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IMHO: A sad sequel awaits Newport Golf Club

  • Greg Fennell. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Sports Editor
Published: 4/27/2019 10:10:57 PM
Modified: 4/27/2019 10:10:51 PM

I find the recollections of my athletic past — and the painful awareness that I lack one — are growing more suspect as I age. So I tell the following tale, which hopefully explains my fondness for Newport Golf Club and concern for its imminent fate, with the knowledge that only my playing partner at the time can corroborate it.

I play golf only occasionally, and quite often poorly. Then-Valley News sports compatriot Bruce Wood and I attempted an 18-hole round at Newport one summer afternoon many years ago, and I fuzzily remember a typical Fennell day: multiple bad shots, growing gloom and frustration, yada yada yada, as we made the turn at the 10th hole, a par-5 with a small pond protecting the front right side of a humpbacked green.

Having sliced a drive into the rough, I’d negotiated my way back to the fairway to face a fifth shot of about 150 yards to the green. I took out a 5 wood with a head the size of a swollen walnut — I’ve never been much of a long-distance hitter — and topped a low screamer that reached the green, rolled toward the back of it and disappeared from sight.

Bruce and I looked all over for the ball. We checked the rough behind the green, then the shrubbery behind the rough. Nothing. So for laughs, I went to the flag and looked down. My ball was resting very nicely in the cup.

A fairway hole-out for par. That’s why I like Newport. That’s why I’ll miss it if doesn’t come back.

Newport Golf Club is supposed to be celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. It’s getting a lousy present: The bank that owns the course’s mortgage is putting it up for auction on Tuesday at 2 p.m. because its current owners — brothers Nick, John and Joe Catsam — appear fiscally incapable of running it anymore.

Kentucky-based First Southern National Bank filed a civil action against the brothers in February, seeking more than $1.3 million in restitution. In its complaint, the bank said the Catsams haven’t made a monthly mortgage payment in a year and put the club up for sale without its knowledge or approval. It isn’t the first time Newport has gone to auction; the Catsams bought the course out of bankruptcy in 2003 after an Illinois bank took it over the previous year.

In such cases, the people who call a golf course home are the ones left asking the questions. Newport Golf Club was member-owned for most, if not all, of its first 80 or so years of existence. Even under private control, members have been integral to its existence.

But they’re getting older, too.

“To me, in this area, I don’t see a lot of younger people playing the game like when I was growing up,” Steve Haselton told me last week. The Newport resident has organized the club’s twilight men’s golf league for more than two decades.

“A lot of the younger generation aren’t out there,” he noted. “I don’t know what they’re doing. When I was in school, there were lots of kids playing golf. Now there doesn’t seem to be that.”

Bill Thurlow lives across Unity Road from the course and has played it for years.

“I haven’t heard an awful lot except rumors,” Thurlow said. “I’ve known the Catsam family for a long time, and I knew they were in financial difficulty last year, trying to hang on. But I haven’t seen any of them since October.

“We kept hearing rumors that they were trying to find a buyer, that the bank was hanging on and hoping someone would emerge. Nobody apparently did.”

The same issues that plague print journalism — an aging readership, an apparent lack of interest from the younger demographic — are also affecting golf course health. But Haselton pointed to other reasons that explain Newport’s predicament.

New England’s typically fickle weather is one. The Sugar River divides the course in two; it’s prone to flooding. One such occasion years ago forced a complete redesign of the par-5 18th hole into its current configuration.

The economy is another. It might be going great guns for the 1%, but not for everybody else. Those who consider golf a recreational need have had second thoughts.

“I think golf is down industry-wide,” Haselton said. “People don’t want to spend money over the last few years, and it’s been a struggle. They’ve done what they could do. I know, when they bought the course, they had a tremendous bank payment and made it work for all these year. It’s not working for them now.”

Messages for Nick Catsam at the course, through the club’s Facebook page and at his construction company weren’t returned last week. David Campbell, Catsam’s Nashua-based lawyer, declined to comment on Thursday.

I like Newport. I like its downhill par-3 fourth hole and its ample target of a green. I like the short, par-4 eighth hole; it’s one I always seem to par because I can reach the green with two short iron shots. For all of the rounds it’s destroyed, I’m fond of the back nine because of the water that dots the holes; every single one has some sort of aquatic danger. My frequent mistakes from the 12th fairway and 13th tee line the bottom of the pond that separates them.

Bankers don’t trade in sentimentality, however. They want to recoup their money and move on. I don’t fault them for that, just as I would guess many of Newport’s members don’t fault the Catsams for being in the position they’re in.

Newport is a challenging course, one that hosted the New Hampshire Amateur in 1996, one that’s good enough to do it again if healthy and active.

That’s a big if right now. I hope something positive comes from Tuesday.

You never forget your first (and only) fairway hole-out. I wouldn’t mind the chance to try again.

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




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