Few golf clubs in the United States are old enough to hold 125th-anniversary parties, but Springdale Golf Club in Princeton is one club that can claim that distinction.
On September 12 more than 250 members and their families attended a socially distanced anniversary celebration at the club. The party featured a barbecue and pig roast followed by fireworks. Among those in attendance were many members who have been at Springdale for more than 40 years.
Professional golfer Cheyenne Woods — Tiger’s niece — was on hand for the weekend to play the course and take part in the festivities. She is also helping the club with its programs to grow junior golf, especially for girls and children of lesser economic means. Woods was invited by Troon Golf, the golf club management company that Springdale’s members brought in in 2018 to help steer the club into its next 125 years.
While the quasquicentennial was the occasion for the party, there are other good reasons to celebrate at Springdale. Perhaps the best reason is Springdale’s resurgent membership: the club now has 464 members, including 366 full-golf members. Club officials say membership has increased 25 percent in the past four years. That includes the more than 80 new members who have joined in the past 18 months.
Those are great numbers at a time when private clubs around the country are suffering from declining membership. Many golf clubs, which were symbols of status for male captains of commerce and industry in the 20th century, are having to adopt increasingly casual, family-oriented, gender-friendly policies in order to retain and attract members in the 21st century.
Springdale has long taken pride in its strong women’s program, which is one of the oldest and most active in the region. But Kevin Tylus, a banking executive who is the president of Springdale’s Board of Governors, says that Springdale’s board has made a conscious effort to adjust to the changing preferences of members and prospective members.
“Especially after the global recession, we needed to embrace a different segment of the golf population,” he says. “We’re not living in a day of high initiation fees and high dues. You have to provide the value, and that’s what the team is doing.”
The adjustments are paying off: The two fastest growing segments of Springdale’s membership are families and young professionals, groups that the club has actively sought to attract in recent years.
Anthony Pagliari, Springdale’s general manager, says that in the last 10 years, all clubs have been reassessing their priorities. That might mean offering tiered memberships, creating more programs for kids and families, providing more health and wellness services, relaxing their dress codes, or a combination of all of the above.
“Clubs have had to innovate,” Pagliari says. “You have to find ways to solidify your future.”
With its newfound focus on young professionals and families, its commitment to its women’s and youth golf programs, new practice facilities, and a thriving relationship with Troon Golf, Springdale is weathering a storm that is battering many other clubs in the area and throughout the U.S.
“There’s a community that exists here, and it’s not just because of golf. Springdale has always been a special place, but we hadn’t always gotten the word out about how inviting we are, how welcoming,” Tylus says. “We have scratch golfers and 40-handicappers, we have families who all play together, parents and their kids. Even in a pandemic there’s this sense of community. We have 20 new members since the pandemic started. It’s incredible how well we’re doing.”
* * *
Older clubs across the U.S.A. have been rediscovering their histories in recent years as they have looked for more ways to increase membership. Associations with certain golf tournaments or course designers is meaningful to golfers who have an appreciation for America’s golf heritage.
Golf’s popularity grew rapidly in the first third of the 20th century, and clubs rarely spent much effort documenting their formative years. Clubs that have sought a clearer picture of their origins have often had to dig through treasury archives and newspaper clippings to understand their stories as fully as possible.
At Springdale a trio of members have taken it upon themselves to piece together the club’s history through painstaking research. The result of this work by Daniel Scheid, Malcolm McKinnon, and Bill Crane is being called the Springdale History Project, a detailed account of those early years. So far the historians have documented the club’s history up through 1931.
Their work and the work of others has revealed that Springdale’s current 18-hole golf course can trace its roots to not one but two of the better known course designers of golf’s golden age.
Springdale was founded as Princeton Golf Club in 1895 by students, alumni, and faculty of Princeton University. The United States Golf Association had been founded just a year earlier, and it is generally accepted that there were fewer than 100 golf courses in the United States at that time.
