NORWALK, Conn. - Southwestern Connecticut's Fairfield County is a place of contrasts.
It is home to some of the wealthiest zip codes in the United States - places like Cos Cob, Darien, New Canaan, Greenwich. And then there's the city of Norwalk, which is one of Connecticut's wealthiest by per-capita income, but is also one of the most income-unequal places in New England.
One of Norwalk's places of prosperity is Shorehaven Golf Club, founded in 1924, with a dedicated membership and a classic Willie Park, Jr.-designed golf course that consistently ranks among Connecticut's best. As at many such enclaves, access is typically restricted to members and guests. To most of the public, it and similar clubs tend to be regarded as mostly off-limits - a place benefiting a privileged few.
In 2022, though, Shorehaven took a significant step toward reshaping that narrative somewhat in the hope that other area clubs will follow suit.
Club member Joe Troy sits on the board of the Fairfield County chapter of The First Tee of Connecticut. "I had the idea of, 'Boy, it would be great if we could help [The First Tee] in some way, shape or form by offering our facility,'" he said.
Ideas are nice, but action is better. Troy brought his idea to club leadership: partner with The First Tee to work with an existing local organization to introduce local children to the game of golf, with Shorehaven as the venue.
The First Tee identified Norwalk's Carver Center, which provides after-school programming for children, many from low-income households, in order to help them continue their education in spite of the economic challenges they face. The club planned to offer up its facilities on Mondays in April, May, June and July of 2022 for between 10 and 18 Carver Center students aged 8 to 14.
Course director of grounds Ryan Segrue collaborated with Troy as well as Dr. Bill Fessler, a member of the club's board of directors, to set up an outdoor classroom of sorts. "[Segrue] really wanted to go all-out for this," Fessler said. Segrue aimed to set up a dedicated practice tee for the kids and help familiarize them with the agronomic side of golf.
As often happens with new initiatives, some roadblocks jumped up. Between lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the summer's worst weather days seemingly coming around on Mondays, the 2022 partnership between The First Tee, the Carver Center and Shorehaven was limited to two afternoon excursions by a group of female students in July to the course. It was a modest introduction, but an eye-opening one for both sides.
For the girls who attended the first session, it was clear that golf was a completely new concept; several of them brought basketballs to the course. But through The First Tee's facilitation efforts, they got a taste of a new game in which they might be interested.
"They had a good experience - they were just exposed [to the game]," said Fessler. "And that was our goal: to take baby steps, to develop a connection with our board so that we could be a site for the advancement of these young kids and connect with The First Tee."
These initial visits to Shorehaven were enough proof-of-concept to convince the club to lay out a plan for deeper involvement with The First Tee for 2023 and to "challenge our peer golf clubs in the area to do something similar, because they can and they should" said Fessler. "We have so many clubs in our area that have unique setups that would lend themselves to really helping kids. Although we live in affluent towns, we're surrounded by some of the poorest of the poor in Connecticut. So it would be nice to be able to share that experience."
"At the end of the day, we're all part of the same community," said James Connolly, Shorehaven's general manager. "We should all always work toward the same goals."
While Shorehaven looks to pioneer private club involvement with The First Tee in its home region, other private clubs in the United States have been getting involved with the organization in their own way. In Texas, several clubs that are part of the Invited (formerly ClubCorp) network have developed the ClubLife Gateway Program, which grants complimentary club memberships to junior golfers, combined with mentorship from club members or staff. At Serrano Country Club outside Sacramento, Calif., more than 1,400 junior golfers have participated in various First Tee programs held at the club.
"The opportunity to partner with Shorehaven Golf Club this summer was a real game changer for our chapter," said Mark Moriarty, the executive director of The First Tee's Connecticut chapter. "Shorehaven was the only private club to offer regular and weekly programming through First Tee – Connecticut this season, and we are excited to expand the relationship with them while also inspiring other private clubs in the state to do the same for the benefit of young people having positive experiences through the game of golf.”
Other ways private golf clubs can participate in growing golf's community
Private club membership has rarely been as coveted as it has become in the last two to three years. Clubs across the country are raising initiation fees and dues and are still cultivating wait lists for membership. This means more rounds and events than there may have been a few years ago. At the same time, it is important to help feed the latent curiosity about golf among those who do not have experience in the game. As new people come into the game, private clubs have a golden opportunity to break down some of the barriers between themselves and the rest of the golfing public.
One day I look forward to each year is an event called the Mayor's Cup here in Vero Beach, Fla. It is a lightly competitive, mostly social outing where local club pros team up with local amateurs to form two-player teams. Everyone's entry fees go toward the Indian River Junior Golf Foundation, a local golf program for kids that holds clinics and tournaments throughout the year. Several alumni of the IRJGF program now work at private clubs in the area. The 2022 Mayor's Cup was held at Orchid Island Golf & Beach Club, which took care of everything and enabled all of everyone's entry fees to go directly to the foundation. If your area has a local foundation for junior golf, your club might be able to pitch in and host even a smallish fundraiser.
Charity outings are another way that many private clubs open their doors to the greater community. TPC River Highlands, the annual host of the PGA Tour's Travelers Championship, hosts a special event the day before it shuts down for the tournament each year: Foursomes for Fatherhood, benefitting the Hartford-based Village for Families & Children. I've had the opportunity to play in the event several times, and the post-golf dinner where young men talk about their experiences with the Village, and how the organization has helped them become better fathers to their children, is always moving.
Support for competitive golf (not just your Member-Guest)
Along with a general increase in rounds and overall interest in the game, the pandemic put competitive golf back on the upswing. In my home state of Florida, the state golf association's (FSGA) One-Day events - often held at private clubs - have been selling out within minutes of their entry period's opening. Your home state golf association likely runs tournaments like these; get your club on the calendar to show it off, generating buzz and excitement among passionate golfers who wouldn't normally be able to access it.
Alternatively, your club could partner with the local municipalities - town/city, county - to co-host an annual local or regional amateur event. One exemplar of this is Charlotte, North Carolina, whose annual city amateur's final round rotates among the area's most prestigious clubs, like Quail Hollow, Charlotte Country Club and Myers Park Country Club. The opportunity to play one of the top private clubs in competition is prime motivation for the area's best amateurs.