Richard Lord | Tee to Green: Wahconah Country Club transforming to fit the times
With a shrinking population in the Berkshires and a trend to less golf participation in recent years, the members' board of directors at Wahconah Country Club came to the conclusion that a new business plan was needed to assure the club's long-term future.
"Golf has been on a downward trend and things were similar at Wahconah," said board Vice-President Jim Scalise, who is the owner of SK Design engineering firm. "Albert Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results,"
Led by board president Sue Morrison and Scalise, an energized board and membership has undergone a transformation that included restructuring management and starting what Scalise believes is a three-to-five year marketing plan.
"I was pushing for change and we decided to take a different look at things," said Scalise of the board. "The board was meeting monthly starting in mid-November and since mid-January we have been meeting once a week. We have less members than before, but we are getting more participation. We have a really strong, passionate membership."
The restructuring of management included going without a head professional — former head pro Peter Egarzian has moved on to be the director of instruction under Josh Hillman at Taconic Country Club — and hiring member Matt Morrison as the new club manager, former Cafe Riva owner Aura Whitman as the new caterer and Mike Salinetti as the course superintendent, replacing longtime superintendent Jeremy Stachowicz.
"There were changes that the board wanted to make and this was something I thought I could help and assist in," said Morrison, the former highly successful football coach at Wahconah Regional High School.
"There's been a steep learning curve for him having to deal with a new caterer, new staff and an increased role in tournament management," Scalise said.
So far, so good as those who play in next weekend's Little Brown Jug best-ball event — arguably the county's most popular summer tournament — will see. The course is in great shape, a renovation of its cart paths is almost complete and the members are clearly involved and energized.
"There's no victory lap yet, but I am optimistic about the future," Scalise said.
Though there is no head professional, Morrison said the golf shop if "fully stacked" to fill any golfer's needs. Jim Underdown, the owner of Downswing's Indoor Golf Center and the head pro at Wahconah prior to Egarzian, is helping in that effort.
When it was decided to part ways with Stachowicz, the board eventually decided on Salinetti as a perfect fit as his replacement. Thus far, he has done a great job, though admittedly with the help of Mother Nature, following up a nighmarish winter in 2014-15 with a perfect winter that has had a positive impact county-wide this summer.
"I've been here since 1974, and I've never seen the course better," Morrison said.
"I've known Mike since high school and he's a great guy," said Scalise of Salinetti, the former Berkshire Hills Country Club superintendent. "He originally came to talk to us about the club manager job, but his passion for this course was hard to ignore. He grew up across the street and said this was his dream job."
The board is also taking advantage of the backgrounds and experience of its members as it builds for the future.
"I am an engineer, Paul Briggs has retail experience, Paul Mitchell is a former pro, our treasurer, Doug McMahon, is an accountant and Bob Allesio is the former CEO of Berkshire Gas," Scalise said, though he's getting plenty of help from others as well.
"Lots of members have made donations and [Betnr Engineering and Construction Vice President Ron Carver] did the cart path renovation," Scalise said. "Members have also helped us with painting, plumbing and flooring."
One point of emphasis has been to get more public play and progress has been made.
"Matt has been working with Golf Now and that has given us more internet exposure," Scalise said.
The club's card program, introduced over the past few years, has also proved successful. The $1,000 cards include discounted golf and cart rates and they have also introduced a corporate card that has also led to more outside play.
Morrison said the club has also added some golf outings with two big events coming in September — the Matt Torra tournament on Sept. 10, which benefits youth sports, and the Hillcrest Educational tournament on Sept. 30.
The club also wants the public to partake in Whitman's food offerings.
"We are offering breakfasts on the weekend and we are open all week," Morrison said. "We've always been open to the public and we'd like to encourage non-golfers to come out and have lunch or dinner."
Though there isn't a head professional, Scalise said that longtime area teaching pro Mark Duane and others are still giving lessons. Duane, with the help of former Wahconah High star Jon Jewell, Briggs and others recently held a junior clinic that attracted 26 young golfers.
While all this has been going on, the club has been getting ready as usual for the Little Brown Jug, a 54-hole best-ball event that will run from Friday through Sunday.
As usual, there will be a full field of two-man teams — in recent years there hasn't been room for every team that wanted to play — with plenty of low-handicap players from all over the country.
"Last year we had golfers from 27 states and there will probably be that many represented again," Morrison said. "We have someone from Oregon, two from California and one from Washington, so we have the West Coast covered. There are also players from the Midwest."
Nearby Connecticut will be well-represented by the two-time defending champions, Brent Dietz and Bill Tefft, among others.
Dietz and Tefft one last year's tournament on the first hole of a sudden-death playoff with Berkshire Hills Country Club members Randy Driscoll and Jeff Puleri, who will give it another try this week after winning the Country Club of Pittsfield Invitational in June.
Other top teams include New York's Chad Stouffer and Matt McCarroll, who now lives in Texas; Bob Linn and Jamie Cimini; and Scott Hurley and Briggs, who will try to win one for the "home" team.
Picking a winner in a stacked championship flight, however, isn't easy.
"Last year, in the championship flight the highest combined handicap of the teams was 8.1, this year it is 6.1. It's a stronger field at the top," Morrison said.
Once the tournament concludes, Scalise has an invitation for the county's golfers.
"Come on out and play our course, it's in great condition," he said.
To contact Richard Lord:: 413-281-2226 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.