Superintendent Fulfills Course Ownership Dream
By Andrew Hartsock , GCM's Editing Manager
Scott and Missy Howard purchased their own golf course in January — years earlier than they’d expected, and just before the coronavirus crisis. They’re determined to stay the course.
Scott Howard met the woman of his dreams, and together, they hatched a plan.
Scott, a GCSAA Class A superintendent and 18-year association member, and his wife, Missy, met as students at the State University of New York at Delhi. Scott was studying golf and sports turf management; Missy was learning hotel and restaurant management.
“It was always our dream, I guess, that someday down the line, we would own our own golf course,” Scott says. “I would operate the golf course, and she’d operate the restaurant. That was how our life was going to go.”
That plan, however, was projected well into the future. Scott and Missy figured they’d work for others, raise a family, and then while away their golden years at their idyllic golf course/restaurant. That timeline didn’t hold true.
Last year, when the opportunity arose for the Howards to purchase the course that Scott had previously tended for a decade, they jumped at the chance. In January, they finally closed on that purchase and reopened what is now Attica’s 10th Hole and Golf Course in Attica, N.Y.
“It happened way faster than we thought,” Scott says with a laugh. “We were thinking in retirement we’d buy a golf course. We’re 40 years old, and we own our own golf course. It’s crazy. It is a dream, and it gives us something to work for.”
In the best of times, the prospect of buying a golf course can be uncertain at best, foolhardy at worst. And present times are far from the best. None of which the Howards could have foreseen back when the possibility of buying the nine-hole private course then known as Attica Golf Club first emerged.
Scott Howard’s first superintendent job was at Attica Golf Club, a position he landed in 2006. “I really didn’t know what to expect, but being a nine-hole course intrigued me,” Howard says. “It had a private feel, but it didn’t have the overwhelming largeness of a big, high-end private club.”
As he was settling into his role as superintendent, Howard picked up a few additional duties. Attica GC found itself in need of a bookkeeper, and Howard stepped up. “I told the board I had a little bit of an accounting background and that I would help out until they found somebody,” he recalls. “Seven years later, I was still running the office. I did the register, paid taxes, did the payroll, printed newsletters — I did all the office work as well as being the superintendent.”
About halfway through his 10-year stint, Howard noticed membership had begun to decline. Though the club was still viable, cuts were being made, and when the opportunity to become superintendent at The Fox Valley Club in nearby Lancaster, N.Y., presented itself, Howard moved on, trading nine holes for 18 and taking control of a maintenance budget four times greater than that at Attica GC.
The Howards still lived in Attica, though, and roughly three years into Scott’s four-year tenure at Fox Valley, he heard whispers that Attica GC was about to be sold. That rumored deal ultimately fell through, though the club’s president intimated that the course could be bought if the right buyer and right offer came along.
“So my wife and I started putting our foot to the pedal to figure out what we could do,” Howard says.
The Howards, longtime residents of Attica and parents to Zak (13) and Jake (9), put together a business plan and, eventually, secured funding. They made their official offer to buy the course in May 2019, and the following month, the course members voted to sell — in principle. The course continued to take offers through July, and then in September 2019, voted to accept the Howards’ offer.
“We weren’t going to buy just any golf course,” Howard says. “This is our hometown. I worked here 10 years. We know people in town. I think that helped, and from what everybody says, the whole thing was kind of fast-tracked. I can honestly say, I don’t think they would have sold to just anybody. But with me being local ... I think they wanted to see it remain a golf course. Some of the other inquiries might not have had a long-term plan for it staying a golf course.”
The deal closed in January. The Howards began working toward opening day, despite what Scott describes as “one of the wettest spring seasons in western New York history.” He had to build a makeshift cart path to make the course accessible.
There was still snow on the ground on March 7 when the restaurant half of the Howards’ golf course-restaurant dream held its soft opening, a week before the March 14 grand opening.
“It was well attended,” Howard says. “That night, we got a phone call, during our dinner service, that schools were closing and that all restaurants had to go to takeout only. That burst our bubble. That week, we tried to do the to-gos, but it’s a clubhouse restaurant. It’s not conducive to curbside or takeout, so we had to close down the restaurant and had to wait on the game of golf — for Mother Nature to say we’re ready to open for golf.”
The coronavirus pandemic has done a number on most golf courses. Those in New York have had to deal with unusual uncertainty, as governmental decrees come and go with varying degrees of clarity.
“The state has changed the rules on golf courses four times now,” Howard says. “It’s been a whirlwind here in New York. Everybody interprets the rules differently. We watch our government briefing at 11:30 daily to see if something changes.”
