Editor’s Note: This profile is the third 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.
The Knoll Country Club (West Course) in Parsippany, which boasts one of the most fascinating stories in New Jersey golf annals, is set for an inspiring future.
The Township of Parsippany-Troy Hills, which owns the layout, regained management of the both the West and East courses on January 1, 2020, and Mayor Michael Soriano and the town council promise to restore the notable Charles Banks course to its former glory and make its impressive clubhouse into a centerpiece facility.
“The Mayor and council want this to be the best semi-private/public facility in New Jersey,” said Kevin Brancato, a former business supervisor, who was appointed general manager of the facility in January of 2020. “We are committed to making this a great experience for golfers and residents.”
Big plans are on the drawing board, including a new irrigation system that will improve the current system from 300 sprinkler heads to 1,300 heads at a cost of $2 million, funded through a bond project with no taxpayer dollars involved.
“The new sprinklers will allow us to grow rough in areas we haven’t had grass before, and that's just part of the project,” said PGA Head Professional John McCarthy.
“We are in the process of expanding greens back to the original Banks’ design. We’ve already completed the sixth hole, and plans call for green expansions on holes 12, 14, 16 and 18. We also want to restore the Banks’ Biarritz design on the 13th hole.
“The USGA was here recently. They feel the course plays pretty much as a Charles Banks course should,” McCarthy noted. “We have a championship design, and within five years, we’ll be on par with some of the best private clubs in the area. Right now, the focus is on the conditioning and rehab of the course. We have total faith in our superintendent, Matt Siegrist.”
Originally conceived as an ultra-private club for a group of 50 wealthy individuals, the course was designed by Charles Banks, one of the foremost course architects of his generation. Work began on the golf course in 1928 and featured the MacDonald-Raynor-Banks philosophy of large, undulating and elevated greens and deep bunkering. When it came to the clubhouse, the club hired Clifford Wendehack, the most famous clubhouse architect of his era. Wendehack also designed buildings at Winged Foot, North Jersey, Rock Spring, and Forsgate.
Wendehack’s Knoll clubhouse was a massive Georgian structure, opening to a huge living room area. That opened to various rooms, including a grill room, private dining areas, and later, a ballroom that seated 400 people. The second floor contained 12 studio apartments. The cost to build the original course and clubhouse amounted to more than $2 million, equivalent today to about $32 million.
Despite its extraordinary amenities and ambitious plans, the club almost did not make it to the starting gate as the Great Depression made its ugly impact in the late 1920s. By the time The Knoll officially opened on July 4, 1930, half of the original members were penniless.
For the first five years, the ownership was happy with about 100 members, but as the Depression ground on, that number was unsustainable. In 1935, the bank closed on The Knoll Association. That year, rubber importer Thomas Desmond of Short Hills bought the club.
Eight years later, Thomas Aiello purchased the club, for $110,000. It took until the late 1940s for The Knoll to regain its footing as a beautiful enterprise. A ballroom, larger locker rooms and other amenities were added. Agronomy on the course was improved. By the early 1950s celebrities like Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, Phil Rizzuto and Jackie Gleason were playing at the Knoll. It is said that DiMaggio brought his wife, movie star Marilyn Monroe, to the club on occasion.
In this era, the Knoll played host to myriad local championships including the 1960 NJSGA Open Championship, the 1952 and ’55 NJSGA Amateur, a Met Open and a Met Amateur.
Membership began declining in the early 1960’s as other local clubs expanded their base of golfers. Bloomfield College, with an eye on expansion, had ownership of the property from 1965-1973, but realized it could not maintain it. Finally, in 1976, The Knoll was sold to the Township of Parsippany-Troy Hills, which still operates the course.
Sadly, the original clubhouse burned to the ground in 1986 and was rebuilt in 1992 by the Township. The current clubhouse is a three-story structure, housing locker rooms, a pro shop, bar areas, business offices, and a ballroom that can seat up to 500 people.
There are current plans to upgrade the building and some work is ongoing, particularly in the grill room area on the second floor, and outdoor dining areas that surround the perimeter of the ground and second floors. Soon to arrive are new stairs, a cupola for the upstairs outdoor dining area, and upgrades, including new carpeting and paint for the banquet area on the second floor.
“We want to emphasize the history and tradition here, starting with the renovated Charles Banks Grill Room that will be a must-stop for golfers after their rounds. It will have a sports bar theme with multiple televisions and a rotating menu,” said Brancato, who has been a member at The Knoll for 25 years.
When Brancato arrived, one of the first challenges he faced as an antiquated computer system. An entirely new software package was instituted for business and office purposes, and a new point of sale system in the pro shop (Fore Tees) has made life easier for everyone. Payments were streamlined in order to avoid the exchange of cash, which is critically important during these pandemic times.
Meanwhile, McCarthy is working hard on drawing golfers to The Knoll, especially youngsters and female players.
“We are committed to programs for juniors and ladies. We had five separate weeks of junior camps and plan to get involved with the PGA Junior Program. We also conduct evening clinics for ladies.
“Our future is kids. Our population base is heavy on young people,” he said.
One of the unique benefits of The Knoll’s property is a second golf course, The Knoll East, which is completely open to the public. That course was designed by Hal Purdy and opened in 1961.
“The Knoll East is the perfect place for beginners, people learning to play golf,” McCarthy said.
The early returns on Brancato’s leadership are resoundingly positive. Rounds of golf increased exponentially in 2020, and through September, rounds surpassed totals from both 2018 and 2019, which included a six-week shut down in March and April. One of Brancato’s initial decisions was to retain the entire greens, golf, and business staff. It was part of a business plan that has reversed the club’s fortunes, resulting in the reduction of debt from $180,000 to only $20,000 in the course of less than one year.
“Our goal is to make this more of a private-course operation for public golfers. We are simplifying things to make it more attractive to the public golfer. We want people to know The Knoll is open to all,” said Brancato.