Golf was already on a decline when the Great Recession struck in 2008. When the economy tanked, golf and country clubs started taking it on the nose.
Some never recovered, like Ashbourne Country Club in Montgomery County, which sits abandoned since 2009, the owner and developer cooling its heels while neighbors await the arrival of 166 homes planned for Cheltenham Township.
Others like Spring Mill, in Northampton Township, Bucks County, are relying on partial residential development in order to salvage what was once a bustling venue for sports and leisure.
Then, there’s Lookaway Golf Club in Buckingham. With just 229 limited partner memberships, Marketing Director Kristen George says the club is close to full.
“Financially, we’re extremely healthy compared to other clubs in the industry,” said George.
“Oftentimes, there are three factors that go into the appeal of a club – the prestige of the membership, the golf course and the facilities.
“Lookaway has an incredible golf course – award-winning, the only one in Bucks County that is rated (by Golf Digest) in the top 20 in Pennsylvania.”
Opening in 1999, the club is celebrating its 20th anniversary this summer with a Member Preview program that enables nonmembers to try the club on, for size.
According to Golf Course Gurus, Lookaway is highlighted by a half-dozen holes that stand out among the rest, including the final half of the back nine. “Conditioning and playability are an emphasis at the club where you’ll find pure turf and a course that caters to all handicap levels,” they say.
Lookaway has its eyes on the future, however, so it surely sees what is happening to the game and the venues it supports. After bringing George on board a month ago, Lookaway has decided to hire McMahon & Associates to help promote the venue going forward in a marketplace that has seen less demand every year since 2005.
Business Insider magazine reports that more than 800 golf courses, nationally, have shuttered their doors over the past decade. What’s more, the Sports & Fitness Industry Association has shown that millennials between the ages of 18 and 30 have a lack of interest in playing the game.
Young people today have less wealth, less property, experience lower marriage rates and have fewer children, meaning young couples are less likely to join a golf club. Add to that a slow game along with a large learning curve for most new players and you wind up with a tough hill to climb.
Lookaway has carved a niche for itself in Bucks County, however, by doing away with tee times, says George.
“We’re all so busy and our jobs demand a lot of us,” said George.
“Those working professionals or younger people who have children at home, they have the flexibility to come out when it suits them.
“If that means they have an afternoon that’s freed up or the children are at their friends’ house for the afternoon, then they can just come over. Just give our caddy master a call and he’ll get them out on the course very quickly.”
The property on which the club sits dates back to 1713, when William Penn deeded 200-plus acres of land to Thomas Watson, of Yorkshire, England.
In 1923, Theodore Sterling bought the property, then the Paxon Farm, and renamed it Lookaway Dairy. In 1997, Lookaway Golf Club partners Harry Ferguson, Bruce McKissock and Bill Black purchased the land from the Sterling family.
To convert the cow farm into 18 holes of play, they hired Rees Jones, son of one of the greatest golf course architects of our time, Robert Trent Jones. According to Fox News, Jones was able to use the rustic property to shape a venue and enhance the land. “A lot of the historical aspects were maintained to uphold the integrity of the building,” said Jones.
An 18th-century manor house serves as the Lookaway clubhouse. Built sometime around 1752, it is believed to be the oldest structure used as a golf clubhouse in the country.
Many modernizations of the property have taken place since then. The club recently added a 1,900-square-foot outdoor dining facility that can seat up to 150 people. Another 50-60 members can come for lunch or dinner six days a week and eat inside. A Bocce court was recently added so the club can host the ancient Roman game whenever weather permits.
“We have gorgeous facilities here with the dining and the social aspect,” said George. “Our goal is to continue to develop that so that the social activities fall in line with the younger generation of members that is starting to crop up.”
Some golf and country clubs have added swimming pools, health spas and gymnasiums in order to attract younger members. Lookaway has none of that and isn’t even thinking about adding a pool, though George says the club is always reevaluating its allure to potential members.
“We’re not adding any large capital amenities at this time,” says George. “We’re a golf-centric facility.
“Our golf course is so impeccably maintained that that’s really our major draw to prospective members.”
Hand-picked by Jones, grounds superintendent David Renk helps preserve the condition of the links from the wide but relatively shallow putting surface on the 15th, a 170-yard par 3 that plays slightly uphill to the closing hole at Lookaway, a 434-yard par 4 considered one of the most challenging in the state.
The club’s own website says the 18th will have you talking in your sleep.
“This hole requires a well-placed tee shot and a perfectly-located second shot into a well-guarded green,” it says. “Many a match has been decided right here!”
With four sets of tees, the par 72 course plays anywhere from 6,968 to 5,189 yards.
Lookaway has hosted a pair of premium events – the 2008 Philadelphia Open captured by Rich Steinmetz with a 5-under par 67 and the prestigious Brewer Cup won by Robin McCool, a 2 and 1 victor over Michael Quinn in 2013.
The club no longer hosts outside tournaments, opting to keep Lookaway private among its members. Once a year, it does host the Matthew Renk Foundation Tournament, named for the groundskeeper’s son, a Central Bucks East student who succumbed to brain cancer in 2010 at the age of 15.