Forty-eight boys and 36 girls from around the world were at Springdale Golf Club from July 30 to August 1 to play in the American Junior Golf Association championship. The AJGA, formed in 1978, is considered by many to be the best junior golf association in the world, and claims an impressive list of former members, including Tiger Woods, Paula Creamer, Jordan Spieth, Morgan Pressel, and Sergio Garcia.
The event was a triumph for the Princeton club in many ways. The 84 golfers and their families brought tourism dollars to the region. Some $13,000 in excess funds were generated, which Kevin Tylus, the president of Springdale’s board of governors and a banking industry executive, says have been donated to charity. And the tournament gave the young members of Springdale’s own junior programs some role models as they develop their games.
“It was a success beyond anyone’s imagination,” Tylus says. “The AJGA has already asked if they can come back; they had such a wonderful experience.”
More than 50 club members volunteered to work the tournament, some were left awed by the talent of the players in the field — and proud of the way their home course fulfilled the role of host. Springdale’s strategic William Flynn design and notoriously tricky greens had provided a fair and challenging experience for some of the best young players in the world.
Springdale is not considered “long” by today’s standards, maxing out at a length of 6,380 yards. But the course withstood the attack from these future college stars and pros. The event was also good for the university. Men’s head golf coach Will Green and women’s head coach Erika DeSanty were able to get a close look at potential recruits for their programs — and impress them with the university’s home course, which was in peak condition.
The AJGA Championship is just one source of momentum in 2018 for a club that has endured several years of speculation about its future. In May Springdale entered into an agreement with Nassau Swim Club enabling members of the swim club to use Springdale’s golf and dining facilities, while Springdale members can use the swim club’s pool. In July the club selected Troon Prive, a division of the Troon Group, to provide management services for the club, bringing an organization with nationwide resources to bear on its operation.
On Wednesday, September 26, Springdale will host a PGA golf clinic for women at the club, led by 27-time LPGA Tour winner Jane Blalock. And later in the fall Princeton University will break ground on a state-of-the-art four-bay indoor-outdoor training center situated just yards from the clubhouse and available to members when the students aren’t using it.
In 2019 Springdale will host the NJ PGA senior and super senior championships. And changes the club has made in response to the changing landscape of golf have resulted in the addition of 40 new members since last year. All in all, a run of good news for a club with a history that dates back almost to the very beginning of golf in America. A history which, perhaps, has not always been well understood or appreciated before now. Which is of one of many things the club’s members are committed to changing.
Rumors had circulated for some time that Princeton University, which has owned the 100 acres that Springdale occupies since 1909, was thinking of redeveloping the land as part of a campus expansion plan. Though the club had a licensing agreement through 2036, the university had an out clause it could exercise starting in 2026.
During Reunions in May, 2016, president Christopher Eisgruber said, not for the first time, that the university was not looking to build on the Springdale land or, for that matter, to go across Lake Carnegie, to achieve its future goal of increasing undergraduate enrollment by 10 percent.
But on October 26 of that year, Princeton Alumni Weekly published a story with an ominous headline: “Springdale’s Days May Be Numbered.” The article quoted then-university vice president and secretary Robert Durkee saying, “in the long term, we believe (Springdale) will be converted to support the educational mission.” Cyndi Rottenberg-Walker, a consultant working on the Princeton University Campus Plan for 2026, added that Springdale’s location near the center of campus made it attractive land for development.
A few weeks later, Eisgruber attended a town council meeting at which residents who live near the golf course expressed concern about the possibility of redevelopment. He appeared to downplay the matter. “I don’t expect us to be moving onto the Springdale Golf Course during my time as president,” he said.
Tylus says the out clause was not something he or the members lost a lot of sleep over, noting that in 2016, 2026 was still 10 years away — a long time in the life of a golf club. Combining that with Eisgruber’s public assurances, he says he saw no reason to panic.
On December 5, 2017, the university released its glossy, 166-page campus plan, which laid out no specific future for Springdale, other than to say no development was planned for at least 10 years. Things had apparently changed regarding the other side of Lake Carnegie, however, with a proposed Lake Campus having become a major facet of the campus plan.
In June of this year, there was some definitively good news: Springdale and the university signed a new agreement pushing the escape-clause date back to 2032 at the earliest. For Tylus, the deal shows that fears over the club’s immediate future need not have been great.
“In spite of some miscommunication about the campus plan, Springdale and the university couldn’t have a better relationship,” he says. “The two entities are completely intertwined, and that is one of the reasons Springdale is so special.”