Howard sometimes doesn’t know how to respond when a caller asks whether Attica is open for play.
“We have been busy, gotten a lot of inquiries,” Howard says. “People are looking to get out and play. People need a release. They need to be allowed to get out and play golf. I feel we would be very busy if we’re allowed to open with carts.”
Howard describes his course as “very hilly — the only flat hole is the first hole,” and he estimates 80% of his golfers would use a cart. Attica had been sending out golfers one per cart before Howard came to understand that golfers were to be limited to walking only.
The Howards face other challenges. The course, which opened in 1932, had been private, but the Howards have opened it to the public. Because it had been known for so long as a members-only venue — if it was known at all — getting the word out has been a task.
“One of the battles, since we were private so long ... we’re at the end of a dead-end street in the village,” he says. “People who live in town don’t even know we’re here. It’s a challenge here locally. We have to rely on social media to get the word out. But people that have heard ... everybody is happy we opened. The response locally was amazing. We have a group of friends who aren’t golfers, people who didn’t patronize here or were members up here, and they see the benefits of having another place in town to go.”
One advantage to the situation, Howard says, is that he’s had time to do some work around the course. He happily took to social media recently to show off some bunker upgrades, and says he feels fortunate he didn’t buy a golf course that went on the block because of neglect.
“The superintendent who took over for me when I left here did a fantastic job with what they gave him to work with,” Howard says. “There are some things that could be done, but it’s not so much the golf course or the restaurant end of it need to be improved. It’s just the fact it’s been a private club for so long and a lot of people haven’t been out here. The first question we ask everyone out here is, ‘Have you ever played here before?’ Now, 100% of the time, the answer is, ‘Nope, never been here.’
“It’s very exciting, but it’s also very nerve-wracking,” Howard says. “We’re banking everything on making it go as a business. We’re going from having two jobs with somebody paying us to, ‘We have to do this or ... what? What is the outcome if we don’t make it?’ But honestly, we’re two very positive people. What happens if we don’t make it hasn’t crossed our minds.
“You’d think, with everything going on, maybe we’d feel a little buyer’s remorse. But we know we’ll get through it. The number of phone calls we’ve taken, the people we’ve had to turn away — these are people who want to come spend money here. We know we’ll do well. We just have to get through this time.”
Andrew Hartsock is GCM’s managing editor.
Rick Holfoth, CGCS
Country Club of Rochester
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Rick Holfoth, CGCS at The Country Club of Rochester. In the past when writing this column, I have always met with the superintendent I'm writing about in person, usually over lunch, or in their office, or by taking a tour of their course. In the age of Covid-19 however, so much has changed, and so Rick and I decided that a phone conversation would be the most appropriate way to conduct his interview. This was a bit disappointing, but it is the reality of the situation that we have all been thrown into since March.
The Covid-19 outbreak has had an incredible impact on all of our lives, both professionally and personally, no doubt. It has also had a big impact on our newly formed association. Rick is the chairman of the consolidation committee that helped to lay the groundwork and get the association started. He, along with so many members of the newly formed GCSANY, were looking forward to an exciting year full of events bringing together many more people to discuss turf related issues, play golf, and network with a much wider range of industry folks from upstate N.Y. The plan had been to start things off with Rick hosting us at his club for an early spring education day in late March. This was scheduled to be the first official meeting of the GCSANY, and there was a great level of excitement around this day. As everyone knows, this had to be postponed, but hopes are high that we will still be able to get together in the near future.
Rick and I spent some time discussing how the idea of having three different associations, covering a geographical area spanning from Buffalo to Syracuse and beyond, could come together and form one bigger, stronger association. The idea behind this started four or five years ago in a very grassroots manner. Then, in the early part of 2017, a committee was formed with three superintendents from each of the participating organizations. It was at this point that Rick was named chairman, and the group would begin to work tirelessly to form what we now call our own. Bringing these groups together was no easy feat. Rick and the other members of the consolidation committee would spend two years bringing their ideas to fruition. They worked closely with Kevin Doyle and GCSAA, who offered guidance but allowed the group to make all of the decisions themselves. The committee consulted many other sources and other GCSAA chapters to figure out the best way to make this happen. Following the advice of their resources, and after having strategic planning sessions, the representatives of each respective organization took the information to their local associations, presented the information, and each group then voted. The Western NY chapter was the first group to vote, and the results were a unanimous yes. Central NY and Finger Lakes soon followed, each also voting to form the Golf Course Superintendents Association of New York.
