Keeping Score: Saving par
On Monday morning Allen Boudreau of Hinsdale, N.H., grabbed the clubs from the back of his pickup, slung the bag over his shoulder and trekked up to the first tee of the Northfield Golf Course. “Thumbs up,” he said of the nine-hole circuit. “I’ve had memberships at lots of courses and this is about the nicest around.”
Norhfield’s Rob Ross had already finished his morning round and sat inside the gazebo where the smell of fresh grass clippings and the haze that shrouded the distant mountains portended another hot summer day. “No traffic,” he said of the quiet ambiance.
Meanwhile, Artie Burke was taking practice swings on the first tee and waiting for the group in front to clear. Burke, who won the Mass. Junior championship in 1968 and 1969, has been a member at Northfield for six years and is aware of the recent ownership change.
“NMH should be commended for its stewardship,” he said of the previous owner. “There are some missing features, some bunkers that have been filled in but generally the course could easily be returned to its original form.”
Passersby can still see the white wood-framed sign with black lettering that beckoned golfers decades ago. It hangs on the corner of Route 63 and Holton Street, suspended by a black lamppost with cupped light bulbs on both sides, an anachronistic reminder of an era when Northfield was in its heyday.
The course was built in 1901 to complement the Northfield Inn, an elegant four-story resort with an expansive dining room, swimming pool, sledding area, ski slope and ice skating pond. It’s the same nine-hole layout today as it was in 1912, the same year Fenway Park opened and Harvard beat Yale 20-0 to clinch the national championship.
Two years ago, there was some question whether the course would survive NMH’s amped-up effort to sell the 152-acre property, including four houses and the swimming pool, for $1.25 million. One real estate ad enticed developers by mentioning that “The land and golf course has potential for an excellent residential subdivision and further development.”
Northfield has been called “a lakeside community without the lake” by residents who relish the quiet enjoyment of living in a town that still drapes U.S. flags from the telephone poles, has church suppers and community picnics and invites townsfolk put out chairs for the holiday parades.
The prospect of having their land bulldozed for apartment buildings was enough to scare some into hatching a plan to buy the property themselves. “It’s a lot of money, but if a bunch of us shared the expense we could probably pull it off,” Northfield’s Annie Chappell told The Recorder’s David Rainville. “We could get it before a developer does and then decide what to do with it.”
Good as it sounded, maintaining a golf course is more than mowing lawns, weed-whacking and choosing pin placements. In Greenfield, the once-popular Meadows Golf Course was on the market for $570,000 and the mayor was considering buying it for reasons as dichotomous as “putting a carousel there,” or expanding the sewage treatment plant.
Speculation ended late last year when NMH said it was in negotiations with Greenfield businessman Ed Snow Jr., whose landscaping company had been the course’s groundskeeper since 2011. After the sale was finalized, he hired his daughter Shelby Snow to be the general manager.
Shelby Snow graduated from Widener University in Pennsylvania and her degree in hospitality management dovetails nicely with her ambition to put a bed and breakfast in the Victorian manse known as the Dickerson House, which is located in the triangle between the fifth, sixth and seventh greens.
Turning the five-bedroom house where heads of school once lived into a B&B is a three-year project. Meanwhile, she said, “We’ve changed the pricing of pool membership to make it more affordable and we’re going to start promoting weddings and company parties. We have horseshoe pits, a basketball court, shuffle board courts, walking trails ... all for a wider range of people.”
Mostly though it’s about the golf, and on Monday morning the parking lot was nearly full. Cookies were free inside the clubhouse and golfers out on the course could fend off the humidity by patronizing what’s popularly called “the beer truck.”
“The course needed some love and attention,” said Ross, who founded the Northfield Golf Camp when Bill Tenney was the club pro. “It’s manicured nicely, perhaps the nicest in the county although there are people who would say the same thing about Crumpin-Fox and the Country Club (of Greenfield).”
The fairways and greens are entrusted to superintendent Joel Monette and assistant Devin Szoc, who arrive at dawn and dodge tee shots all day. “Our feedback’s been that the guys that manage the greens and fairways do an amazing job,” said Snow. “They’re fixing bunkers, repairing tee boxes. It’s a never-ending process, piece by piece.”
Boudreau concurred. “Those guys are out there hosing all day. I have asthma and most courses I need to take a cart but here the ground’s soft. It’s easy to walk.”
NMH was likely to bide its time until someone like Ed Snow came along who wanted to keep the historic property’s legacy intact. He is to the town what Robert Kraft was to the Patriots when they were on the verge of being relocated to St. Louis.
“Wherever you go you see what they’ve done is Grade A,” said Ross. “The course’s playability is marvelous and I’ve seen a lot of new faces, and that’s a good sign.”
Indeed, and people are optimistic that the best is yet to come.
Chip Ainsworth is an award-winning columnist who has penned his observations about sports for four decades in the Pioneer Valley.