Which is not to say everything was just as the members wanted it to be. The club acknowledges that it reached low tide in terms of full golf memberships around the time the PAW story hit. For years now it has been the case, as at private clubs across the country, that members from older generations are leaving at a rate greater than members from younger generations are joining. The Great Recession of 2008 only accelerated this trend.
Many reasons are given for this decline, which has hit the public golf sector as well. Golf is difficult; golf is expensive; golf takes too much time. Course closings have outnumbered openings for eight years running.
Springdale is not the only club in the area that has been looking for answers. Just down Route 206 in Lawrence, Cobblestone Creek Country Club has done a complete redesign of its golf course and total renovation of its clubhouse in a bid to attract more members. It paid for the modernization in part by selling 14 acres of its property to Lennar Homes for the development of upscale townhouses, and even changed its name from Greenacres Country Club to reflect the club’s refreshed identity.
Springdale’s board was already well aware that something had to change for the long-term health of the club. The board had already begun a program of bunker and green complex improvements intended to freshen up the course. Since Keith Stewart’s arrival in 2009, the club had been building up its junior golf program. Stewart says before he arrived, there probably weren’t 60 families at the club. Today, he says, there are that many participating in Springdale junior golf.
The board took a hard look at every facet of the club’s operation, looking for ways to become more attractive to members, more dynamic, more inclusive. And it delved into its history, gaining new appreciation for the course’s architectural heritage while uncovering some new details in the process.
By October, 2016, many members were committed to, in Tylus’ words, adjusting to the times. “Many younger professionals travel to New York City and Philadelphia and work long hours,” he says. “They do not have the same kind of flexibility that business professionals may have had in the past. So we’ve been adjusting our golf programs and our social programs to fit today’s lifestyles of families of all ages.”
He suggests that members who might not have been convinced that change was necessary ought to have been convinced by Durkee’s blunt words.
“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 says. “Clubs need to realize that there is a whole new socioeconomic demographic affecting the golf industry as a whole. Fortunately, with the investments we’re making in the course and in the club, and with the benefits Troon brings to our members, and a hardworking board and membership, our membership is back up over 10 percent,” Tylus says.
Tylus says people who aren’t familiar with the culture at Springdale might be surprised to see how low key it is. “To someone who has not visited Springdale, they drive down Alexander Road and they see these bucolic greens with the spectacular Cleveland Tower and the surrounding university buildings, it may appear to be much more formal than it is,” Tylus says. “It’s actually a very comfortable and inviting environment. People will say hello and they’re happy to meet you and chat with you. That is the real culture of the place.”
Tylus, 63, became president of the board of governors last November, succeeding well-known Princeton physician Tom Davidson. He joined Springdale in 1993. “I had a chance to play Springdale several times as a guest before being a member, and I always felt comfortable,” he says. “You met so many interesting people, whether they were professionals or local individuals. I was always impressed with how involved people were in the community.”
Tylus was born at the original Princeton Hospital, where his mother was nursing supervisor and worked for 46 years. His father was an executive with RCA Laboratories on Washington Road. Tylus went to St. Paul’s School on Nassau Street before graduating from the Hun School. He played basketball and baseball at Gettysburg College but wasn’t a golfer until after graduating in 1978. “I desperately needed a new sport and fell in love with golf,” he says.
Today he lives in Skillman with his wife, Ginger. They have four grown children, all graduates of Hun. The family is very active not only at Springdale but also at the Nassau Club. 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. He was president and CEO of Royal Bank America from 2012 to 2017, when Royal Bank America was acquired by BMT. Before that he was president of PNC’s Central New Jersey division, and before that president of Yardville Bank, which was acquired by PNC in 2007.
He can see some similarities between the challenges Springdale has faced and problems he has tackled as a banking executive. “All of my business assignments have required that people come together and work together to adapt to different circumstances,” he says. “At Springdale we’ve had to adapt to the impact of the recession. We have teams of people working together effectively, valuing different perspectives and opinions. We need to have consensus on what our priorities are and be open and communicative with the membership.”
In 2017 the Springdale board brought in a consultant to assess the club’s status, identify its strategic priorities, and use those factors to create a game plan for change. Tylus says the top priority was maintaining the comfortable, welcoming feel of the club while at the same time becoming attractive to a broader audience of golfers. “After all, we are a golf club, as opposed to a country club,” Tylus says.
The consultant identified Springdale’s corporate structure as one area that could be improved. The club had long had three separate but equal managers: a golf professional, a course superintendent, and a clubhouse manager. (Some larger country clubs may have had even more department heads.) That model worked well for a long time, Tylus says, but it’s not the model most golf clubs use today.
