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November 2020

Montclair Golf Club

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Like Flowing Water, Montclair Golf Club Finds A Way

By Steve Eubanks

Market forces are always unpredictable. But there is one thing in business that’s surer than an eastern sunrise: government intervention in the private sector hurts at least as often and with far more intensity than it helps.
 
That has been especially clear during the COVID-19 crisis where, on the one hand, government funds helped businesses make payroll and keep the doors open during the worst of the shutdowns, but on the other hand, mayors and governors made a lot of seemingly arbitrary decisions about which businesses could open and which ones had to remain closed. Politicians, in the name of public health, picked winners and losers without much debate.

Thankfully, golf in most areas landed on the winning side. Outdoors on hundreds of acres, golf, with certain protocols, was no more dangerous than walking your dog. And while most cities and states recognized that fact and opened the game early, some still imposed top-down edicts that left operators scrambling. 

One of those courses was Montclair Golf Club, a private, walking club in New Jersey, 20 miles west of the Statue of Liberty. In a normal year, you might never see a golf cart at Montclair. Caddies would loop with every group and the exclusive club would pride itself on never taking a tee time. Members could get a game without any mess or fuss. The four nines were interchangeable, so it was like having 12 courses in one facility.

But New Jersey governor Phil Murphy, a former Goldman Sachs executive and ambassador to Germany, ordered golf shut down throughout April, normally the first decent golf month in the Garden State. Then, according to Roger Bacon, the general manager at Montclair, “We reopened in May with a lot of restrictions and our golf program had to go through a lot of changes.”

Those changes included pausing the caddie program and bringing in enough carts so that every player could ride alone. 

“The governor of New Jersey also required that you have 18-hole courses and that you have tee times,” Bacon said. “So, we scrambled and got all that done.”

It was quite an ordeal, especially for Bacon, who was new to Montclair. “I arrived at the same time as the pandemic, although no one blamed me for it,” he said.

Thankfully, the story has a happy ending. Like much of golf throughout the country, members, guests and management adapted on the fly. Like flowing water, those who love the game went around, over, under and through all obstacles to keep golf going.

“Our members were so thirsty for a diversion and for something that would get them out and safe, we felt confident that business would be good (when we reopened). And it was,” Bacon said. “In the beginning, we had no caddies, we restricted guest play and we allowed one person per cart. Then, slowly, (the state government) eased those restrictions.”

Members still can’t use the clubhouse, but New Jersey allows outdoor dining, which has worked out wonderfully at Montclair. With a large wrap-around porch, there is plenty of seating. They also have ample room for outdoor events and activities.

“The Fourth of July is normally huge for us and, of course, everything was shut down this year,” Bacon said. “So we did fireworks on Labor Day. In New Jersey you can have outdoor gatherings of up to 500 people and we have a huge property, so it was no problem to do this with social distancing and other measures in place.”

Montclair also has another advantage. As onerous as some of the restrictions have been in New Jersey, they aren’t New York.

“We didn’t lose any members and in fact our membership roster is growing,” Bacon said. “We have a lot of members who live and work in Manhattan, but we’re finding a lot of people who are, quite frankly, fleeing the city. And we offer something that’s really hard to find right now, sort of an island oasis within this private club.

“There’s a sense of community here. We have a staff that is very conscientious about social distancing and wearing masks, so people feel very comfortable coming here. As a result, we were as busy this summer as we were last.”

It’s a story that has been repeated throughout the country. Despite lockdowns and restrictions that saw some courses close for the bulk of the season (Yale Golf Course in Connecticut, for example, was closed all summer, even after other outdoor activities in New Haven opened), rounds of golf nationwide remain relatively unchanged, according to data compiled by several analytics agencies and the National Golf Foundation.

Still, there were modifications, even at places like Montclair. “We did all the things other people did – take-out and drive-up food service, and we had a grocery business and all that stuff,” Bacon said. “Our range is very spread out, but we cut the number of hitting areas in half. Our instructors became no touch and used launch monitors and other devices. And our golf shop is doing really well and has been throughout the year. The Montclair logo is more popular than ever.

“The great thing about this industry is that we don’t have customers, we have members,” Bacon said. “So even though we closed for two months, our members put together a huge pool of donations to help our furloughed employees (during the shutdown). So (the membership) not only paid dues, they paid extra to help our staff. We’re very proud of the commitment of our members. It was an amazing experience to witness.

“We were very fortunate. We were able to ride out the storm.”

But Bacon also struck a note of caution. “Going forward a lot (of our business) will depend on government.”

Unfortunately, that too is a nationwide theme. And that is not a place any operator wants to be.

 

 

 

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