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February 2024

Northampton Country Club

Recognized as Jemsek National Course of the Year

By Steve Eubanks

Like many of these stories, it starts with a third owner, although there have certainly been more than that. Northampton Country Club, nestled in the Western Massachusetts village of Leeds along the Mill River, is 125 years old, first welcoming golfers in 1898 when Leeds was the textile part of Northampton.

It was a mill club, one of thousands that dotted the American landscape in the late 19th and much of the 20th centuries. Towns developed around industry – textiles, steel, automobiles, even paper mills – and executives created recreational facilities for themselves and the citizenry. Mill softball teams made national news throughout the 1950s and 60s, and every town of 2,000 or more had a YMCA. Golf was part of that. Many of the 9-hole courses on the East Coast were built by mill or mine owners so that executives and laborers would have something to do after the workday whistle. 

Jim Casagrande wasn’t a part of those days. He’s been at the 18-hole Northampton CC for just over a quarter century, having been the golf pro there for 20 years before becoming the club owner in 2016, long past the halcyon days of American textiles.

“I’d been the golf pro here for 20 years and been through a couple of owners during that time,” Casagrande said on a snowy Monday from the golf shop he and his family now own and run. “The second owner, he was the bank and had inherited it back, so there was some motivation there (to sell).”

That’s where the third-owner principal comes in. Many clubs, especially those built with high-interest debt and a real-estate component, claim a developer as owner number 1 and a banker as owner number 2 after the place goes belly-up. The third owner usually understands the market and buys the course for a number that makes sense.

Despite Northampton’s long and rich history with many more than three owners – “a lot of famous people have played out here over the years,” Jim said – the Casagrandes still fit that third-owner mold.   

“We started out with a lease agreement, which really doesn’t work for golf courses,” Jim said. “It took about a year and we came upon an agreement to purchase the club in July of 2016.”

Since then, the family has been doing everything. Chrissy, Jim’s wife, can be found in the kitchen prepping dinner specials or in the office balancing the books. If Jim isn’t in the golf shop, he can be found on a tractor or clearing brush behind one of his greens. The Casagrande’s daughter, Anna, who is an exceptional amateur player in the New England Golf Association, is sometimes behind the counter, or cleaning carts, or running beverages around the course when needed.

“They’re hard-working people who put everything into the course,” Anna said of her parents. 

And because of that hard work, devotion, and general decency, Northampton Country Club is the recipient of the 2023 Jemsek National Course of the Year Award.  

The Jemsek award is named after the late Joe Jemsek, the godfather of public golf in the Chicago area and one of the most admired men in the industry. Jemsek’s crown jewel, Cog Hill, is still considered one of the best public courses in America, and his company, Jemsek Golf continues to own and manage clubs throughout the country. 

The NGCOA awards the Jemsek National Course of the Year based on four criteria: the quality and condition of the golf course, the quality of the ownership and management, the contributions the club makes to the local community, and the contributions the club and its owners make to the game of golf overall. 

On all fronts, the Casagrandes pass the test.

They are also humble servants. Jim and Chrissy were stunned to learn that they had won.

“My daughter (Anna) thought we should be nominated,” Jim said. “I honestly never thought about it because I was just (keeping my) head down doing operations and trying to do the right thing.
 
“When I came here, the thing that struck me was that the members are just so nice and have such an allegiance to the course. They want it to do well. That drew me to the conclusion that (buying the club) was the thing to do.

“This is our 125th year of operation and I feel like I’ve been here for 100 of them. We have a rich history. But, honestly, it had slipped from where it was. I saw it as a gem in the rough. I knew the potential.”

Course condition was something that Jim knew well, and he wasn’t averse to hard work on that front. But the real turnaround came in food and beverage. 

“The biggest change was the 19th Hole,” Anna said. “That did a total 180. I credit that to my mom who took it over. For as long as I could remember growing up there when my dad was the pro, it was mostly hotdogs and hamburgers, typical golf food. My mom came in and hired a couple of cooks and she cooks herself. We have specials every week and she’s great at marketing that.

“The banquet facility has really exploded, too. The last couple of years, we’ve been pretty booked up, which is cool. We have three floors (in the clubhouse), and the top floor is the banquet (room),” Anna said. “It was dark and dreary. She brightened the whole place up. It’s really pretty up there now. You can see the whole golf course. She capitalized on that and did a full renovation. She has a great eye.”

Chrissy came to Northampton by accident. A former office manager for a local firm, her salary and benefits were part of the family’s original business plan. But Chrissy’s employer closed down, which turned out to be a godsend. She came to the club and made all the right changes.

“I can’t tell you how invaluable she is,” Jim said of his wife. “We would never be where we are today without her. I would never be where I am without her taking such an interest.”

The community support has also been impressive. Like most New England towns, the folks in Northampton know good people when they see them. Golfers in the area could sense that the Casagrandes were doing the right things for the right seasons. And they have responded in kind. 

“Our membership has been so loyal and great,” Jim said. “We’re just above 300 members, and we’ve gained members every year (that we’ve owned the club), which has been tremendous. I’d like to think that once you join here you don’t leave. Many of our members have never been members anywhere else.”

The course is semi-private, but all league play is member based.

“It’s a yearly membership fee that allows you to play unlimited golf,” Jim said. “Lots of juniors and families. A lot of seniors. We have a lot of everything. Mix in the public play a little bit each day and it’s a going business.”

Last year, the family expanded the clubhouse and added two simulators, which are always booked. And the food operation continues to expand with dinners six nights a week and talk of making it seven. They have card games on Tuesday and Wednesday nights, football specials through the weekends in the fall and winter, and special events filling the gaps. 

“It’s a tough business to be sure,” Jim said. “You have to be careful what you spend. But we’ve been very fortunate. We’ve progressed nicely and been fortunate with the loyalty of our membership and the support of public play.”

As for the Jemsek Award, Jim remains humble.

“I’m not a pat-on-the-back kind of guy,” he said. “But it does feel good to get that kind of recognition. We are what we are, but my goal is to make our product as good as possible.”  

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