Today most clubs either have a general manager to whom all other managers report, or they contract with a management company that employs the general manager model while also bringing to bear the benefits of being a larger organization.
With the aid of the consultant, Springdale evaluated six management companies and consulting firms and decided that a management company would bring significantly more resources to the club than any one GM could provide. In July Springdale announced that they had chosen Troon Prive, a division of the Scottsdale, Arizona-based Troon Group. Through Troon Prive and its other divisions, Troon Golf and Honours Golf, Troon has managed private, daily-fee and resort courses since 1990.
Troon Prive specializes in the management of some 90 private clubs like Springdale, most in the United States, which Springdale members now have access to play. “They completely understand the dynamics of a private club as opposed to a resort or a daily fee-oriented club,” Tylus says.
One of the first things Troon did after coming on board was assist Springdale in a national search for new general manager. Ryan Stemsrud, who had been general manager at another Troon course, Conestoga Golf Club in Nevada, joined the club just this month, succeeding interim GM Brian Thorne.
Troon also avails the club of an array of services including a networked financial reporting system, an accounting system, and a payroll system. Springdale employees gain access to Troon’s national health insurance plan. And the club is now part of Troon Prive’s information technology infrastructure, which gives it resources to update and manage its website and social media channels.
“Even with a very top notch general manager and staff — which we have — these additional resources in people and technology could not be replicated by any one local team,” Tylus says. “So it allows Springdale to improve many areas of our offering to our members today.”
The partnership also gives Springdale access to Troon’s regional agronomy program, which Tylus says should help the club improve the conditioning of the turf throughout the grounds. And Troon has experience working on William Flynn-designed courses, which was also important to the club. While Flynn was only one of the architects that helped make Springdale what it is today, Tylus says, there are subtleties in his designs that set him apart from most other architects. One of the things most clubs fear most, once they have embraced the significance of their architectural heritage, is that someone someday might come in and, whether by accident or design, change the features of the course that make it most special.
There are additional benefits for full Springdale members. They are now able to request tee times at other Troon Prive-managed clubs at reduced fees. Springdale offers several categories of membership, including individual, family, and junior memberships. Club representatives declined to give specific prices.
At any good golf club there’s another contingent who takes as keen an interest in the club’s fortunes as the members: the professionals. In the case of Springdale, that means not only head pro Keith Stewart and his staff, but also the Princeton University men’s and women’s golf coaches, Will Green and Erika DeSanty.
Green has been the coach at Princeton for 20 years. He is well liked around the club and has been a part of many important initiatives over the years. He was involved in bringing the AJGA tournament to town and was also instrumental in raising the funds needed to build the new training center, which he says was necessary if his team was to achieve his goal of rising into a collegiate golf powerhouse.
The facility will have four all-weather, indoor-outdoor hitting bays. Hitting stations will be equipped with Trackman, digital technology that has revolutionized golf at the highest levels by giving players access to never-before-available data about every aspect of their swings. If a blizzard hits, they will still be able to practice indoors using a simulator that comes with Trackman.
Green says the plan is for the performance center to be available to members of the university golf teams from the moment they set foot on campus in the fall to the moment they leave in spring. If they have an opportunity to get in some swings, they will be able to. He says the club and the university will work out a system whereby members have access to the facility when it’s not in use by the teams.
Green says as the golf coach, he was as concerned as anyone when speculation started up about the course being shut down. “As a steward of the university I was concerned. (But) I purposely tried to stay out of the fray. In the short term, it’s not likely to happen. The long term is hard to foresee,” he says. “The challenge to the university is they’re turning away tens of thousands of outstanding students a year. Eventually I’m sure they’re going to want to expand.”
Green admits that the students don’t tend to get wrapped up in a course’s history or architectural lineage. But he certainly appreciates it.
“Selfishly, as the golf coach at Princeton, I think having a William Flynn golf course 30 yards from campus is irreplaceable,” he says. “The fact we have such a good working relationship between the university and the club right now is worth its weight in gold.”
Stewart is in his 10th season as head PGA golf professional at Springdale. He has a sign over his door that reads “Director of Fun.” What does a director of fun do?
“Being the Director of Fun is about creating an atmosphere where people just want to come back,” he says. “The world, quite frankly these days, is anxious and stressed and fast moving. Everyone’s got so much going on that when they come to the club, they should be able to focus on having fun and playing golf.”
