By Mike Dougherty
WHITE PLAINS — After watching the unrelenting economy take a toll on membership and leave the club at risk, Westchester Hills Golf Club president Mike Daly was entertaining any and all ideas to keep the doors open.
Turns out, a practical solution was staring the board of governors in the face.
“We never seriously considered shutting the doors,” said Daly, a White Plains resident who has been a member since 1988. “We never saw that as an option. We always focused on what had to be done next to ensure the club survived.”
That inspired a nod of approval from Bob Landry, who has spent 60 years at The Hills.
“We might’ve been lynched,” the longtime member said. “A lot of people would’ve been left with no place to go.”
The demise of Ridgeway Country Club across the street no doubt upped the urgency, and when a trio of members approached Daly that September with a potential solution, it wasn’t long before the board of governors was listening attentively to a makeover plan.
It wasn’t a venture without risks.
The resulting blueprint helped Westchester Hills come back from the brink and increased the level of enthusiasm as the club marks its centennial with a season of celebrations.
“A few years ago, cash flow was not too strong,” Daly said. “We had to put a very heavy hand on capital expenditures for anything other than necessary maintenance. It helped us on the cash flow side, but it was obvious some things were becoming stale.”
“Some of the members approached me and said, ‘What if we step up and advance funds to help support major improvements?’ ” Daly said.
The other part of the solution was more unique. A number of members own construction, landscaping and design businesses. They were more than willing to get their hands dirty and provide goods and services at close to cost.
“We sat down, spent a lot of time agonizing over how that could be worked out, came to an agreement we felt met the needs of everyone, and late in the fall of 2011 we commenced with the project,” Daly said.
It quickly grew in scale.
Major improvements were made to the clubhouse, especially the Grand Room where a barrel ceiling was uncovered. The patio was expanded. The bar was updated. The pool got a lot of attention. The course received visual improvements.
The weather that winter turned out to be extremely accommodating, and the $2 million investment began to pay dividends the following spring.
A national golf course management firm was hired to assume day-to-day operations, and the downward spiral gave way to an improved outlook. There were 270 regular members at Westchester Hills in 2007 before the latest decline. The Great Recession hit every club in the area regardless of size and stability. After making a concerted effort to attract new members with a variety of packages, the club now has 400 members, but many of them are pool-only members.
There is work to be done. Westchester Hills currently has 140 regular members, and they are the folks who pay the bills.
“If we are constantly seeing an upward slope in membership, we’re going to be all right,” Daly said.
And that has helped to put the members at Westchester Hills in a celebratory mood.
The club was incorporated in 1913 by developer Robert Farley and the course was designed by Peter Clark, a Scottish professional who once was employed at Century. It leased the land from the Gedney Farm Hotel, and officially became Weschester Hills eight years later when the land was purchased by the club.
Very few physical changes have been made to the golf course.
“The greens are very small,” said Jason Gobleck, the head pro since 2002. “The rough is thick around the greens, and that makes it very challenging. Your iron shots into the greens have to be accurate, crisp shots. The driving areas can be narrow, but the real challenge here is the greens, which are pretty much original.”
While there are between 15 and 20 single-digit handicaps on the rolls these days, Landry boasts that all of the members socialize at a high level.
“We’ve always had a great group of members,” Landry said. “Most of them just want to come and have a good time. It’s my second home. This is a place where people come to relax. I don’t think business is discussed here, ever. It’s a place to come and have a good time. We’ve been very lucky in that that has never changed over all these years.”
Landry has celebrated a number of milestones at The Hill.
“My wife and I were married here in 1959,” Landry said, proudly noting the bill came to $1,800. “We had 125 people, 176 bottles of champagne and one bottle of scotch because my father wouldn’t drink that other crap. And then in 2009 we had our 50th anniversary here.”
The club has employed just four head professionals — Clark, Jack Sabol, Kevin Morris and Gobleck.
Westchester Hills over the years also has developed a string of impressive junior players including, Ron Mahood, Frank Bensel Jr., Mike Henderson, Chris Damiano, Max Buckley, Sean Trainor and Tyler Stagg.
“They’ve gotten some good instruction, but the real reason is they drive each other,” Gobleck said. “They’ve created a golf culture around here.”
And they have plenty of chances to play.
“Kevin Morris was the pro there when I was a junior and he taught me how to play,” said Bensel, who’s a teaching pro at Century and still a top player in the Met section. “There were a lot of people there I knew from school, a lot of good friends, so it was a great place for me to learn how to play and caddie. I have great memories of Westchester Hills and still have friends there.”
The club’s longtime members have made an effort to recruit the next generation, knowing the junior members are vital to the next 100 years. And despite all of the improvements, Westchester Hills’ atmosphere remains the primary selling point.
“It’s a golf club, but it’s more than that,” Daly said. “It’s a family club, people see a lot of their lives play out between the golf course, the clubhouse and the pool.”