Given that New Jersey’s economy is still emerging from the Great Recession of 2008-2013, it’s no secret that many mid-level private golf clubs around the state have taken a hit in recent years and lost both corporate and individual memberships to these more austere times. So why would anyone want to buy a golf club now?
For Mike Attara, founder of Spirit Golf Management, part of it is the challenge and fun of bringing Hopewell Valley, one of central New Jersey’s “hidden jewel” private golf clubs, back to life. Hopewell Valley was built in 1927, during the classic age of golf course design and indeed, during the country’s first golf course building boom, prior to the Great Depression of 1929.
During this bleak period in the golf business, Attara is trying some new business tactics to boost membership, including opening the club up to public play for the first time ever, in hopes of gaining enough new members to turn it fully private again in the near future. Currently members of the public can play Hopewell Valley with an introductory program that encourages them to become members with five rounds offered for $350.
Attara figures he got some of his entrepreneurial bent from his father, who founded and ran Joe’s Hideaway jazz club in Flatbush, Brooklyn, in the 1950s and ’60s before moving to Monroe Township in the early ’70s.
Seeing the dollars that could be made, Attara’s father began bringing black and white jazz musicians together on stage at a time when much of New York City was still segregated.
“I may have gotten my entrepreneurial spirit from my father,” he says, while giving an interview on the veranda beside Hopewell Valley’s clubhouse. “My dad ran Joe’s Hideaway in Flatbush for many years. He loved jazz music. He fought the good fight in the ’50s and ’60s and later wrote a book about it.”
Born in Brooklyn, Attara and his two older silblings grew up in Monroe Township, near the Spotswood border and down the street from PGA pro Anthony Wilcenski, former Middlesex County director of golf and currently Monroe Township’s recreation director. He later worked for Wilcenski when he was head professional at the Rossmoor Golf Course, located off Forsgate Drive inside the Rossmoor adult community.
Attara’s father was a plant operator for Middlesex Water Company. Later, he dabbled in real estate again when he bought an apartment complex in Long Branch. His mother worked as a hair dresser and later as an office manager for an area doctor.
“I was about 12 when I started really playing golf,” Attara says, noting he went to Bucks County College and got a liberal arts degree before taking night classes at Wilmington University to get his four-year degree in business administration.
He credits his parents for everything he was able to enjoy in his high school years, including football, baseball, basketball, golf, and even boxing. He found his parents’ sets of golf clubs in the attic one day and began batting balls around the yard with a friend.
“They stopped playing when they got busy with three kids and we found our way to the golf clubs,” he says. “They were great parents because they understood the appeal of golf themselves.” Both of Attara’s parents are now retired and live in Florida.
“They’d take my buddy and me to Tamarack in East Brunswick, drop us off, and we’d spend the whole day playing golf,” he says of his earliest days as a golfer. Back then, juniors who lived in Middlesex County could play 18 holes for $1.50.
“My golf game took off ’cause my folks were very supportive. I was captain of the football team and a basketball and baseball player, and then I boxed for a time.” He was named Golden Gloves light heavyweight champion of New Jersey one year in high school.
“I was very competitive and a good athlete. I liked the challenge and the one-on-one responsibility with boxing,” he says, “team events were fun, but I always liked the challenge of having all the responsibility on my shoulders.”
After high school he decided he wanted to get into the golf business so he worked at Bamm Hollow in Middletown [now becoming a housing development off Route 520,] for a season, and then worked a season at Concordia before working for five years with Wilcenski at Rossmoor. Wilcenski was one of a few PGA Master professionals in the state, and he specializes in teaching seniors how to play golf. Attara credits Wilcenski with nurturing him along so he could attain head pro status before settling into a head pro job at Cranbury Golf Club.
“It was a great experience for me to be there and run the shop while he was away,” Attara says, noting Wilcenski was president of the New Jersey PGA Section for a time and was heavily involved in running tournaments and programs around the state.
“Tony was very involved in the New Jersey section and the politics of the PGA and he was always giving his time to the section. I got more involved because of his influence,” Attara says. “I was always a decent, consistent player. Not as consistent on the greens as I would like to be, but I had a streak in my 20s and 30s when I’d make every cut. I was competitive, but never a top 10 player, I never got over that hurdle and then I fought some injuries in my late 30s and 40s, a wrist injury and had some back and shoulder surgery,” says Attara, who turned 51 on May 23.
After some members at Rossmoor sponsored him, he spent almost two years on the mini tours in Florida and playing on the Texas tour.
