By Jeff Liebler, photo credit Chel Photography

Editor’s Note: This profile is the second in a series which showcases NJSGA member clubs and their approach to success. If you would like the NJSGA to consider your club’s unique story, please contact us.

Steve Taggart drove past Harkers Hollow Golf Club in Phillipsburg every day on his way to work at the Shawnee Inn and Resort just across the Delaware River in Pennsylvania. He watched as the once vibrant club and impeccably maintained course gradually descended into terrible condition. It was put up for sale, and finally up for auction. Taggart, a graduate of the Rutgers University Turfgrass program, felt sad to see this magnificent, historic club, founded in 1929 by the first president of the PGA, Robert White, in such a state.

Since the mid-2000s, Harkers Hollow had fallen from being a prestigious club with a strong membership to a course that charged only $10 to play – and received awful reviews online. Two unsuccessful ownership groups led to a total deterioration of playing conditions, to the point where virtually no one enjoyed playing there. By 2016, the clubhouse and pool both had closed and the future was bleak. Eventually, the property landed in the hands of an auction house.

In late 2017, Taggart and Joe Manley – the golf professional at Shawnee – were among a small group who attended the auction for the club. They were joined by Jason Hartline, Joe’s assistant at Shawnee, and Bill Mandrey, a local attorney who had belonged to Harkers Hollow.

The group won the bidding, but could not immediately complete the transaction because of outstanding tax issues. They stayed on the deal and eventually got ownership via a sheriff’s sale. What started as an $800,000 purchase became a $1.2 million dollar investment after clearing up all the outstanding issues. They were now able to examine, up close, what it was that they had bought.

They found a course with no equipment, not even a shovel or a rake. There were no carts. Grass on the putting greens was five inches long, and there appeared to be no sand in the bunkers. Even the clubhouse had been ransacked for anything useful. So, the team started where they could. They brought their lawnmowers from home to cut the greens, and they spent $30,000 to buy a few pieces of used maintenance equipment. They did their best to make Harkers Hollow playable, and re-opened the course in April of 2018.

At the time, green fees were $20 on weekdays and $30 on weekends. The team’s strategy was to be up front with customers about playing conditions, promising that “every time you come back it will be a little bit better.” Their only marketing was via Facebook and email from an outdated member list. They took every dollar that came in and slowly put it back into the operation, buying carts, equipment and adding staff to work on bringing the course back to life. When 2018 ended, despite tireless work on the course and its infrastructure, the club was barely surviving.

Over that winter they were perplexed about out what to do next. Taggart and Manley had the same book sitting on their desks. It was called Golf: The Untapped Market — Why the Pros Are Failing to Grow the Game. Its author, Chuck Thompson, was a marketing guru who began in the health club industry and had embraced the notion of making memberships more affordable for casual consumers while helping club owners grow their business. The book was an adaptation of his health club concepts applied to golf club memberships.

The Harkers Hollow group at this point was light on cash and decided they had nothing to lose by at least listening to Thompson’s concepts. They spoke on a Monday and Thompson asked the group for their location. On Thursday he called them back and seemed to know everything about the golf market in their area. They listened more intently to his outside-the-box approach.

Harkers Hollow was entering its 90th year and Thompson advised the group to offer Anniversary Memberships for a limited time. The deal required a three-year commitment of only $49 per year, paid up front, for unlimited golf. The only limitations were that if members took a cart, they were required to pay $18 per round, tee time reservations could only be made three days in advance, and play on weekends had to start after 11am. Their jaws dropped as they digested the idea. The targets of this campaign would be casual and occasional golfers who only play six or so times per year, and the offer was only available from February thru June. On the surface, the idea seemed crazy.

In spite of the plan’s unconventional nature, the group thought about it and realized that this would still allow them to have full memberships for the prime tee times, while others could still be offered through tee time services. With nothing to lose, they decided to give it a shot. Thompson told them to get ready for the phone to ring off the hook. He was right. The response was overwhelming, and quickly brought in the cash infusion that was desperately needed to improve the course.

Harkers Hollow also created a Platinum level membership at an affordable price which included full tee time access seven days in advance, use of the beautifully refurbished pool area, and significant discounts in the pro shop and restaurant.

As cash came in, they purchased more equipment to improve the course. They began by working on the greens and bunkers to make them playable and challenging, which had traditionally been a hallmark of the club. Slowly but surely, conditions improved and players started to return. Each time they did, they found the original promise to be true — the course was a little better than the last time they had played.

The 2019 season ended with the club in an improved financial position. Some of the Anniversary Members had even upgraded to full Platinum Memberships. The team made next level plans for upgrading the course’s irrigation and teeing areas and anxiously awaited the arrival of 2020.

Two weeks into the 2020 season, the pandemic hit. Course closed. What now? Luckily, New Jersey's Paycheck Protection Program allowed them to keep staff and actually have an excellent spring growing season, which helped the course get better without constant play on it. Then, in May, when they were allowed to open, they were quickly booked from dawn to dusk. The great comeback story continued.

Two prominent golfers who are watching and rooting for this comeback are Peter Dachisen, Harkers Hollow’s head professional for over 30 years, and Bruce Young, who at one time was Dachisen’s assistant and is a three-time winner of the NJSGA Mid-Amateur Championship – including in 1995, when it was held at Harkers Hollow. Both spoke glowingly about the course and the wonderful people there. They described the course as having small, fast greens with a great collection of par-threes that made it hard to score on.

Buying a golf course is always a challenging enterprise. The purchase of Harkers Hollow certainly met that description and then some, but these professionals have faced all the hurdles with dynamic plans and determination. As they get ready for 2021, they continue to re-invest every available dollar into restoring this classic course and keeping memberships affordable. The original motto is still their promise: “It will be a little bit better each time you come back.”

Jeff Liebler is a past-president of the New Jersey State Golf Association.

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