The original nine-hole course, laid out at the southern end of Bayard Lane, opened for play in 1896. In 1899 members Moses Taylor Pyne, Stephen Palmer, and Cornelius C. Cuyler raised $25,000 to purchase the 240-acre Stockton Farm, and a new nine, designed by Willie Dunn, Jr., opened for play in 1902.
Dunn finished second in the inaugural U.S. Open, held at Newport Golf Club in 1895, and is known for his early design work at many clubs on the East Coast, notably Shinnecock Hills Golf Club on Long Island.
In 1909 the property was deeded over to the university. In 1911 member Gerard Lambert began the process of laying out a second nine, which opened for play in 1915. The club was renamed Springdale Golf Club in 1922.
In 1927 the club brought in William Flynn to redesign the course. Flynn is well known to golf aficionados for the course design work he did at The Country Club (Brookline, Massachusetts) and Cherry Hills Country Club, outside Denver, but he is perhaps best known for the work he did at Shinnecock Hills (where he revised and augmented Willie Dunn’s original layout) and Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Pennsylvania.
Merion’s East Course was designed by Hugh Wilson, Class of 1902, and Flynn worked closely with Wilson on the design and construction of the course. It is believed, though not certain, that Wilson recommended Flynn to Springdale when the club was looking for someone to redesign the course.
Wilson died in 1925. When Flynn came to Princeton, he is said to have wanted to honor his mentor, Wilson, with his work at Springdale. The course today is largely as it was in Flynn’s day, although there are many more trees on the grounds than there were then.
When a new clubhouse was built at the southern end of the property in 2007, the order of the holes was changed significantly, but the holes themselves feature the same strategic approaches and rolling greens that Flynn and his predecessors had implemented.
The club has recently made renovations to six holes, predominantly in bunkers and the areas around the greens. But Tylus says that all changes have been made with the intent to retain the character of Flynn’s design.
Tylus also says that the renovations have come at a time when the grounds look as good as they ever have, which he attributes to Troon Golf’s regional agronomy program in general, and the work of course superintendent Donovan Maguigan specifically.
“It’s amazing what they have been able to do in just a couple of years,” Tylus says. “The Troon agronomy team has the course in spectacular condition.”
* * *
Another reason to celebrate is the ongoing improvements being made to Springdale’s practice and training facilities.
Last year Princeton University opened its new Tiger Performance Center at Springdale. The university built the center for use by the members of its golf teams. The university’s men’s and women’s teams, led by coaches Will Green and Erika DeSanty, both call Springdale home.
The facility includes four hitting bays, video swing analysis systems, and a full-sized indoor golf simulator, and it is available to club members when not in use by the students.
There are plans to develop the practice and training complex further. Steve Dana, vice president of Jerry Pate Design, has been engaged to design the new practice greens and short-game areas that will be situated right off the veranda of Springdale’s clubhouse, which was itself newly built in 2007. Dana is a former Princeton University golf team captain.
“We wouldn’t be able to do all this on our own,” Tylus says. He credits the university’s golf coaches with bringing the idea for the practice areas to the club and connecting the club and Troon Golf with Steve Dana.
The practice facility project will begin with a new USGA standard putting green in the spring of 2021. Shortly thereafter, Princeton will construct a “player-only” short-game area near the Performance Center, including another putting green, pitching green, and bunkers. Phase III will be a re-engineered short-game area for members. That phase will potentially include three short-game practice greens and multiple bunkers. The club’s goal is to have all three phases complete by the end of 2022.
“Troon and Jerry Pate Design collaborated on what’s the best design for the practice area. Our members and the university teams are going to have a world-class facility right out back,” Tylus says.
The club’s relationship with the university certainly appears to have improved since 2016, when Robert Durkee, then vice president and secretary of Princeton University, was quoted at a town meeting saying that the university expected that it would eventually want to convert Springdale “to support the educational mission” of the university.
At the time, Springdale’s membership was at its low ebb, still shaking off the effects of the global recession of 2008. The club had a lease with the university through 2036, though it had an out clause that Princeton could exercise as early as 2026.