Stewart grew up in Edison and started pursuing a career as a golf pro in 1997 when he was living in Boston. From 1998 to 2003 he was an assistant pro at Isleworth in Windermere, Florida, which was fairly famous at the time for being the home course for Tiger Woods when Woods was establishing himself as the most dominant golfer of his generation.
He and his staff give some 600 lessons a year in addition to running the pro shop, numerous clinics, tournaments, and other golf events. “As pros of the club, we put the pro in proactivity,” he says. “We’re constantly looking for new and exciting ways to present golf to our members.”
Stewart takes pride in the junior program he and his staff have created and nurtured, including the club’s PGA Jr. League team. PGA Jr. League is open to kids age 13 and under, and notably, is open even to kids whose families are not members. Participants play in nine-hole, best-ball team matches against players from other area clubs. The teams are coached by assistant pros.
“I don’t mind telling my members my staff hasn’t lost in four seasons,” Stewart says. “Our kids are really, really good.”
Stewart says the club encourages members to play as many holes as their schedules allow. If members have less than an hour and their timing is right, they can stop in and play holes 1, 2, and 3, or holes 10, 11, and 18, both routes that will have them back by the clubhouse when they’re done. In fact, the compactness of the course means the layout is very flexible indeed. Someone with a little more time could play 1-2-7-8-9, or 10-12-16-17-18, all without making any long-distance walks. And of course, nine holes is always an option.
Stewart and his staff have also embraced a player-development program called Operation 36, which is designed to help golfers improve while also providing a framework for family-friendly golf. The program is designed to get players shooting scores of 36 for 9 holes, starting from shorter distances. Players might start each hole 50 yards from the green, trying to hole out in four strokes or fewer each time.
Once they are able to do that, they move back a certain distance and try to do the same. Stewart says this is a great way for families to enjoy playing the game together, and notes that even beginners can keep up their pace if they play from the ideal distances for their game.
Since April, Stewart has added radio show host to his weekly duties — hosting a show called Springdale Golf Live every Friday at 3 p.m. on 920 The Jersey Fox Sports Radio (WNJE-AM). Each week he interviews a guest from the greater golf world. When the PGA Tour’s Northern Trust was in Paramus last week, Stewart went onsite, interviewing Keith Dawkins, the CEO of the First Tee, an organization with the mission of growing the game of golf by changing the experience that kids and families have with the sport.
“I was looking into ways I could better promote the game of golf as a PGA professional,” Stewart says of the show. “I had done a number of guests spots on Fox Sports Radio or the Sirius XM PGA Tour Network. I have a passion for communicating the game and thought it would be something I would be skilled at, but it took about a year to convince the people over at Fox Sports what I’m capable of doing.”
He says he gets positive feedback every week. “The design of the show is to show that we are the coolest club in town. It’s just another example of how we’re looking at the big picture in Springdale and making it cool and fun, 2018 and beyond. When we’re talking about strategy at the club,we never say, ‘Well, that’s the way we used to do it,’” he says.
The club is exploring other opportunities to extend its reach in the community as well, like the reciprocal agreement it made with Nassau Swim Club.
“We’re neighbors, literally 200 yards apart, and as Springdale’s membership has become more family-oriented, swimming was a nice accommodation to make for the portion of the membership that would like to have a place to swim,” Tylus says. “And it’s good for the Nassau Swim Club members, who don’t have access to dining services, and many of them have an interest in golf. We thought the combination not only gave more to our members, but also to the greater community, since both organizations have a growing membership.”
Bob Denby has been a member since 1978. The retired marketing executive says when he moved to Princeton in the early 1970s, he looked into joining several clubs. “Springdale appealed to me because I like old-style courses and the club seemed to represent a broad section of the community. What really won me over was when I learned that two of the members were the chairman of Merrill Lynch and the chief of police in Princeton.”
Denby says he is thrilled with changes made at the club over the last five to ten years. “The new clubhouse and practice areas (opened in 2007), the changes to the course, a very active junior program. The affiliation with the swim club is just such a natural fit. It’s always been a special place and it’s not fussy and it’s not fancy.”
Springdale Golf Club, 1895 Clubhouse Drive, Princeton 08540. 609-921-8790. Ryan Stemsrud, general manager. springdalegc.org
For more information about the PGA Golf Clinic for Women on Wednesday, September 26, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
To listen to Keith Stewart’s Springdale Golf Live, tune to 920-AM “The Jersey” Fox Sports Radio (WNJE) Fridays at 3 p.m., stream it at 920thejersey.com, or search for the podcast wherever you usually find podcasts.