“Then I got a call from a friend working for Billy Casper Golf Management and he says they were looking for a head pro at Cranbury Golf Club.” He got his PGA head professional certification in 1991, just before starting at Cranbury. He spent the next decade there, enjoying the 1990s golf boom, where, among other things, he ran a lot of instructional clinics and programs for women, then and now the fastest growing segment of the sport. When Billy Casper Golf Management got involved at Eagle Ridge GC in Lakewood, Attara was tapped to go down there.
He launched Spirit Golf Management while working at Eagle Ridge, a well-respected 27-hole semi-private facility in Ocean County, in 2009 after its owners, the Kokes family, realized they could do many of the facility management tasks better themselves.
He oversaw the addition of nine new holes at Eagle Ridge — reclaiming an old landfill — and the construction of the facility’s clubhouse.
Attara seems to have a vision for his small business, and it’s likely his wife, visual artist Colleen Attara, helped him with defining where he sees his golf management business going. Aside from teaching the game of golf, he was also trained in growing the game of golf.
After Colleen, also educated in Monroe Township schools, got a job selling commercials at the ABC-TV affiliate in Philadelphia, the couple moved to Yardley, Pennsylvania. Attara and his wife have a son, Wyatt, and daughter, Paige, now 21 and 18.
“She’s an eco-artist and does a lot of work for installations,” Attara says, noting that she is on the cover of the Spring 2016 edition of Real Woman magazine, published by the Capital Health Medical Group that owns Helene Fuld Medical Center in Trenton and the newer hospital in Hopewell Township.
Colleen was one of six artists commissioned to do the main entrances to the Hopewell hospital. She got the pediatric wing.
“She does three-dimensional art with plastics and different materials she finds. She did a 70-foot installation that sort of shows the theme of taking the hospital from the city to the country,” he says, adding she also creates greeting cards and has a line of about 110 different cards in shops around the U.S.
Asked what prompted him to launch his own golf management company with Spirit in 2009, Attara says the hands-on aspect of things was what was missing from bigger golf management groups.
“I didn’t want to be the big golf management company, I just saw the need for being able to support the clubs we managed. I understood the top line revenue end of things and not to just get bogged down in expense management,” he says.
“Our goal was to bring more of the community in and bring more instruction in and that was our success story at Eagle Ridge, and later at the public level at Makefield Highlands [in Yardley, Pa.] and at Stony Brook. Now we have six clubs that are all doing this same type of programming.”
Attara noted he and his partners support the clubs they manage with PGA professionals who understand player development. He believes so far he has been successful in bringing the right people to the putting green and practice tee to promote the game of golf.
Asked about ownership of Hopewell Valley and the neighboring par 3 executive course, Stony Brook, Attara says Spirit Golf has been managing Stony Brook since 2010, as that facility is owned by the Zuccarelli family, which also owns the neighboring farm on Route 518. After moving offices out of his home in Yardley, Attara and his associates set up offices at Stony Brook, where they have since built a clubhouse-banquet facility and driving range.
Attara said Stony Brook, where many people from the area had their first rounds of golf when they were 10, 12, or 14 years old, was holding a 50th anniversary celebration all this year. “We put a lot of time and energy into opening up the clubhouse and putting the driving range in. We’ve also done programming there with Special Olympics of New Jersey and now the 1st Tee program of Trenton meets there as well,” he says.
Spirit Golf hired a PGA pro for Stony Brook, Joe Porter, who works with the youth programs and conducts group and private lessons there as well. The golf course there plays to 3,603 yards from the back tees and was designed by Robert Krieger “who is still around, and must be about 90.”
“This opportunity [Hopewell Valley] came up back in 2012. I started speaking to them back then because we were managing Stony Brook and we saw the need here and the struggle they were going through. When I got back in here it really made a lot of sense that our company could bring more interest and excitement to the place and upgrade the facilities,” he says.
Spirit Golf took over ownership at Hopewell Valley Golf club formally in March of this year, after managing operations there since last October. Members voted on it and approved the sale in December. Spirit Golf has already made upgrades to the men’s and women’s locker rooms, fitness centers, and pool areas and resurfaced tennis courts.
Aside from having one of the best driving ranges in central New Jersey, Hopewell Valley Golf Club also has two practice putting greens, a short game practice area, paddle tennis and tennis courts, and a large pool area.
Attara put together a small group of investors including Rich Rutzler, a commercial artist who has Future Signs, a booming sign business in Hamilton Township. Attara describes Rutzler as “a very talented guy and business person” whom he has known since they were both 13 in Monroe. John Goeke, the food and beverage manager for Spirit Golf, first came to work with Attara when he was at Cranbury Golf Club. These three are the nucleus of Spirit Golf Management, along with some business associates and family members who have invested. There are four investors who allowed them to purchase Hopewell Valley.