University President Christopher Eisgruber later walked back Durkee’s statements, saying he did not foresee the university redeveloping Springdale at any point during his tenure. In June, 2018, Springdale and the university signed a new agreement pushing the out clause back to 2032 at the earliest.
Tylus told U.S. 1 in 2018 that he was never particularly concerned about the university taking over the land, but he admitted that Durkee’s statements did motivate the club to enact some of the changes that have borne fruit in the years since.
“It was a rallying cry, a wake-up call of sorts for the Springdale membership, to be confident in the adjustments we were making to the club to adapt to the new golf demographics,” Tylus said then.
Tylus, 65, has been a member since 1993. He became president of the board of governors in 2017, succeeding well-known Princeton physician Tom Davidson. He is president of the banking division and a member of the board of directors of the Bryn Mawr Trust Company, with an office at 47 Hulfish Street.
“I can’t say enough about the relationship between the club and the university,” Tylus says. “It does wonders for the club to have such a positive relationship.”
* * *
Tylus is equally positive about the relationship with Troon Golf. Troon, which manages more than 400 golf clubs worldwide, provides management, marketing, and technology services under the direction of the Springdale Board of Governors.
Troon senior vice president of operations Jim Richerson oversees integration of new clubs into the Troon network, and Tylus appreciates his hands-on approach. “We see Jim every other week,” Tylus says. “It’s immeasurable the help that brings you as a club.” Richerson is also vice president of the PGA of America.
Tylus says having Troon in the fold during the coronavirus pandemic has been an invaluable resource for the club. The pandemic has been an unprecedented challenge for Springdale, as it has been for most clubs. Corporate golf outings and banquet dinners are major sources of revenue for most clubs and have been all but impossible during the pandemic.
Pagliari and his staff have had to adjust the business model to account for the lost revenue, looking department by department at where they could reduce expenses to get the same amount of work done as usual, without it affecting members.
“We have the Troon perspective of what other clubs do, so a committee of our members doesn’t have to figure it out,” Tylus says.
Pagliari, 37, joined Springdale as general manager in November. He had previously been general manager at Westmoreland Country Club, outside Pittsburgh, and also spent time at the Rawls Course at Texas Tech University as head golf professional and assistant general manager, which gave him some early “town and gown” experience in golf club management.
He says the club shut down early in the pandemic out of concern for staff and member safety. Since reopening in June, they have had lunch and weekend dinner service with a limited menu and a more casual presentation. Some employees were furloughed early in the crisis, but they are all back to work now.
“Hours of operation have changed, but level of service has not,” Pagliari says. “The members notice how hard the team, top to bottom, are working to keep them safe while also going above and beyond for them, and they are appreciative for what we are doing.”
Revenues may be down, but the number of rounds of golf played at Springdale this year is actually up 30 percent from the previous year despite the pandemic. As board member Erin Hamrick puts it, golf is one of the few activities people have been able to take part in for most of the past six months despite all the restrictions necessitated by the coronavirus.
“People sat and watched Netflix through March and April,” Hamrick says. “Then people were like, ‘Well, you could play golf!’ And they did.”
The new business reality with many people working from home has also played a role in the increased traffic on the course. “We’ve been seeing a lot more professionals who would usually be in Philadelphia or New York,” Tylus says. “We’re seeing them more during the week, we’re seeing them more for dinner, because they’re home when in the past they would be in the office. That’s probably the biggest reason we’re up 30 percent.”
Tylus also notes that the number of rounds played by guests of members is higher than it has been in a long time. He attributes this to a few factors: the pandemic, Troon’s capable management, and the course’s excellent conditioning. “We’re seeing that members have a pride in the club that maybe they didn’t quite have before,” he says.
He says one new member who was disappointed to be unable to meet and socialize with other members in the clubhouse has committed himself to playing a round with as many other members as he could — more than 140 different members so far.
“He said, ‘If I can’t meet people in the dining room, I’m going to get to know them on the course,’” Tylus says. “That’s really the spirit of golf.”
Springdale Golf Club, 1895 Clubhouse Drive, Princeton 08540. 609-921-8790. Anthony Pagliari, general manager. www.springdalegc.org.