Column: The future of golf in Riverhead Town

The namesake Great Rock at the 10th hole of the course in Wading River. (Courtesy photo)
The namesake Great Rock at the 10th hole of the course in Wading River. (Courtesy photo)

Last year was a tough one for golf courses in Riverhead Town. Three closed, including Long Island National, which was purchased in a bankruptcy sale. The other two were Calverton Links and Great Rock. While the courses might have all had their individual problems, it’s clear the bold predictions that were made more than a decade earlier for the town’s golf industry are falling way short. This was back when News-Review coverage of course openings carried headlines like these:

“Myrtle Beach North?”

“Scotland west?”

“National pride”

OK, so some of the hyperbole was our fault, but that’s what people were saying in the late 1990s. The movement was being pushed by former supervisor Jim Stark, an avid golfer himself, and many others. The efforts came as golf was riding a nationwide wave of popularity, thanks to a fresh-faced 20-something named Tiger Woods. Tiger is now 38 and rehabbing from a back injury. He may not golf again this year.

The golf industry here is rehabbing as well.

There are 10 courses in Riverhead covering 1,406 acres total, according to town assessors. So the three that ran into trouble last year account for a full 30 percent. Great Rock just reopened under a new ownership group Monday, but I’m told another, which I won’t name, is on its last legs. Despite the troubles, Mr. Stark tells me he’s confi dent it’s just a matter of time before the economy gets into full swing, outside trends change and the industry bounces back.

“Not only golf courses but certain other businesses are hurting today with the economy,” he said. “Like anything else, golf and other extracurricular sports are declining in usage and attendance. And they’re hurting.”

I would argue it will take more than that.

Golf everywhere is hurting. As The New York Times reported in April, the sport has lost fi ve million players in the last decade and there are divisions within golf communities and regulating bodies about how to restore it to health. Some favor doing nothing. Various tweaks are being considered, such as changing regulations for “juiced’ clubs or balls. Then there are the more radical changes being fl oated to help introduce the sport to children, newcomers and casual golfers; one idea being 15-inch holes.

Brian Curtin, who was Great Rock’s general manager and is general manager again under the golf course’s new operators, said the problems facing the sport are numerous. Chief among them, he says, and many agree, is the length of time it takes to play.

“Playing a round of golf takes at least four hours, plus 30 minutes to and from the course and maybe an hour in the bar or grill room,” he said. “That’s six hours in total. With so many dual-working families, justifying taking six hours to play golf to your signifi cant other is becoming harder and harder.”

He says the courses that thrive tend to cater to families by offering other activities, “like swimming, tennis and other fun, kid-friendly events.”

Long Island National’s new owner, Donald Zucker, a NYC apartment building developer who just re-opened the Riverhead course as a private club, agreed with much of what Mr. Curtin said. And although Mr. Zucker has no intentions of bringing such activities to his Riverhead course (or of building anything), his North Shore Country Club in Glen Head is seeing tremendous success with families. The club was reportedly on the verge of demise when he bought it fi ve years ago.

“We had 68 kids running around the pool on Mother’s Day,” he said. “It was fantastic. I have everything from day camps to pool members to tennis members, tennis schools, golf schools. I built a great fi tness center there. And it’s working.”

He said some people who might sign up for a pool membership ultimately end up getting interested in golf, so the club also serves as a way of introducing the sport.

Many industry experts agree there are too many courses in the area, so perhaps some will need to fall by the wayside if golf is to thrive as a whole here. But we should take care to remember that town leaders were pushing for these courses, rightly touting their tax-friendliness and open space benefi ts. Short of anything unreasonable, town offi cials and taxpayers alike should work with and support course owners looking to expand in order to offer more products and services to a changing clientele.

Who knows, maybe one day in the not-so-distant future you might fi nd yourself enjoying one of these courses and its amenities with the family.

Michael White, editorMichael White is the editor of The Suffolk Times and Riverhead News-Review. He can be reached at [email protected] or (631) 298-3200, ext. 152.