IMHO: Closing Golf Course Is a Shot in the Rough

  • Rob Esler takes a swing with his golf club on Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2017, at the Hanover Country Club in Hanover, N.H. (Valley News - Charles Hatcher) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Sports Editor
Saturday, August 19, 2017

My golf game blows turf, and I’m not afraid to admit it.

A story: Hanover Country Club’s par-4 first hole is on the lengthy side — about 400 yards, slightly uphill. I recall stepping onto the tee box once, just hoping to keep my drive in play, even though I knew it would probably take me three shots to reach the green regardless of how well I swung the club.

Instead, with my shallow swing plane, my inability to adequately turn my shoulders and Lord knows what other faults, I cut the face of my driver across the face of my ball. It arced way off to the right, through the adjacent 18th fairway, into the trees and out of bounds. I may have endangered a jogger or dog walker in the process; I can’t (or won’t) recollect.

I bring this lovely memory forward as a reaction to the recent news that Dartmouth College — as part of an ongoing shift of operational expenses — may consider closing Hanover Country Club and selling its 123 acres. Like my first-tee attempt so many years ago, this idea is a way-off-target slice, an unplayable error.

Talk about a lousy swing thought.

“My gut reaction would be surprise if it actually occurred,” Scott Peters, a longtime HCC member and president of Golf & Ski Warehouse in West Lebanon, told me last week. “But in this day of development and with Dartmouth scooping up all of the town, I suppose it’s more of a possibility than I thought it might be.”

I’m no fan of bean-counters, but I understand why Dartmouth leadership might consider this option.

As Valley News staff writer Rob Wolfe reported in Thursday’s edition, the college is a little over a year into a four-year plan to shift spending from administration to academic programs. Dartmouth initially eyed $20 million to $25 million as a goal, but donations secured by Phil Hanlon, the college’s president, has reduced the need to around $17 million. Dumping the golf course, which Dartblog’s Joe Asch estimated might draw $15 million to $25 million in the right developmental hands, would achieve that goal.

(Dartblog first reported on the college’s cost and course considerations last week.)

The course’s ideal location along Lyme Road would certainly draw developer interest. It would also give the college space to move farther north should it hold onto the land instead. As for the game itself, few in the golf industry will deny that rounds are down nationally and the growth of the 1990s and beyond has slowed, if not stopped.

“A lot of the people in New Hampshire that are golfers that we are engaged with … we hear the same thing: It’s too expensive, it’s too hard, it takes too much time,” New Hampshire Golf Association Executive Director Matt Schmidt said.

However, lopping off Hanover CC from the college expense sheet is a bad idea from so many other perspectives.

For starters, consider the course’s role in the history of golf in New Hampshire. Its 1899 founding predates that of the NHGA (1905). The course has hosted the New Hampshire Amateur four times, the Tri-States three. The New Hampshire Women’s Golf Association has held at least five amateur championships at Hanover, the most recent in 2012.

Hanover High doesn’t become perhaps the most accomplished high school golf program in New Hampshire without easy Hanover Country Club access. Top golfers don’t unite every July to honor the late Tommy Keane without it. No public course in the Upper Valley — none — can match the volume of talented amateurs who call Hanover CC home. It remains one of the very few public courses in the Upper Valley with dedicated time carved out for women golfers.

“I’m not a native of New Hampshire, but I think Hanover certainly serves, to me, as an important part of that community,” Schmidt said. “When I go up there, it’s a tight-knit community for the golf population that seems to be a part of it. You have this little country club that’s there, a neat little course; they still have the old clubhouse there. It has undergone changes in past years, but I get that very communal feeling when I’m up there. Golf people in that area would certainly be upset to see it go; we, as an association, would be devastated to see it go away.”

Dartmouth spent $3 million — aided by a “significant gift” from alumnus Robert Keeler, according to HCC’s online history — in the early 2000s to convert Hanover from a 5,800-yard curiosity into a more challenging 6,500-yard layout. Close the course, and you’ve wasted that donation.

I also have to question the school’s commitment to the course, particularly that of the athletic department that operates it. The Dartmouth women’s golf team still holds its fall invitational tournament at Hanover, but the men haven’t played a home match there since 2009. Their big fall “home” event takes place at the Quechee Club in September.

It’s important to note that last week’s news isn’t a signal of imminent action. Rick Mills, Dartmouth’s executive vice president, told the Valley News the cost review includes everything “from, ‘Does Dartmouth need to own as many vehicles as it owns?’ to, ‘What’s the optimal amount of cleaning supplies?’ to, ‘What’s the optimal amount of office space?’ ”

Athletic director Harry Sheehy also reached out to Hanover CC members last week to add context, noting a closure is only one possible outcome.

“Under the circumstances, it would be irresponsible not to consider ways to alleviate costs associated with owning and operating the club,” he wrote.

Instead of considering the course’s end, Dartmouth, do a better of job of investing in its future. A wide array of recreational offerings, including golf, directly influences the quality of Upper Valley life. Instead of treating Hanover Country Club as a budget line, make it a resource.

Schmidt, the NHGA executive director, noted that New Hampshire has bucked the national trend by increasing membership numbers by “1 percent, or 2 at most” through the 2000s. So it’s not huge growth, but it’s growth; Hanover Country Club should be part of it.

“The mere fact that it’s now front-page news is enough of a concern,” Peters said. “I would tell you there have been rumblings about that for years, but nothing more than that. Now that it’s front-page news, it’s another level of concern than previously.

“My interpretation is (closing Hanover) is being visited rather than concluded. I’m hopeful that the powers that be take a harder look. The value of the course is more than dollars and cents.”

Absolutely. Take the idea of closing Hanover Country Club — no matter how preliminary it may be — and bury it in a deep, deep bunker.

Greg Fennell can be reached at gfennell@vnews.com or 603-727-3226.