The family that bought the former Woodcrest Club at bankruptcy auction last year is not afraid to go against the grain. First, Jerry Steinlauf and two younger generations leaped right into the golf business when others were fleeing it. Now, after a year of running the renamed Woodside Acres, they are promoting it as a classic country club.
That comes at a time when other clubs are de-emphasizing social, catering and swimming amenities and focusing on attracting golfers by offering low fees. Woodside Acres, a 107-acre property in Syosset, is heading in the other direction, having renovated the former mansion that serves as a clubhouse, upgraded the restaurant, restored the pool area and begun recruiting people who want the whole package.
"Every one of the clubs in our area is hurting. They're all having financial difficulties, so whatever their formula has been over the past 10 or 15 years has not been successful," said Steinlauf, a co-founder of Bohemia-based Jerome Stevens Pharmaceuticals and a former caddie at Bayside Links. "I can't model this club after our competitors.
"Everybody says, 'Well, you know, we hear that they do this, they do that.' I say give me a model that's profitable and I'll follow it. I haven't heard that yet."
He does not deny that it has been a challenging year since he and his son Ron bought Woodcrest for $19 million last May 6. Amelia, his wife of 55 years, still says that she never would have let them buy it had she been with them. Nonetheless, she instantly took over the renovation of the clubhouse: iron magnate James Burden's mansion, which was designed by William Adams Delano and which once hosted President Franklin Roosevelt and the Prince of Wales.
"It's such a magnificent place, and they had let it go to hell," she said, adding that she has used the eye for decor she developed growing up in Rome.
Other family members are sports enthusiasts who were intrigued by owning a golf course (grandson Daniel Akeson, who helps run the pharmaceutical business and the club, also publishes the Blueshirt Bulletin, a magazine that covers the Rangers). The upkeep on the course and buildings support their claim that they are not planning to plow the place under for a housing development.
Steinlauf said in the clubhouse the other day that the membership fee, which he didn't disclose, was low. "It wasn't a deal that we put out there. We just didn't know better," he said.
The result was an influx of enthusiastic golfers who had been shopping for a good price, not a lifestyle. Club pro Paul Glut, recruited from Island Hills in Sayville, where the pharmaceutical firm had a corporate membership, said that modern private-course golfers are looking for the basics: "They've got their kids' lacrosse games to go to. They're not here as much after work because they've got to go to a baseball game. A little of the old country club mentality is gone because their life is so busy."
Steinlauf wants to change that. The new pitch is to emphasize amenities and attract a smaller group of members, probably fewer than 200, who won't have to wait for prime tee times.
"We have increased our dues to the point where a lot of people are running [away] for the deals. Every year, clubs are catering to the deal chaser. We're going the opposite way," he said. "We're willing to gamble on that. We're counting on bringing it up a level, for people who are willing to go that extra mile to be a member of a country club."