recently-leased golf course with his newly-acquired golf license, wondering if his golf management skills would be enough. “

Fernandina Beach Golf Course

In my last article, John’s efforts had earned him his 3A Turf and Ornamentals License, a requirement in order to apply the chemicals and other materials necessary to care for a golf course. His success on the examination was both exciting and frightening. Throughout his journey in the business of golf, there was always a “go-to” person, someone who would listen to his challenges and concerns and then advise him of them. Not that John didn’t study, learn, and execute. There were days, weeks, and months when John would fall asleep at his desk or after making another half dozen sets of golf clubs after working a full 16-hour shift.

Now, it was a totally different scenario. John had leased a golf course from a wealthy family, who owned thousands of acres, motels, buildings, and, most fortunately, a golf course that John could lease for 2 years with an option to buy. The lessors were a family with an elderly widow, her daughter (an attorney), and her daughter’s husband (also an attorney). The attorneys ran the “family” business. Their wealth was derived from the family patriarch, then deceased, who had worked very hard to accumulate a lot of money. In 1939, he had $39 million in the Chase Bank in the small village of Saugerties, New York. After decades of hard work, his one business wish was to be on the Board of the Bank. He was turned down and, perhaps while he was standing in the Bank, requested to withdraw all of his substantial assets “at once”. With the patriarch’s passing, the family circled the wagons and decided to liquidate most of their property holdings, including their golf course.

Then, John enters the picture. He leased the golf course, but his lease only included the cart barn with a small office and bathroom facilities only in the clubhouse, immediately adjacent and across the parking lot from the cart barn. On a cold morning in April of 1981, John stood in the driveway of his recently-leased golf course with his newly-acquired golf license, wondering if his golf management skills would be enough to operate a golf course with limited golf course maintenance skills, well-used golf course equipment (that required immediate refurbishment), a limited staff (that had significant mechanical skills and problem-solving capabilities), a borrowed tractor, and a fiancee who supported him as much as anyone that John had EVER known.

Each year, Ulster County, New York holds a County golf tournament, called the Herdegen. Four golf courses are chosen in an annual rotation and one round is played on each course. The Sawyer Golf Club that John was running was formerly a private golf club. Long before, the top soil was stripped from the fairways and sold to a local mushroom farm. The golf course suffered and, shortly before John came on the scene, it was eliminated from the tournament due to its poor condition. Shortly after his lease began, John and his small Staff recovered the golf course to excellent condition (in less than 3 months) and held the “First Annual Sawyer Amateur Open”. A 2-day event, it was a huge success. Tee times were full. The scoreboard was professionally constructed. Whatever John didn’t purchase was borrowed from the local merchants that John had patronized for the golf course. There was one item that was a little “different” for a golf event. The starter’s table was on loan from a local funeral home (no kidding!!). John didn’t realize it until he went to the tent to start the tournament. No one said anything about it and John figured that it was because they were so happy to have the Event that they didn’t dare mention the Starter’s Tent.

In the Kingston Daily Freeman the next week, the Sports Writer said that John’s efforts had fully recovered the golf course to tournament play and recommended that the Sawyer Golf Club be restored to the Herdegen Tournament rotation. It was a testimonial to John’s work in earning the abilities required to run and maintain a golf course facility. In addition, in the year before John leased the golf course, the pro shop sales totaled only $7000. In the first year of John’s lease, the pro shop sales totaled over $83,000.

After two busy years, John went to his father’s estate to borrow the money to purchase the golf course. His mother, who ran the estate replied, “I am NOT going to buy ANY golf course”. John moved on and leased a golf driving range in Guilderland, New York and rented a house from the golf range owner. Later on, he found out that the owner was a “connected” bookie. With the one-year lease nearing an end, he approached his mother, again and received the following decision on his requests for funding, “I am NOT buying a driving range”.

With John’s recognition in the Kingston Daily Freeman and with his huge success in running the leased driving range in Guilderland, New York, he was home , again, in the area of Upstate New York that he had chosen after his father passed on Thanksgiving Day (November 24, 1977). In the coming years, John used his lifelong golf skills to give back what he had learned in the golf business.

On a cold winter night in 2020, John was sitting at the kitchen table in an older, but paid for, mobile home, a singlewide trailer. It was snowing hard. As he watched the snow rapidly fall and accumulate to a height of some 33 inches, a smile broke out on his weathered face, followed by a torrent of tears that ran down his face. It became a good cry because that was when John realized that he had finally graduated from his last course and that he had finally earned his “Master’s Degree in the School of the Business of Golf”.

At the outset of John’s journey, I promised to ask a single question. Indeed, the journey of any golf professional is uniquely different. There are those, such as Karsten Soleheim, the deceased but impactful owner of the Karsten Manufacturing Company, the manufacturer of PING golf clubs, who never turned professional in golf. Yet, these “non-professionals” had a profound and significant effect on this great sport. The contributions of these individuals, as well as those, who have never been recognized in any press release or honored with any awards, have frequently been thought of as the “backbone of golf” by at least this writer herein. They are definitely the “silent majority” in the development and success of the game as well as the “Business of Golf”.

So, my question to all of you is “Who is John”?

In my next and last article in this series, the Epilogue, John’s identity is revealed, but not before a final discussion about the “Business of Golf” and how it relates to the Fernandina Beach Municipal Golf Course.

As always, I am Alan Prescott. I can be reached for comments and questions, AND, the one-word answer to the question above at [email protected]

Please be safe, stay healthy, and give me your answer.

Editor’s Note: Alan Prescott reached out to us after reading a recent article on the Fernandina Beach Golf Course. His articles are being well received by golfers and non-golfers. We thank Alan for his contribution to the Fernandina Observer.

On Tuesday, June 2nd, I will begin my next trip to the Fernandina Beach Municipal Golf Course, arriving the next evening. I hope to see many of the people who play this golf course to gain more knowledge of the course, and field your comments and listen to your suggestions. Any positive and open discussion will be much appreciated, as will be any sharing of ideas. Thank you to those who have spent their time reading my articles and who have taken time out of their day to respond.