Now 90 years old, Gainesville Country Club having to adjust

Thomas Brill is recognized as one of the guests who have been a member for more than 50 years during the Gainesville Country Club's celebration of 90 years of business on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2012, in Gainesville.

Matt Stamey/Staff photographer
Published: Thursday, January 19, 2012 at 9:00 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 19, 2012 at 9:00 p.m.

Long before anyone dreamt up Facebook and the only things tweeting were birds, the best place to rub elbows with friends for fun and profit was at the links.

"The original social networking site is a private country club," said Tommy Lyman, who for the past seven years has been general manager at the Gainesville Country Club.

"People joined a club because they wanted to be around like-minded people, people who shared their own interests," he said.

As the Gainesville Country Club this week celebrates its 90th anniversary, its members are recounting decades of socializing and business deals cut over rounds of golf, on the tennis courts or in the clubhouse.

But like many golf facilities across the country, the club is having to respond to modern challenges of changing family dynamics and new economic realities.

Nationwide, club memberships are down 8 to 10 percent over the past 2 years but are starting to come back after hitting bottom last spring and summer, said Jim Singerling, CEO of the Club Managers Association of America.

While many member-owned clubs have changed to private or corporate ownership, daily fee or public play clubs, Gainesville has remained a member-owned club, which Lyman called "an amazing achievement."

With membership down 25 percent since the recession started in 2008, however, officials are recruiting new members instead of relying solely on member referrals as they did in the past.

Gainesville Country Club has had some success recruiting, gaining about 60 members last year, Lyman said. But that was more than offset by about 80 resignations.

With regular memberships capped at 500, former longtime employee and general manager Betty Sauls said the club had a waiting list circa 1980, but membership was down to the low 400s when she retired in 2007.

The club also is offering more activities to recruit younger members who spend more time together than families of the past.

"The idea of the husband spending the day at the club on Saturday, those days are gone," Lyman said.

Not all of the steps are taking root. One attempt to make the clubhouse more family-friendly — replacing dining rooms and ballrooms with casual lounges and family dining — is on hold.

Compared with the last big downturn 15 years ago, the private club industry now is better poised to bounce back because clubs carry less debt since banks aren't lending, said Singerling of Club Managers Association of America. Instead of new revenues going to debt service, it goes to capital projects and hiring.

"We are very optimistic because the private club industry as a whole has a dues structure in most cases that help them through these difficult times," he said.

Those that have closed in recent years or gone from private to semiprivate, resort operations or merged with another club to share overhead costs are those that had excessive debt, Singerling said.

Very few clubs have actually closed, he said. Those that did tended to be developer-owned in developments that weren't selling housing lots, he said.

The one local casualty was the Turkey Creek Golf and Country Club that closed in April 2011 in the city of Alachua. The club lost golfers when the recession hit, making it difficult to keep up with needed upgrades to the golf course and clubhouse, which discouraged more golfers.

In an attempt to lure a buyer to reopen the club, Turkey Creek homeowners will vote on a plan Feb. 15 to assess all owners a $15 annual fee for access to the pool and tennis courts, which could provide $200,000 in revenue.

One thing the GCC has going for it is the lure of quality golf. According to United States Golf Association ratings, GCC has the most difficult and challenging course in Alachua County.

Member Al Alsobrook, former vice president of UF, said the club has the best layout and best-kept course in the area since it is closed every Monday for maintenance.

"Of course, I'm prejudiced," said the 40-plus-year member and former club president. "Ocala has some better looking courses, but nothing in North Florida outside of Jacksonville is any better. I've played all of them."

Lyman said GCC has less competition with seven clubs in the county compared with about 25 in Marion County.

GCC also has the benefit of being a not-for-profit organization so it only has to break even, Alsobrook said.

Perhaps more importantly, the club also has a long and distinguished history in the community, earned since the first nine holes opened on Jan. 2, 1922, at its original site on Southwest Second Avenue near the University of Florida.

Gainesville's original private club — Palm Point — opened east of town in 1918 in a frame building overlooking Newnan's Lake. The building was moved to the new Gainesville Country Club as its clubhouse.

UF bought the Second Avenue location in 1962, and the club moved to land donated by the developers of Country Club Estates off Williston Road near Interstate 75, overlooking Paynes Prairie.

During an anniversary celebration this week, the club honored 17 people who have been members 50 years or more. Three employees also have more than 50 years at the club — groundskeepers James Wiley and Ralph Durant, and snack bar attendant Eddie Lee Young.

GCC has hosted a lot of good golfers over its history.

When the club was on Newberry Road, it was home to the UF men's golf team when it won its first NCAA championship. Gator golfers to use the club included eventual Masters winner Tommy Aaron, two-time U.S. Open champion Andy North and Steve Melnyk, who won the U.S. and British amateur championships.

The club has hosted U.S. Senior Amateur qualifying for the past three years, the USGA Mid-Amateur Championship last year and this year will host the FSGA Mid-Amateur Four Ball Championship.

The club's Gator Pro Am ended a 45-year run in 2008. Lyman said pros have more off-season tournament options than they did when the pro-am began and that they can't charge amateurs enough to lure the pros. But he said the event might come back in a different format.

GCC has been home to pro golfers Camilo Villegas, Nick Gilliam, Bobby Gates and Chris Couch.

Among Gator and pro football greats, Neal Anderson is a member, Shane Matthews is a former member, and Steve Spurrier is a former member who still plays the club when in town.

The club also has seen Hollywood celebrities, with Sauls recalling visits by Bob Hope, Kenny Rogers, Vince Gill and George Gobel.

Some of the members this week might even recollect hosting sports heroes from legendary home run hitter Roger Maris to 1955 Heisman Trophy winner Howard "Hopalong" Cassidy.

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