The first priority for a private club is, of course, privacy. Members pay for the privilege of playing and dining when they want and running the place the way they want it run. So it was a stunner when the Muttontown Club's board announced that a Scottsdale, Ariz., company with a global portfolio was coming in to manage their private domain.
As late as this past Sunday, more than two months after Troon Golf started working at the club in East Norwich, president Mitchell Mandel wasn't sure what his fellow members would say about it. The board and Troon Golf executives held their first town hall-style meeting, and held their breath.
"When you're trying to please a full membership, there's always a fear factor," said Jim McLaughlin, executive vice president of the firm that manages more than 200 golf facilities worldwide. "There's the feeling that they're going to say, 'Hey, we're being taken over.' "
As it turned out, Mandel said, "It was probably the best meeting I've had in my four years on the board." The fact is, he added, the membership realizes that the real first priority for a private club is to stay in business.
"Over the past two or three years, it became obvious to the board that the way clubs have been running in the past is not going to work any more," Mandel said. "It had been very easy to run clubs. Basically, if there was a problem, you just threw money at the problem. Buy more fertilizer, buy more food, hire the best chef. When there's money, it's easy."
But money isn't there in this post-crash, post-Madoff environment. On top of that, there aren't as many members around as there used to be. Officials at Long Island clubs say that the latest generation isn't crazy about joining private golf clubs.
Younger parents are involved in youth soccer and baseball and everything else their children have joined. The net result is a more shallow pool of resources. Muttontown trimmed about $1.4 million from its $7.5-million budget and that still didn't secure a future.
Muttontown's members did not have to look far to see Exhibit A. The nearby Woodcrest Club in Syosset closed after last season and ultimately wound up in a bankruptcy auction. The winning bid May 6 was $19 million, with a father and son team that won it saying there is no telling whether Woodcrest will reopen as a golf club. More than 30 former Woodcrest members joined Muttontown this year.
"It's a tough business," Mandel said. "Believe me, many more clubs are going to go under before this stabilizes."
Some clubs are reducing dues and increasing family oriented programs to recruit new members and keep the ones they have. Some are working hard to maintain the quality of their courses. Others are cutting back on amenities, such as winter clubhouse hours.
At Muttontown, the decision was made late last year to bring in a management firm that specializes in running golf courses. "This is different from most businesses," said Mandel, a dermatologist with a practice in Manhattan. "Here, the owner is also the customer. In my viewpoint and the board's viewpoint, this was a no-brainer."
Possibly, but it also was a big leap of faith for Muttontown, a stately club whose personality is symbolized by the clubhouse, an elegant Georgian mansion. Mandel and the board, though, believed that hiring Troon was not an invasion of privacy but a route to survival. They say the club will benefit from the discounts in Troon's bulk buying power.
They also think Muttontown will be more efficient because it can rely on Troon's resources in pro shop management, agronomy, restaurant operations and finance. The new general manager is D.J. Flanders, who has worked at Troon facilities in Japan and Dubai.
"It's like that Verizon commercial, he's got all those resources behind him," McLaughlin said. He and Mandel both pointed out that the Muttontown board still is in charge and that Troon is there to provide information and legwork. "There's still a lot of hard work to do," McLaughlin said by phone from Scottsdale, having returned from his weekend on Long Island. "There's no magic pill."
"Those clubs that went out of business, if they had gone this route, they probably would still be around," Mandel said. "There are people who still want to play golf. There aren't going to be as many, but if you can provide services, you still can do great things."