Aside from owning and managing Hopewell Valley and managing Stony Brook golf clubs in Hopewell, Spirit Golf also manages Makefield Highlands in Yardley, Pennsylvania; Five Ponds Golf Club in Warminster; Green Castle Golf Club near Hagerstown, Maryland; and Mill Race Golf Club in the Poconos.
Attara says that he and his talented team, including long time Hopewell Valley pro P.J. Ulanich, who has been working at the club for 16 years, understand the various elements to create a great private club: the agronomy and greens keeping, the instruction programs they have put in place, and the social atmosphere they have created as well as the improvements they have made.
“We can do all these things on a different level than a lot of bigger management companies can,” Attara says.
As for the golf course itself, Hopewell Valley, built before golf carts were around, is a delightful walking course designed by Scottish architect Thomas Winton. Hopewell Valley’s layout, measuring at 6,612 yards from the back tees, has many memorable holes. Holes 8 and 16 have dramatically sloping putting greens. The par 3, 175-yard 13th hole, which features an elevated tee and requires a carry over the Stony Brook to a green about 50 yards below, is also tricky. Holes 16, 17, and 18, par 5, par 3, and par 5 respectively, are great finishing holes that take advantage of the natural slopes on the property.
No. 4 on the front nine is a tricky up and down par 5 where the Stony Brook also comes into play on the golfer’s approach shot to the elevated green. The No. 1 handicap or hole rated most difficult at the course is the par 4 373-yard 8th hole. Assuming the golfer makes it to the green in two shots, the severe back-to-front slope of the green prevents all but the most pinpoint accurate shots from being within easy birdie putt range.
Former members at Hopewell Valley include Phil Alampi, “Mr. Cook College” and a former New Jersey secretary of agriculture, as well as longtime Princeton resident Thom Hartmann, who taught journalism at Rutgers College for many years and served as Bill Bradley’s campaign manager for New Jersey during his presidential bid in the 1980s. Hartmann was one of Hopewell Valley’s biggest supporters, having joined the club in 1970 when full golfing memberships were $700.
“It says a lot for Winton’s design, because the course hasn’t really changed much over all this time,” Attara says.
Aside from retaining P.J. Ulanich in the pro shop and appointing Rider University’s tennis coach, Doug Potkay, as tennis pro at Hopewell Valley, Spirit Golf also created a new logo for the club and created a shorter 9-hole family golf course to stimulate growth in family memberships and encourage family play at the facility. Spirit Golf also brought in a new superintendent of greens, Mark Peterson, who was superintendent at Makefield Highlands and whom Attara has known since he was working as an assistant to Wilcenski at Rossmoor Golf Club.
“Our objective over the next three years is to bring it back fully private and open up awareness that the public can play five rounds in a season,” Attara explained, adding a trial package of 10 rounds is also offered, and after five rounds new members can convert their dollars into a membership, “so they can step into a membership without a lot of risk involved.”
While the thrust of their marketing efforts have been focused on encouraging family and individual memberships Spirit Golf has neither encouraged nor discouraged corporate memberships. Attara says they will be handled on an individualized basis.
“It’s not a cookie-cutter kind of membership. If someone wants to build a corporate membership, we’ll work with them on a case-by-case basis.”
Where does Attara see Hopewell Valley in five years?
“We have a three-year business plan to bring it back to a private golf club and create an affordable, family-friendly atmosphere,” he says, noting “we’ve taken the single family membership and reduced it by about 30 percent from where it was. We also did age-based pricing for younger members, most clubs go to 35 or 36 years, ours now goes to 49. The important piece is the $600 for the family membership. It’s a great offer for families,” he says. “This market, Pennington and Hopewell, is chock-full of families.”
Attara says the business of hosting golf outings has also changed dramatically, just like corporate membership packages.
“There’s so much fundraising tied in to golf outings now,” he says, noting so many charities have annual golf outings. As far as business deals and corporate golf, “while the days of the salesman being on the golf course isn’t what it used to be, it’s still a big part of many business deals.”
Given that Spirit Golf is managing both Stony Brook and Hopewell Valley, on days when either course holds a big outing, Attara, ever the entrepreneur, adds, “one of the fun things we can do here is let the raw beginners play golf over at Stony Brook and then come over here for dinner afterwards.”
Stony Brook Golf Club, Stony Brook Road, Box 57, Hopewell 08525. 609-466-2215. stonybrookgolfnj.com
Hopewell Valley Golf Club, 114 Pennington-Hopewell Road, RD 1, Hopewell 08525. 609-466-3003. Mike Attara, general manager. www.hvgc.com.