HINGHAM - When Golf Digest’s prestigious course rankings came out last April, four Massachusetts clubs were among the magazine’s top 100 in the United States, including Boston Golf Club in Hingham, one of nine newcomers to the biennial list.
It was a crowning achievement for the relatively young club - which opened in 2004 - and should have been cause for great celebration, recognized for its naturalistic course that served as the main draw for a golf-centric facility that was quickly developing a reputation as an exclusive, mysterious, invitation-only retreat for Boston’s wealthy and well-connected.
However, the good news came during a period of turmoil and great uncertainty. Rumors and speculation of financial demise dogged Boston Golf Club throughout 2011 and into this year, raising the strong possibility of it being sold to Donald Trump (he tried) or someone else who might envision a drastically different club and membership model than the one nurtured by its late founder, John Mineck.
Ultimately, a group of five men - four Boston Golf Club members plus an unexpected ally - purchased the land the club and course sat on, eliminating the long-term lease that had become the club’s anchor, which was pulling it toward bankruptcy and beyond. It’s turned into the ultimate mulligan, an equity club now owned by its members - assuming they rejoined - and suddenly able to plot its future without fear of forced, unwanted change.
“It’s a brand new club and we’re starting from scratch,’’ Jack Ryan, one of the four Boston Golf Club members who brokered the deal, said recently from his office at the club, where he serves as the new president.
Ryan, along with fellow members Bill Aliski, Jim Halpin, and Jeff McCormick, teamed with George McGoldrick, the owner of Black Rock Country Club, a Hingham club that is located down the street. Ryan said the five, with McGoldrick doing the bulk of the negotiating, bought the land from John DeMatteo for $6.5 million. The paperwork was signed Jan. 31.
“There was probably $50 million spent here, maybe more,’’ Ryan said. “We own it for $6.5 million. You can’t pass that up.’’
While it might be surprising to learn that a respected, award-winning, high-end private club was experiencing financial problems, it’s not an isolated case, and certainly not the first time that members have become the owners. Bobby Orr joined a group of other members who purchased the Ridge Club in a $3 million deal earlier this year.
“In the last four, five, six years, golf has faced a major financial challenge,’’ said Paul Spengler, the executive vice president of the Pebble Beach Company who has also worked as a golf consultant. “Some clubs are doing great, some have the right model and the right formula, and it works. Others maybe were overpriced at one point, and all of a sudden people can’t afford to pay the dues. You can’t say the whole market is this way, but it certainly has affected the whole industry of golf to have all these changes.’’
Not the norm
The two biggest changes at Boston Golf Club happened almost simultaneously. Founded by Mineck, with the course designed by Gil Hanse - who recently was selected to design the Olympic course for the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro - Boston Golf Club catered to a select, lucky few, who were introduced to or identified by Mineck as sharing the vision of what he wanted his golf club to be. No rules, no policies, Mineck would tell his members, just let common sense and good taste rule the day.
With an initiation fee of at least $125,000, common sense and good taste came at a steep price. But the understated simplicity of Boston Golf Club helped enhance its mystique. The entrance to the club, on Old County Road, is a tall, thin, stone slab with only the street number - 19 - crudely carved into it. No sign, no inclination that the winding drive up the hill leads to a world-class golf course.
There is no swimming pool at Boston Golf Club, no tennis courts, no large dining area commonly found at most country clubs. There is simply golf, with Cushing Road splitting the nines. But it built a membership that peaked at just under 150, and brought in J.J. Weaver as its director of golf. Weaver had his summers free because the place where he’s employed as the head professional - Augusta National Golf Club - is closed from June into September.
The first crack in the foundation came in March 2007, when Mineck died in a construction accident on the golf course. A year later, when many of the financial markets nosedived, Boston Golf Club found itself in a precarious position: its membership (and revenue stream) in decline, but expensive lease payments that were still due.
“John’s death was really devastating for the club, it was just tragic,’’ said Aliski, who was the second member to join, back in 2003. “That stopped everything in its tracks, it stopped people from thinking about joining. The second piece was the crash in 2008. But underlying that was a very bad land deal.’’
Rumors quickly spread last year - Was the club bankrupt? Were the gates locked? Is it closing? - while the region was thawing out after a long, snowy winter. But there were signs of change. Weaver remained in Augusta, Ga. The club delayed its opening. And DeMatteo, the land owner, considered selling.
Aliski said the tipping point, looking back on it, might have come when Trump expressed interest in purchasing Boston Golf Club.
“I think it galvanized people,’’ said Aliski, the club’s vice president. “Maybe we won’t be able to pull it off, but we have to try to do something so that the members can maintain this golf course.’’
Bids were submitted, with McGoldrick of Black Rock eventually joining the four members. Black Rock, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, has more than 400 members in a traditional country club setting. He viewed helping his colleagues down the street as a smart business deal.
“What we were able to do was to keep it in the family, because the members deserve to and they’re the best stewards of it,’’ said McGoldrick, who sold his ownership stake in Boston Golf Club to the membership group after the deal with DeMatteo was completed. “From our perspective, they’re a great neighbor. We’re not competitors because we’re two totally different products, just both happen to be golf courses, but we both serve a different market. There were numerous others looking at it that potentially could have been competitors to Black Rock. We had the right people involved. They basically carried the vision that John Mineck had and want to continue that.’’
Plans being made
Times are different now than in 2004, though, and the club Mineck envisioned - no carts permitted, no tee times, a bustling caddie program, only single memberships - might not be viable anymore. Changes, including carts and cart paths, are planned.
It’s also not invitation-only anymore, since Boston Golf Club would like to increase its membership to more than 200 (it’s currently at slightly more than 100). Once the deal went through in January, any former member could rejoin at a cost of $30,000 - the initiation fee for new members is slightly higher, but also brings an equity stake - with the understanding that if the club remains healthy, there will be another capital call down the road. And while the majority of former members have re-upped, some have not, stung by the heavy financial losses incurred.
“I look at it like, you’ve already got $125,000 of my money, I’m not putting another $30,000 in, as much as I love the place. I don’t have $30,000 lying around for a golf club that might not make a go of it,’’ said a former Boston Golf Club member who requested anonymity. “I was a dues-paying member who took a leap when they only had nine holes open, was a good, enthusiastic, supportive member of the club. That’s where a little bit of the bitterness comes in, but that’s a small percentage of my feelings about the place. I regret the loss of the money, but the golf course is off-the-charts, and I made some good friends.’’
The course remains, still ranked No. 89 (and tied with Old Sandwich Golf Club in Plymouth) by Golf Digest, at least until next year’s rankings come out. The club, more or less, remains as well, lumped in with scores of others across the country who have dealt with financial crisis lately, but emerging exactly as they were hoping to.
“What are you going to do?’’ Aliski said. “Great things come because people make bold commitments, and they think about things in a bigger way. It didn’t work out the first time. Everybody’s best intentions were there, it just didn’t work out, and sometimes that happens. Now we’re on the second round, and the expectation is strong and we’ve got a lot of members who have stuck with it. We think we’re going to pull this one off.’’Michael Whitmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.