Rick's path to becoming a certified golf course superintendent has been an interesting one. He began working at a young age as a caddy at Wanakah Country Club in Hamburg, NY, just south of Buffalo. After a few summers as a looper, Rick took the first step towards becoming a superintendent, working in the grounds maintenance department at Wanakah. He may not have known it at the time, but his new summer job was going to lead him towards a long and successful career. After high school, Rick enrolled in college at Buffalo State, with a major in industrial engineering. During the summer after his first year of school, Rick was an intern working in a factory. Upon completion of this internship, Rick realized that the path he had chosen was not his calling. So for his second year of school, he switched majors to computer science. Unfortunately, he soon realized that computer science wasn’t peaking his interests either! He would spend some time speaking to his parents about what he wanted to do, and then made the decision to transfer into the turf management program at SUNY Delhi. Rick would receive his Associates degree from Delhi in 1988, and upon graduation, took a job as the assistant Superintendent at Irondequoit Country Club. Rick was excited to be chosen for this position, and just 2 years later, the superintendent he was working for announced that he was leaving Irondequoit. This happened in mid May, and the board of directors at Irondequoit quickly named Rick as the interim Superintendent for the 1990 season. After just 2 years as an assistant, and one year as the interim super, Irondequoit made it official and named Rick as their Golf Course Superintendent. Rick says that he felt very lucky to be given the opportunity to be the superintendent at a great club at such a young age. Never one to rest on his laurels, Rick began taking night classes at St. John Fisher College in Rochester, working on a Bachelor's Degree in Business, which he completed in 1997. Along with acquiring a second degree, Rick was, of course, busy managing a golf course during this period in his life. He credits his time at Irondequoit with giving him great experience, especially while undergoing a course restoration and the installation of a new irrigation system. The club hired architect Ron Prichard for the restoration, and the work was completed throughout the 2001 season.
In early 2003, Joe Hahn announced his intention to retire from The Country Club of Rochester, and Rick was eager to step in as Mr. Hahn’s replacement. The club was working on a new Master Plan, and who better to put that plan in place than Rick, especially after recently completing the projects at Irondequoit. Having the renovation experience, plus having recently installed the new irrigation system, Rick was a great fit to take over as superintendent at yet another Donald Ross gem. Rick says that he feels extremely fortunate to have been able to go from working at one great club to another, without having to move to a new city or location, a rare occurrence in our industry. He began working at CCR in March of that year, and the club hired an up and coming golf course architect by the name of Gil Hanse to design the Master Plan. The project was approved the following spring, and work began that year. This included a bunker renovation, new tees were built, and an extensive tree removal project began. In 2005, they installed drainage in many areas of the course, and utilizing what he had learned from the installation of the new irrigation system at Irondequoit, a triple row system was installed that year at CCR. Then in 2008, a large project to relocate and rebuild the 18th green was completed. This project also included new bentgrass clubhouse lawns, as well as a new practice green, all built as one large complex. More recently, Rick and the club have been working on “Phase Two” of the Master Plan, which has included more tee work, and they are planning more tree removals in the near future as well. Rick and Mr. Hanse have worked closely throughout the project, and the club still calls on him from time to time when slight tweaks and small projects on the course are needed. As if he wasn’t already busy enough, Rick has also recently completed his Masters Degree in Turf Management from Penn State’s online “World Campus” as part of his professional growth plan at CCR.
When not at work, Rick enjoys spending time with his wife of 27 years, Rosemary, and their four children. The family enjoys boating in the summer at the family’s Lake Erie camp, as well as skiing and snowboarding during the winter months. Rosemary is a 3rd grade teacher, and the couple have two children in high school and two in college. Their oldest, Joshua, studies journalism and communications at SUNY Oswego, and is also a rugby player. Caleb, their second child, studies mass media and communications, and plays intramural soccer at St. Johns University in Queens. Simon is a junior in high school, enjoys rowing crew, and is considering entering the armed forces upon completion of high school. Their youngest child, daughter Audra, is currently a freshman in high school and is also a soccer player.
So, while we were unable to make March’s meeting at Rick’s club a reality, rest assured knowing that our newly formed chapter, the Golf Course Superintendents Association of New York, has great things planned for the future, and there will be plenty of events to attend once things get back to normal. Stay safe, and stay healthy, and we will all get together again soon.
About the author: Mike Tollner is the Golf Course Superintendent at Bellevue Country Club in Syracuse, N.Y. He is a class A member of GCSAA, and has been working in the golf business since 1994.